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Guestwords: More Than Just Ice Cream

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 16:38

2020 was a grim year for most of us — for me it ended with a positive Covid test that left me in bed, drinking broth, catching up on the news, and walking down memory lane. While poring over The Star, just as I was breathing a sigh of relief that the year was finally ending, I spied a piece of news that felt like the final slap in the face after a year of low blows: Scoop du Jour on Newtown Lane was closing for good.

Just an ice cream shop, you may be thinking. Greater tragedies have taken place. You may be right. I was not especially attached to Scoop du Jour, since my loyalties and memories will always reside with its predecessor, the late great Sedutto/Hilary’s on Main Street, where I worked for many summers and weekends. But the demise of Scoop du Jour is sad news — for me, for its staff and customers, and for the village and town, too.

Ice cream has played a central, formative role in my life. In Argentina, where my father is from, it is almost as much a religion as soccer. In 1980, when my family settled in as weekenders in Springs, one of our first objectives was to find an ice cream joint. On Saturday nights, following hamburgers at O’Mally’s, we would treat ourselves to the creamy soft-serve at Snowflake on Pantigo Road. It had a homey year-round Christmas vibe, with twinkly lights, screen doors, and walls covered in Polaroids of grinning customers holding up their cones with jimmies. It felt small town and folksy, and being from a hulking high-rise in the city, we loved it.

As the years went by, East Hampton grew more citified, as did its ice cream, with triple premium purveyors setting up on Main Street. A bright red-and-white Haagen-Dazs graced one side of the street, and the bustling, cozier Sedutto set up shop on the other side, where the Starbucks is now (more on that later).

As a 13-year-old ice cream aficionado, and having realized that my future was not in babysitting, I followed my sister’s footsteps to Sedutto, where we both worked for several summers. It was a teen dream: We could get in a full day at the beach and turn up, freshly showered, for the 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift, during which we’d work nonstop but were rewarded by a fair wage, copious tips, and a free four-once ice cream of our choice.

Though I accumulated enough earnings from Sedutto to help pay for college, I didn’t really work there for the money, or even the ice cream. In the mid-80s, Sedutto was literally the center of the universe — mine, because it was halfway between our house and Main Beach, but it was a focal point for lots of others, too. There was coffee and tea, sweet treats from Kathleen’s, fountain drinks, even hot dogs.

People dropped in all day long because the place provided things people need — precisely those things we’ve missed so much during the pandemic — food, warmth, a welcoming environment. The ice cream was good, the staff upbeat, pop and oldies played on the tape deck — it was like a party that everyone was invited to, customers and servers alike. You didn’t have to get a number, like at McDonald’s, or give your name, like at Starbucks. You just got in line and waited.

Yes, the line was long, but you saw people you knew, and if you wanted you could sit at the counter for an egg cream or an ice cream soda, which we would make according to old-school recipes about which we would be quizzed by the occasional tough customer who had spent his own youth as a soda jerk in one of the New York boroughs. It was fun. I remember the nice man with white hair who came in every Thursday at 11 in the morning for his coffee milkshake, the couple who shared pecan pie with ice cream and coffee on their date night, the occasional movie star who wandered in after a day in the sun.

Saturday nights were always a mob scene, with entire families waiting for tables so they could scarf down butterscotch sundaes, older couples who dropped in to pick up the Sunday New York Times, overexcited kids running around. It was a great, hectic ballet with table servers, counter staff, cone scoopers, runners, busers, and others moving in concert under the watchful eye of our strict but kind owner, Hilary. On our breaks we would cross the street to the Villa Pork Store for huge sandwiches, and eye the trinkets at Victoria’s Mother or the dresses at Obligato, whose owners bought cookies and iced coffee from us during the midmorning lulls.

Even when we weren’t working it was hard to avoid stopping in, gabbing with our pals, trying to flirt with whomever we could attract with our immature teenage wiles. As the years wore on, I gained more responsibility and learned many lessons that have served me well in life. But most of all, it was fun.

I am sure I speak for my former co-workers, as well as the Scoop du Jour crowd, when I say that what I most lament is the demise of a gathering place. Year after year we have watched as stores with goods and services that people actually need have been exiled from town. At a time of heightened awareness for our essential workers, it feels sadly ironic that almost all of East Hampton’s more essential stores and businesses have been pushed out of the town’s main drags onto the parking lot or the highway. Where is there to hang out?

With a few exceptions (for which I am grateful) the village now feels like an outdoor shopping mall. No matter how meticulously crafted the experiences they provide, no matter how superior their products, or how many good deeds they do in developing countries, global chains like Starbucks or Dylan’s Candy Bar cannot replace the family-owned businesses that once dotted Main Street and Newtown Lane.

Don’t get me wrong — I understand that times change, and with them, economic trends. I am glad that there is a new generation of businesses that promote sustainability, that give back, that take care not to exploit the environment or their own suppliers. But there is a vast gulf between the traditional small enterprises that used to dominate the local landscape and the cookie-cutter corporate outfits that are now business as usual on Main Street, no matter how much warmth and fun they try to fabricate with their Frappuccinos and hyper-designed, stylish sweets. I have been to Starbucks in Chile, and it is very disconcerting to see the exact same cinnamon bun on Isidora Goyenechea and Main Street.

But getting back to ice cream: An ice cream shop makes a town a town. Places like Sedutto, Scoop du Jour, and other small businesses are what made and make East Hampton special. I am sincerely glad that Big Olaf’s in Sag Harbor — among the oldest of the ice cream community — has suffered and survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I do believe that come summertime, I will be heading there.

They say that Covid sufferers can become cranky and sentimental. I think this is true. Now that the N.Y.C. contact tracers have me on speed dial, it could be that I am a touch grouchier than usual. I also know that East Hampton is a lot more than just Main Street and Newtown Lane. In countless ways over the past year we have seen how East Hampton has pulled through as a community both virtual and physical. Let’s hope that, somehow, we can invent new ways to be together as a village in 2021 and keep from becoming numbered stalls in a grotesque, Orwellian cityscape.

If advice is needed, I know there is a large, silent network of former scoopers like me, who would be more than glad to lend a hand and scoop some ice cream come summertime.

Kristina Cordero is a writer, researcher, and translator who lives in New York City and Santiago, Chile. She was assisted with this essay by her daughter Carlota Gumucio, who will be 10 next week.

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