When scores of tag sale devotees pored through tons of dishes, glassware and cookware at the estate sale of the Crystal Room and Cricket Caterers at 250 Pantigo Road in East Hampton, they were hoping to hit the jackpot and find the bona fide recipe for the Crystal Room’s famous clam pies.
The pies were historic mainstays at the Fisherman's Fair in Springs, and irresistible take-home meals for many who succumbed to the hand-lettered "Clam Pies" sign in front of the ramshackle building that is now for up sale.
Justine Ross, is one of the executors of the estate left behind by her cousin Albert Peter Trages, who died last October, a mere three months after the death of his mother Sophia, who founded of the Crystal Room and Cricket Caterers with her husband Albert Anthony Trages. Ross notes that the clam pie recipe was "modified" from one by Lee Dion of East Hampton. “We haven’t come across it yet, but we hope it turns up”, she said.
The senior Albert Trages died in 1986, which is about when the regular catering and restaurant operations reverted to now-and-then sales of clam or fresh-fruit pies from the seemingly abandoned building on the main road between East Hampton and Amagansett. In a bygone era, however, the Crystal Room was a thriving and swanky business run by a family of hardworking entrepreneurs.
On her liquor license application, Sophia described the couple’s $19,000 purchase and intention to operate “an attractive and moderately priced restaurant” supplemented by gourmet catering and a gift shop. The Trages originally ran a Crystal Dining Room in Bayside, Queens, before moving it to East Hampton where “land was cheap and they could raise chickens and turkeys,” Ross recalled.
The 1½-acre property they bought, on what was then known as “Amagansett Road, down Pantigo," was the former John Johnson farmhouse. Kasimir and Halina Wierzynsky, Sag Harbor émigrés who fled Nazi occupied Poland, had already converted the site for Bazaar Culinaire, described by a local newspaper at the time as a very “unusual food shop” offering international gourmet food for take out or catered events. Clearly ahead of its time, Bazaar Culinaire operated for only a short period before the Trages’ Americanized, post-war comfort-food concept debuted on July 4 weekend, 1959.
A typical Crystal Room dinner menu of the time offered Long Island Duckling Cumberland, at $3.95; Broiled Swordfish Garni, $3.50; Braised Beef Casserole, $3.50. Each entree included choice of appetizer: Chilled herring; Clam chowder; Vichyssoise; Liver pate; or, for $1 extra, a cold half-lobster. Dessert, also included, was either a slice of fruit pie, Nesselrode sundae, or Camembert cheese. Buffet suppers were on Wednesday and Sunday evenings. So-called party-platters of deviled eggs, cold cuts, cranberry mold salad and the like were offered for $3 per person.
The grounds had extensive garden plantings, daffodils in particular, which were often sold in front of the building. An arbor in the rear was a favorite for photos of the many wedding receptions celebrated at the Crystal Room. “Aunt Sophie’s passion was for every bride to have the perfect wedding”, Ross said.
Hugh King, East Hampton Village historian, who organized a Springs School faculty retirement dinner there in the mid 1970’s, recalls raised banquettes, a small bandstand and a cloakroom.
But most contemporary customers, such as Keith Criado, of Santa Barbara, CA, know the Crystal Room for its Bates Motel-like eeriness and the iconic hand painted “Clam Pies” sign nailed to a tree. Criado enthusiastically recalls the early clam pies, especially at prices of $6 in the late 1970’s. They rose to more than $20 when he bought his last one about 5 years ago.
“The recent ones didn’t have nearly as many clams. But he did make his own crust,” said Criado, referring to the reclusive younger Trages, who supervised pie sales of the later years.
For those lucky enough—or brave enough—to partake in the veritable haunted-house experience that was a Crystal Room clam pie purchase, the memory of Albert’s brusque instruction--“Cook it at 400 degrees for at least one hour and don’t defrost it!”--remains spooky.
If the clam pie recipe whereabouts remain a mystery, there’s no secret where the “Clam Pies” sign wound up. According to Nick Nicolino of The Clearing House Exchange, supervisors of this weekend’s massive tag sale, the owner of Townline BBQ restaurant purchased it.
“Unlike so many other sales that we manage,” Nicolino said, “there is nothing here that anyone truly needs. But it’s the kind of stuff that people really want.”
And for many folks who fondly remember the Crystal Room and Cricket Caterers, the elusive clam pie recipe top’s their most wanted list.