One of my earliest memories is of being sent to Crutchley’s to buy a box of crullers. I lived a block away on Little Plains Road and when the wind was right, the fragrance wafting from the Hampton Road bakery would envelop the whole neighborhood--nutmeg, vanilla and something irresistible that must have had something to do with the shortening or some secret ingredient Fenton Crutchley wasn’t about to divulge.
Calling Crutchley’s a bakery is a bit of a stretch. The interior was nothing like your utilitarian bake shops with display cases filled wiith cakes and cookies, eclairs and napoleons. First of all, Crutchley’s interior had an old-fashioned feel with its dark woods, soft lighting and high counter. And there was not much to distract from the main event. Yes, Fenton Crutchley made a very fine oatmeal bread and the discreet wooden cases against the wall displayed a random jar or two of jam. But Crutchley’s was all about one thing: the crullers, and eventually the dough extracted from their centers, affectionately known as their hearts.
I would enter this atmosphere of sweet smells and burnished wood and take my place behind the high counter. There were usually a few customers patiently waiting while Fenton Crutchley performed a ritual familiar to all cruller addicts. Occasionally, it was his wife Lydia who handled the front but my memory is of Fenton, who moved with glacial speed, an all-white presence in his baker’s duds and dusted head-to-toe with flour. There was a stack of unfolded boxes at his side and a roll of twine suspended from the ceiling. First he would take a box and fold it very carefully--and very slowly--fitting the tabs into the slots. Then he would fill the box with crullers from the kitchen and dust them with confectioner’s sugar--or not--according to your preference. When he had closed the box, he would reach up, pull some twine from the roll and tie up the box. At that point, it was all over but the money exchange at the huge old cash register.
There is a reason why I have this well choreographed ritual so firmly etched in my memory. It has to do with that very high counter, which I was not tall enough to clear. Since I was very shy, as well as very short as a child, I often remained unnoticed as others came and left with their crullers.
I’m not sure when it was that the hearts began to dominate and won favor over the crullers. One theory (mine) is that consuming a cruller, with its dense, heavy consistency, was a major gustatory commitment, while a cruller heart was not quite as hefty a load. But then I have always been partial to chocolate and nothing in the doughnut family has ever excited me. In my lack of enthusiasm, I am most certainly in the minority among my generational peers. I must resort to quoting from Montauk writer Ben Luck who heaped praise on this “gift from the Gods” a few years ago in a reminiscence. Though he stubbornly insisted on calling it a doughnut, he did capture the ineffable qualities that account for the lusty allure the cruller had for so many: crisp on the outside, “perfumed with subtle spices, sultry and moist, full of wonderful little bubbles of bursting fresh milk and vanilla flavor and lumpy little crumbs that perched on your taste buds…”
Fenton Crutchley began his career helping his mother open the first Cutchley bakery, which was on Wall Street. In 1928 he opened his own cruller emporium on Hampton Road and kept at it until 1979. He and his wife, Lydia, used the upstairs as extra space but had a bright green trailer parked next to the shop, which was their home. They were Quakers, which seemed quite exotic in our community of more traditional religious persuasions. Lydia would sometimes take charge of the front when Fenton was out in the kitchen bent over his bubbling cauldrons. She got along well with her customers but took no nonsense. As a couple, they worked very hard, accumulating a large and loyal following and managing to raise two daughters who were smart and serious and always at the top of their class. I know because the older of the two was in my class for a while, got all A’s and used very big words.
Over time, the reputation of the Crutchley cruller spread and not a few celebrities discovered that 54 Hampton Road was not only the place to find a taste of heaven but also to experience a bit of local authenticity, a craving common among the too-famous who dream of rusticating. Interviewed in 1979, Lydia Crutchley remembered when Gary Cooper, a big fan of the cruller, “would come into the kitchen, sit on the counter and talk casually for 30 minutes.” Cooper sometimes left with a stash of crullers for his friends at the antique store down the street in the Sayre Barn, which was later moved from its Hampton Road location to the grounds of the Southampton History Museum.There were other famous people, Lydia acknowledged, “but we don’t name-drop. I hate all that,” she insisted,” fearing perhaps that she had shown too much favoritism in her praise of Cooper.
Now known as the Sayre Barn, this structure is on the property of the
Southampton History Museum
Sometimes the Crutchleys didn’t know who their customers were. That was the case with the legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins. “He would come in,” Lydia told her interviewer, “and then we saw his picture on the front page of the New York Times magazine. But they’re all important to us. What they do outside is their business.”
Among the Crutchleys’ steady customers were two men who arrived every Saturday to pick up a standing order of 20 boxes each. During the half century of pushing out crullers and cruller hearts the Crutchleys also handled a brisk mailorder business. Students at 160 colleges, including some in my family, were the happy recipients of a box of cruller hearts with its small packet of confectioner’s sugar should the recipient be a fan of the dusted variety. Servicemen in Germany, France, Ireland, Korea, Antarctica and countries in Africa were all on their mailing list.
The Southampton Press, September 17, 1964
Their retirement in 1979 was mourned in Southampton where The Southampton Press published an obituary not for the still-very-much-alive Crutchleys, but for the loss of an irreplaceable feature of life in Southampton. There were attempts to keep the cruller alive, including by Kathleen King at Kathleen’s Cookie, who was reported to have received the recipe from the master himself. But all eventually petered out. At one point, the New York Times published a recipe for the late-lamented cruller (though they insisted on calling it a doughnut) but, to my knowledge, no one has ever truly replicated the real thing.