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Island profile: Roger Horowitz, author and teacher

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Roger Horowitz at the home on Menantic Creek that has been in his family since the 1960s.
Roger Horowitz at the home on Menantic Creek that has been in his family since the 1960s.

Roger Horowitz grew up on the Upper West Side, went to school in the city and spent every summer of his childhood on Shelter Island, where he learned many important life lessons.

One involved chicken.

Roger’s mother, Louise, used to buy chicken from a kosher butcher in the city, but in the 1960s you couldn’t get kosher meat on Shelter Island. Since the family couldn’t survive the whole summer without chicken, she bought from Bohack, the local supermarket at the time, where she discovered that chicken — and every other kind of meat — was significantly less expensive than the kosher stuff she had been buying all her life.

“There was a whole world out there of meat that was much cheaper,” Roger said. It was a revelation that fueled his interest in the business of American food, and how brands and labels are used by manufacturers to influence consumers.

Roger is now director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society at the Hagley Museum in Delaware. His book, “Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food,” won the National Jewish Book Award for the best book in American Jewish studies in 2016.

Before his parents bought the house on Midway Road that Roger still owns, they rented a cabin in Shorewood, where he remembers being a 4-year old playing in the goldfish pools and formal gardens of the Victorian Manor House. In 1962, a hurricane came through and Roger’s family spent the night in the Manor house to ride out the storm.

When the power went out, they lit candles, and Roger, who must have been a real pest, decided to see what would happen if he put a fork into the flame, and burned his finger.

When the family drove out from the city, they usually encountered horrific traffic, with Roger and his two sisters stuffed into the back seat of a Volvo sedan with shedding cats and no air-conditioning. On every trip, they stopped at the same diner to eat. One time his older sister was sick and threw up at the diner, and in the chaos that ensued his younger sister found a stray cat which she managed to keep by asking their father’s permission while he was distracted.

Edmund turned out to be a great cat.

“The drives were always deeply unpleasant,” said Roger, “which heightened the appreciation for Shelter Island once we got here.”

On day one of each vacation, Roger and his siblings completed a self-imposed checklist of activities — swim in Fresh Pond, take a dip at Wades Beach, ride a bike to Tarkettle Road and back — to mark the commencement of a summer free from supervision. “The mothers would report to all the other mothers where we were,” he said, “but we had freedom.”

A 4 p.m. softball game topped off every afternoon, played in a vacant lot owned by the Ross and Levine families, just up Midway Road from Wades Beach. The pitcher was always an adult, usually Mimi Ross herself. Balls and strikes went uncalled to encourage everyone to swing. Every year a much-anticipated “Daddy’s Game” was held, during which one of the fathers would inevitably pull a hamstring, or trip and fall.

When Roger was about 14, his parents divorced, and their family summers on Shelter Island came to an end. His mother kept the house on Midway Road.

Roger’s mother, Louise, had a Ph.D and taught philosophy at Long Island University, but by 1973, she was out of a job. She entered law school, graduated in 1978, and practiced commercial law for the rest of her life.

“She was ferocious in conversation,” Roger said. “She took no prisoners. Not even her children.”

After the divorce, Louise brought a man named Alton Johnson into their lives. Al was an unlikely companion for a college professor-turned lawyer since he had little formal education and was a veteran of three wars, including Vietnam. He knew plumbing and carpentering, could fix anything, and showed Roger how to work with his hands. Al settled into the house on Midway Road, where he lived for 25 years until his death in 2001.

Meanwhile, Roger graduated from the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, and eventually from the University of Chicago. But first he took some time off to work at a machine shop in Chicago called Chromium Industries, and then as an inspector of tools used in manufacturing televisions.

Roger had grown up in a household where no one worked with their hands. Getting to know Al Johnson, and working in manufacturing gave Roger a set of skills he’d never thought about. “There is a certain feel and sight that comes with using equipment,” he said. “I learned tactile abilities that human beings have but don’t always matter, abilities that, growing up in an intellectual Jewish family, I didn’t develop.”

Roger went on to get a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin, and joined the faculty of the University of Delaware, where he is now professor of History and Jewish Studies.

The house on Midway Road is still an important part of Roger’s life, even if he now lives far away. Roger and his wife, Jessica Payne, live in southern Pennsylvania, with their children, Lucy, 9, and Breck, 14. The family’s visits to the Island involve a five-hour car trip that takes them perilously close to New York traffic. Roger’s son, Jason, is 25, and often joins them.

Roger’s parents, who had been divorced for 40 years, both died one month apart in December 2010 and January 2011. His father lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico and his mother lived in New York City.

“The timing was very, very tough,” Roger said. “They brought me into this life. It was my responsibility, when they were leaving it, to make it easier for them.”

In keeping with his vocation as a historian of business, Roger said the major change he’s seen on the Island in the 50 years he’s been observing, can be measured in late-model cars. “You used to see Fords and Plymouths and Chevys, and now you see Lexuses, Range Rovers and BMWs.”

He also observed that as middle-class people have been squeezed out, the Island has become much more liberal. “Liberals are more open to government regulation. Out here that means a willingness to regulate short-term rentals, and to preserve public resources. As it’s become more crowded, a realization grows that you need to take care of these resources, rather than assume that nature will take its course.”

Roger measures time like a historian, with a long view of environmental challenges. “I’m very much the result of Shelter Island. I have an appreciation for the natural world and I believe that nature is tough, and resilient,” said Roger. “If you give nature a chance it will recover.”