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Island Profile: Cristina Cosentino, a farmer looking to put down roots

Cristina Cosentino is a farm manager who works with her hands as well as her independent heart, so when she found herself mired in Sylvester Manor’s Windmill Field without enough weight over the rear wheels of the truck to get out, she was determined not to call for help.

“Usually when something like this happens, I call Gunnar [Wissemann, Grounds Manager], and he does one thing and then it’s fixed,” she said. “This time, I decided I’m going to get myself out of this.”

Hirotsugu Aoki and his dog Finnegan were a few miles into their usual 7-mile walk when they came upon her and offered a hand. But Cristina wouldn’t let Aoki push, so he had to stand by as she struggled. Finally Tristan Wissemann and Stewart Mackie came and pushed her out of her misery.

“I always have plenty of help in my life, and I struggle with accepting it,” she said. “My mom always says, ‘Just say thank you. Let people help you.’”

To gracefully accept help was one of many lessons Cristina learned growing up on Long Island in a large Italian family. Her father’s grandparents were from Sicily, and her mother immigrated from Italy when she was 13. “They were farmers in Italy, raising hazelnuts, walnuts and grapes,” she said. “We always had a garden. My nonno [grandfather] still makes wine.”

Another lesson was the importance of good food. “My grandmother is an incredible cook. I know everyone says that about Italian women, but she is extraordinary,” Cristina said. From her grandmother she learned her signature dish, a potato gnocchi that always gets requests. “My nonna is from Avellino, so it’s not light fluffy gnocchi, it’s the dense kind and you roll it with your thumb. It holds the sauce.” 

Almost every member of Cristina’s family works with their hands, from her grandmother’s gnocchi-making, to her father, who is a carpenter, and her brother, a successful heavy metal drummer. Cristina started piano in 1st grade, by 4th grade she was playing the cello, and later dabbled with the accordion and percussion instruments. She graduated from Smithtown High School, and went to the University of Delaware to study cello.

In 2012 she completed a masters in Italian Studies from NYU in a program based in Florence, where she lived in the San Frediano neighborhood and studied the Slow Food movement that began in Italy. Her roommates and friends taught her about Italian food and wine, and it was a life-changing experience.

Back in the States, she worked for a year as a wine representative, selling a portfolio of Italian wines to restaurants, but quickly concluded she was not cut out for it. “I like connecting with people, she said. “It energizes me. But the basis of the wine job was, ‘I’m going to try to sell you some wine, and that’s why we’re talking.’”

While working at a farmer’s market, Cristina asked Teddy Bolkas, from Thera Farms in Ronkonkoma, for a job, but based on her size, he was skeptical. “I think the moment when I impressed him was when I found a hookworm in the soil,” she said. “I asked him what it was, and he said it’s bad, and I started pounding it.”

She was hired.

From there she worked with a beekeeper who managed 50 hives across the North Fork, and in 2015 went to farm at Sylvester Manor, laying eyes on Shelter Island for the first time on the day she moved into the Manor house. At the end of the season she was riding a bike down Cobbetts Lane as the maples were turning red and realized she didn’t want to leave. 

She was living on the North Fork when she had dinner with a friend at a restaurant in the city called Wildair. Her friend knew one of the line cooks, and after the meal introduced Cristina to Armond Joseph when he met them at a bar. 

“I thought he was kind of a jerk,” Cristina remembered. “He probably would not have talked to me if he hadn’t made the connection with my vegetables, but he heard me say something about Italy, and being a farmer.”

When they said goodbye, they hugged each other a little too long. “I thought — ‘That’s a nice hug,’” she said. 

Cristina invited Armond to visit her on the North Fork and the next weekend he came out.  They met again in the city, and a month later moved together to Providence, R.I. where Armond had a job. He’s now the chef at Achilles Hill in Brooklyn and commutes between New York and Shelter Island, since Cristina moved back in January of 2020 to become the director of farm operations at the Manor. 

They agreed to get married in the middle of a day in November that didn’t start out well. Cristina was still recovering from an emergency appendectomy at Eastern Long Island Hospital earlier that month. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and there was frenzied activity at the farmstand.

“I was actually having a mental breakdown,” she said. “I was thinking about everything that I had to do and how was I going to get it done. That’s when he asked me, in the middle of my worst behavior. And I said ‘Yes,’ because he must love me to ask in that moment when I was behaving completely unacceptably.”

Her plans for the future center on starting a family, and making the Sylvester Manor farm the best it can be. “I love it here,” she said. “I like the fact that you can only get on and off by boat and that you have to go to the supermarket by a certain time, and if you drive around after 8 p.m. you will be the only car on the road. I want this to be my forever home.”

Lightning round

What do you always have with you? Nothing! Well, now I guess it’s my engagement ring.

Favorite place on Shelter Island? The road to Ram Island, between Big Ram and Little Ram.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?
Florence, Italy.

What exasperates you? When people don’t empty the sink drain. I like a clean sink.

When was the last time you were afraid? On the operating table before my appendectomy.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? When the maple trees on
Cobbetts Lane turn red.

Favorite book? ‘The Neapolitan Novels,’
by Elena Ferrante.

Favorite food? Mozzarella di Bufala.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Anthony Bourdain.

Most respected elected official? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.