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Are restaurants misusing the word 'local'?

Are restaurants misusing the word

Are restaurants misusing the word "local"? Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

The waiter where I was eating last night was reciting the specials, but I got distracted when he listed "local corn" as one of the ingredients. Local corn won't be harvested on Long Island for more than a month.

He continued: The salad of local greens, he said, comes with heirloom cherry tomatoes. We ordered the salad; it came with the same thick-skinned, juiceless grape tomatoes that grace a thousand salad bars.

The fish and chips, the menu said, was made with the daily local catch. I asked the waiter what that was today. "Pollock," he said, naming a fish that is not commercially fished out of Long Island.

We seem to be having a "local" moment judging from the frequency that the term appears on Long Island menus (and in restaurant names). But when you scratch the surface of the menus, you learn that the "local" meat was not raised on Long Island; it was merely sold to the restaurant by a local distributor or butcher. The truth is there is no red meat and precious little poultry being raised commercially on Long Island.

Some restaurants do have relationships with local farms so that they have access to produce in season,  but it's been my experience that if the restaurant doesn't name the farm, the produce is probably not local. Go ahead: Ask the waiter for the name of the farm.

Here's the thing. It's fine with me if a chef uses non-local corn. Frozen corn is something I usually have in my own freezer. I buy lettuce and tomatoes year-round at the supermarket knowing that they are neither local nor heirloom varieties. I have nothing against pollock--though it must be said that this particular pollock had a soft, glassy texture that marked it as either frozen or treated.

What drives me nuts is the mindless throwing around of terms like " local," "heirloom" and "organic." These words actually mean something. When restaurants use them simply to enhance the sound of a dish, it lowers the level of true culinary discourse and shows disrespect for people who actually go to the trouble and expense of upgrading their ingredients .


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