I moved to Pittsburgh after my internship, and one of my first patients told me he ate a “jumbo sandwich” for lunch every day. Naively, I said, “OK, but what do you put on that sandwich?” I thought he meant he ate a really large sandwich! He quickly conveyed to me that “jumbo” was bologna, adding a snide comment: “You must not be from here.”
I knew I had lost some credibility right there. How could I possibly counsel him on nutrition if I didn’t know the foods he was talking about?
To be effective RDs, we need to know about our local food scene—culture, history, and lingo.
Here are five suggestions on how to learn more about your local food scene:
1. Be inquisitive. People love to talk about food! Many regional foods have interesting histories. Ask clients, friends, and family members to describe their favorite food. What is the history behind it? What is their favorite memory of it? How do they make it? Does it symbolize something? Is it something they eat every day, or is it reserved for special occasions? Listen to the descriptions. Is it salty, sweet, or rich? Why is it important to them?
2. Explore your city. Whether you are new to your city or grew up there, undoubtedly there are places you’ve never ventured. Head out to some of the local markets and explore small food stores and restaurants. If you find an ingredient or food you aren’t familiar with, ask someone shopping there or the waiter about it. Don’t be afraid to ask; most people will be happy to explain and tell you about it. You will probably walk away with a new recipe or two!
3. Research local cookbooks. Public libraries and local bookstores often have a section for local books, including cookbooks. Church groups and nonprofits, such as the Junior League, are great resources for learning about regional foods and recipes. More than 200 Junior League cookbooks from around the country are still in print, each written by women from the city. They focus on the cuisine, food, and traditions of the local area.
4. Take a cooking class. Are there cooking schools geared to the public in your area? A class can be an excellent way to break out of your comfort zone and learn about different foods, ingredients, and cuisines and how to prepare them. Teachers range from local chefs and RDs to people with cooking skills and food knowledge. They’re also good places to meet and learn from new people.
5. Host an office luncheon. This is a great way to get everyone in your office involved. Pick 12 countries or cuisines that are represented in your city or town. Once a month, host a luncheon and ask everyone to bring in a dish or beverage. Ask one person to be the host or hostess and research that culture or community. Invite other departments or companies in your building to participate. Everyone will have a chance to learn more about your community.
Whether you’re working individually with clients, teaching cooking classes, or writing for a local paper, understanding the local food environment and the history of the city’s and region’s cuisine will go a long way in building credibility and trust.
— Laura Ali, MS, RDN, LDN, is a food and nutrition communications professional, recipe developer, and brand ambassador for the StarKist Co. She loves learning about food, exploring how food has shaped our culture, and teaching people how to enjoy the food they eat. On weekends she can be found exploring local food shops, wineries, and walking trails with her husband. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @LauraAli_RD and her blog at onthekitchenshelf.com.