IDEA #28. Go to a grocery store that specializes in a national or ethnic cuisine you don’t know much about—try some new snack food and an unfamiliar beverage.
Thanks to the proliferation of American-style packaging, snack foods and drinks are often the easiest things to identify in shops specializing in particular regional or national cuisines. Candy, chip-type snacks, and fruit drinks and ices can give an idea of what the dominant flavors or spices of a culture might be, and even something as exotic as a mango-flavored potato chip will meet with the approval of most young eaters.
The next level of exploration might involve delights sold in packages that do not so eloquently telegraph “sweet non-nutritious item for kids”—nuts, baked goods (beware of these if allergic), or dried fruits packaged only in plastic bags and sold by weight or wrapped in white paper with the price scrawled in wax pencil. An inquiry to the clerk, “What should I try if I wanted to learn more about food from your culture?” may yield a tasty surprise, sometimes savory or sometimes sweet. Most specialized stores would be happy to expand their customer base, and so an inquisitive customer who has learned to enjoy salted plums or lamejun (or pulled pork, for that matter) can become a de facto ambassador of national or regional good will.
Even when traveling in the United States, the curious shopper may find astonishing local or regional differences: self-rising flour in a half-dozen brands in the South, a myriad of locally produced mustards and sauerkrauts in northern cities populated by many people of German or Eastern European descent, meats and seafoods of startling variety. Favorite candy bars, sodas (the many regional root beers that sweetened my childhood are, alas, largely extinct), and baked goods still define American regional comfort food.