"Inclusiveness through Diversity." No, it’s not an oxymoron, at least not at residential dining at Princeton University. At Princeton residential dining, there is a program called “Heritage Month” where students are encouraged to share their heritage and culture through traditional, ethnic, or national foods. In this wide and diverse world, there are few things we all have in common, but food is one. Everyone needs to eat, but that’s where the commonality ends. Food separates us because of many historical factors; geography, culture, religion and countless others. However, by sharing foods with people from other cultures, the distance between us is diminished. With modern communications and transportation, the food world is more immersive than ever.
I had the opportunity to speak with Sue Pierson, R.D., Director of Residential Dining for Princeton University (and to be totally transparent, my boss for the last 10 years). We met in her office at 29 College Road, where she supervises 4 dining institutions for 6 residential colleges that feed around 4,000 students 3 times a day. She has a staff of around 200 chefs, cooks, food service workers, and administrators. To say Sue is a busy person is a vast understatement.
My first question was, “in a nut shell, can you tell me what Heritage Month is?" She told me, “It’s a student driven celebration of their heritage through food.” She continued by saying, “It is a student inspired desire to share, with their community at Princeton, their culture, traditions history and insight through their foods. Students, with the help of chefs, design the menu, programs, and fliers, and sometimes help acquire special ingredients; rice, beans, corn, or grains.”
As a cook at the Whitman dining facility, I can attest to the involvement of the students in Heritage Month. I can also attest to the enjoyment the cooks get when the students share the stories around their food. They don’t just give us a recipe and walk away; they share how their mothers made this at special dinner, or how their grandmothers taught them to make this dish. As a cook, the story behind the dish is as fascinating as the dish itself. Most of these recipes are not written in any cook book or on the Internet, so when the students share them with us, we are honored to incorporate them into our repertoire, and many become standards in the dining halls.
As we talked, there was one word that was repeated over and over again: "students.” Student initiated, student cooperation, and student involvement. Sue was pleased to tell me, “It’s all about the students: this is their program to show their pride in their heritage.” There are now Latino, Asian, Pacific Islanders, Filipino, and Black Heritage months, and with other people showing interest, this program is growing.
I asked Sue, “as a dietitian, do you worry that there could be a conflict between healthy foods and the traditional foods the students want to share?" Without blinking her eyes, she said, “No. First, most traditional foods are healthier than processed foods. Second, students are as interested in their health as they are in their heritage. And third, the students want their food to be eaten, and if it were unhealthy in any way, it might not be eaten.” I also asked about foods that are traditional to a group, but not so much to the world at large such as Balut (a developing bird embryo boiled and eaten from the shell a Filipino delicacy), Haggis (a pudding containing sheep’s pluck, a Scottish delicacy), or Chitins (the small intestines of a pig, Southern African American food). She referred me back to her earlier statement about students wanting others to eat their traditional foods. “This is about sharing food and inclusion; they want to celebrate and share their food.”
We are looking to give the students a platform for their heritage through food. The students are the catalyst and inspiration for Heritage Month. Sharing their foods and the stories that go along with these foods is being proud of their heritage. Many students may never have had the opportunity to experience cultures outside their own; in this way, we can explore and share traditions, cultures, and flavors without traveling.
Princeton has a vast student body with diverse cultures, and wide interests in traditional, healthy, and sustainable food, and this program allows them to share with their Princeton family.
Dennis Stewart is a chef at Whitman Dining Hall. He can be reached at email@example.com.