My vacation this year was not spent as it often is, lounging about on a beach with a book and an icy beverage. Instead my family spent a somewhat surreal week rafting down jungle rivers, horseback riding to waterfalls through dense forests, zip lining through tree canopies near a steamy volcano, and dining among the locals… of Costa Rica.
My foodie self could not resist immersion in the cultural cuisine and I returned home with lessons and affirmations from this emerging third world country. Everything we ate was fresh, affordable, filling and made by hand. No one seemed rushed, and there was little refrigeration because food was harvested often and nearby. We ate eggs from the chickens out back, fruit from the trees in the side yard, fresh cheese from a dairy ranch within walking distance. Dried corn was ground into meal to make the morning’s tortillas. There was a notable scarcity, even in the hotels, of processed food.
Our lunches and dinners were what they call a casado: a small portion of pork, fish, beef or chicken; fried plantains (a type of banana); gallo pinto (black beans and rice); and a salad of shredded cabbage and carrots with chunks of tomato. Would we subsist on that here in America? In our culture we often ask “what do I want to eat” and then we go in search of food that makes no sense for the season or our region because we’ve come to crave senseless variety.
Their temperate climate and fields rich with volcanic ash grow bananas, coffee, sugar cane, macadamias, pineapples, and hearts of palm year round. To see where their food is grown, we toured plantation-sized farms, and found that agriculture is a respected occupation. Many farmers grow bio-dynamically, though they would not let us get out of the bus at the banana plantation because of the chemicals being used. I was happy to learn that there is a growing Costa Rican organic movement, which proves that an increasing number of their consumers are thinking about the quality of their food and the impact of their choices.
Our guide in central Costa Rica did not mind sharing that the agricultural subsidies in rich countries have destroyed the agricultural industry of poor countries… meaning that our artificial dependence on cheap food has further depressed their already struggling economy. However it was worthy to note that while the surrounding countries of Central America, and in fact most of the world, have spent billions of dollars supporting their militaries, Costa Rica has invested in infrastructure and development and in making Costa Rica the tropical world’s environmental showcase, and a model for universal health care.
The people of Costa Rica do not resent Americans – they appreciate the boost that tourism has provided. They were warm and friendly wherever we went.
The lessons we learned were affirmations that the Slow Food movement here is headed in the right direction: Eat local. Eat fresh. Eat reasonable portions. Know who produces your food. We will be going back to Costa Rica, and they encouraged us to bring you along.
So many Wendell Berry quotes came to mind on this journey but this one particularly resonates: “How we eat determines how the world is used.” Pura Vida!