So, I've been wondering... I read that Costa Ricans have an average yearly income of $7500. Yes, there is a larger middle class here than anywhere else in Central America, but still. I've been to the grocery store. Things are roughly comparable to the United States. Half-gallon of (non-organic) milk? $1.85. Pound of coffee? $6. Dozen (unrefrigerated solamente, claro) eggs? $1.65. Bakery baguette? $1.25. Not much different than store-brand items. With luxury items taxed like crazy, gasoline and rent the same price, I wondered, how does this work? It just don't make sense.
Well, on Saturday, I went to a neighborhood farmer's market, and this one thing, at least, fell into place. As you can see below, it is a closed off street, with carts provided, on Saturdays in Rohrmoser, San Jose, Costa Rica. (The onions are so awesome, I took like ten pictures.)
I was with a fabulous coworker who answered my questions about 95% of items... and then, there were 4 or 5 fruits we had no idea about, a type of strange shelling pea we tasted and loved, and this:
Yeah, no idea. Some sort of awesome tonic to cure what's ailin' ya. Another stand said their similar-looking item would "Cleanse The Blood." Looks like a recycled Coke bottle to me, and I'm all for recycling, as you know. Maybe I'm all for cleansing the blood too. Perhaps I'll try next week.
Here's a view of the market, up close and far away...
It was a nice long road, on a hill, full of families and shoppers of all nationalities, filled with items like red cabbage, lettuce, cilantro, apples, potatoes, mushrooms... and then also starfruit, mango, papaya, homemade pupusas and tortillas, pineapple, yucca, berries, frijoles, tonics and highly aromatic fish, shrimp, chicken, calamari as well as a cheese monger. (Erin, Nikola: I'm sorry I was not courageous enough to brave the cheese monger this week. I can never remember if it is 2.2 kilos in a pound or 2.2 pounds in a kilo, and I was too scared to get it reversed when ordering.)
But back to the point... which surprisingly is not the variety or the kind and polite vendors or the variety of customers. The point, the one that's the same the world over, is price. And this is how the annual Costa Rican salary suddenly made sense.
To illustrate, here's what I bought, since I was a bit shy and wanted to be sure I'd only buy food I will use this week, having a fridge already well-stocked:
That's a fresh pineapple for 85 cents, a pint of strawberries for 95 cents, ten mandarin oranges for 45 cents, organic arugula for 75 cents, two packages of Brussels sprouts (I am addicted to them, what can I say?) for $1.35 each.
TEN MANDARIN ORANGES... for a TOTAL of 45 cents!! I am excited about this.
They really kick a cocktail up a notch, they make water nice and flavorful, they garnish the heck out of grilled fish, they are great in a salad dressing... but it turns out they make Brussels sprouts taste a little like marijuana. (Or maybe the Brussels are grown near it?...)
Anyhow, next time I'm going to the market with an empty fridge at home, and buying mushrooms, onions, potatoes, mango, papaya, melon, berries, tortillas and herbs at, like, a third the grocery store price.
In closing, I am still a bit befuddled, even tonight, by the idea that in United States, farmer's markets I've been to in Brooklyn, Montana, Portland, San Francisco... they are all grocery shopping for rich people. We rich people like buying organic, we like meeting the men and women who grow our food and we like being part of the community. We like taking a whole morning to shop, because we have just that much time. We like how it makes us feel European.
But here in the developing world, rich people shop at speciality meat markets and clean, Muzak-playing, "American-style" grocery stores. The regular people and the poor people, THEY shop at the farmer's markets. They know their neighbors, the farmers, and they pay less and get more. It's a way of life to shop all morning for the week, it's the way of life that's been passed down and is normal.
I'm not sure how this makes me feel.
Partly, I feel like a poser at the farmer's market in Portland. I feel like my effort to culitvate a European attitude towards food is pretentious, expensive and annoying ... out to imitate an awful, reductive, stereotypical cliche of a culture that's better, more in touch with daily rhythms, simpler and purer. (This does not exist, I know, thanks to the popularity of Tony Roma's and TGIFriday's in my 'hood.)
And partly, I feel like I'm making a grand cultural statement about returning to our best human roots. To continue the theme from the last post, in the way that breastfeeding was inferior and gross to my grandparents but is now lauded and elevated by my parents and peers, perhaps buying local will eventually be cheaper, of higher quality and done by folks who are proud to be part of their neighborhood, culture, community. Perhaps in the midst of this economic meltdown, the economy and culture will vastly restructure, as some are saying. We'll stop buying on credit with no down payment and zero interest, we'll try for a slightly quieter, slightly simpler, and a bit more streamlined existence. I would like this. I like that shops are closed on Sundays here. Am I bored? Maybe. But it's better for everyone. So the farmer's market makes me hope for this change, for myself and my life, which will include buying only the ingredients I need for the week. A healthy change, a conscious approach to eating and life - a way of making myself eat the last bit of lettuce before it goes bad even if I don't feel like it.
Do I have to get rid of my Costco membership now?