Childhood is a country of its own. It is a place with a particular set of rules and values and habits. When you are a kid, adults are like foreigners to you, speaking a different language, observing different customs. Other children are your real countrymen: You are united by size, energy and curiosity, not to mention total lack of independence and a profound awareness of the importance of ice cream.
Those early years are decisive in the way you construct and shape your identity, which is why, when you ask someone where they are from, you are actually asking where they grew up. If a person spends the first 15 years of her life in one place, and the next 25 in another, we continue to believe that she is “from” the first place.
I am about to turn 30. This means that I belong to the last generation of Ticos who grew up under the import substitution model and the first to experience the opening up of the economy. As a consequence, some of my childhood memories seem uncharacteristically old: They in fact belong to a different time period in Costa Rican history.
I remember a country where there were very few foreign brands, whose names were pronounced in an endearing mutant accent: soap was PalmoLÍve (pal-mole-eev-eh), oatmeal was CUÁquer (quack-er), tires were FÁIrestón (fi-rest-on). When I was in school, only the really cool kids had Reebok or Nike sneakers. Sushi, hummus, or curry were strange words with no tangible meaning. Candy was either Gallito or Diana: Possession of a Milky Way chocolate bar meant that you – or someone you knew – had recently traveled to the U.S. or to the border with Panama (the famous frontera). TV shows were all dubbed in Spanish. Foreign music and movies made it to the radio and to the screen following an indecipherable logic: It puzzles me why some American songs that were only mildly successful in the U.S. were huge in Costa Rica, while now that I am living in the United States I have discovered cult classics here that I have never even heard of.
Of course, Costa Rican culture has not only evolved as a consequence of outside influences, but there has been a definite shift in our patterns of consumption, in our preferences and concerns. This is particularly manifest in our food choices. A visit to the supermarket in Costa Rica is enough to confirm that we not only buy different products than the ones we used to buy, but we also care about different things. We are a couple of steps behind developed countries but nonetheless moving in the same direction: Postmodern food ethics are becoming part of our belief system.
For the longest time, I was blissfully unaware of the many things you can worry about with regards to food. These were the basic rules of my childhood eating protocol: a) too much food will make you fat; b) too little food will make you weak; c) food that has gone bad will make you sick; d) eating with your hands is gross. There was very little to keep in mind. Feeding oneself was a function of two things and two things only: price and flavor. Under these conditions, food and I got along marvelously well for a good quarter of a century.
And then I moved to the United States and to the overwhelming experience of grocery shopping in this country. First, there’s the sheer cognitive overload of trying to surf the wealth of options. Like the donkey in the paradox, I feel literally incapable of choosing between 20 different brands of rice. Seriously, how much variance can there be in something as basic as rice? Do I want the gluten-free pasta, the wholegrain pasta, or the regular this-stuff-might-kill-you pasta? Do I want 2%, 1%, or skim milk? What the hell is whipped cream cheese? Is there really Black Cherry Vanilla Diet Coke?
I distinctly remember the first time someone asked me if I wanted grass-fed milk. Come again? I didn’t even know cows ate anything but grass. It felt like a zookeeper shouting, “Come see our eucalyptus-fed koalas!” I learned about cage-free eggs not long afterwards and have been buying them ever since, but not without a pang of nostalgia for the tiny chicken coops I remember seeing in my childhood. I buy fair trade coffee and organic vegetables and hormone-free chicken. I try to stay local and to get artisanal products. And even though this might have made me a better, healthier person, it has also spoiled my previously uncomplicated relationship with food.
I developed strong reactions to labels (labels! So many of the things I ate growing up didn’t even have labels). Now, if I grab something that has high fructose corn syrup I put it back as if it were inflammable. I still don’t understand exactly what trans fat means but I treat it like a biohazard. I stay clear of everything hydrogenated, butylated or in any way reminiscent of profe Albertina, my beloved High School chemistry teacher.
Yet I hate to pass judgment on some of my lifelong favorites. I did not need to learn that the delicious packet soup that my grandmother made for me when I was a kid has enough sodium to turn a small pot into a miniature Dead Sea. I would rather ignore the amount of sugar you can find in a single bottle of the cola syrup I used to drink by the gallons. I struggle to admit there was anything wrong with the food coloring that went on at 8-year-old birthday parties. And I confess to the belief that the best fried eggs and the best empanadas are cooked in lard.
I am trying to fit in adulthood as much as I am trying to fit in the United States. They both continue to feel very foreign to me. But while I type these words and relish the absolute glory of a Guayabita, courtesy of a dear friend, I remember that some things you try and some things you taste will remain phenomenal, no matter where you are or how old you get.
Raquel Chanto is a lawyer and policy wonk trying to survive international bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. In her monthly column “Please Send Coffee!” she explores aspects of Costa Rican culture and how they contrast with life abroad.