May 27th, 2009

The Old Corner Grocery

About thirty years ago, shopping in Costa Rica was very different from what it is today. Imported goods were scarce and very expensive. Manufactured goods—clothing, furniture, and large appliances—were all but unavailable, and shoppers with the means would buy them outside the country. However, fruits and vegetables were plentiful, and most Costa Ricans could buy these at small corner grocery stores called pulperías. Once a vital part of daily life, the pulpería has all but disappeared from the newly modernized Costa Rican landscape. Many Costa Ricans fondly describe the pulpería as a symbol of the country’s slow-paced and charming past.

Pulperías were always small, modest buildings that crouched unassumingly on street corners. They usually had colorful names that referred to nearby attractions or to desirable attributes. Locals gathered there daily to buy milk, cheese, and eggs before refrigeration was common. Pulperías were popular gathering places, and most customers prolonged their visits, talking and joking with their neighbors as they bought their daily supplies.

Pulperías had a feel and look uniquely their own. Their floors were often unfinished wood planks. Because the doors stood open all day, pulpería floors were warmed by the sun and slightly dusty. To either side of the open doors wooden bins held fresh fruits and vegetables, and plantains and onions often hung from hooks in the ceiling. Employees stood behind wooden counters that had been worn smooth with use. Customers requested items stored on shelves behind the counters. Pulperías always smelled of warm wood and gently ripening fruit.

For children, the best part of the pulpería was the glass-fronted shelf that held candy. It sat at eye level on the wooden counter, each candy relegated to one section of a vertical grid. Just as children could buy one individual piece of candy, adults could buy an individual cigarette, a match or a cotton ball pre-moistened with nail polish remover. One-colón coins and smaller céntimo pieces still had value, and almost every transaction involved just a few small coins.

Pulperías—also known as abastecedores—still exist in Costa Rica, and they still retain some of their traditional flavor. However, flashy new stores are slowly taking over what was once the sole domain of this small corner grocery.

Read about an art exhibit dedicated to pulperías.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

del.icio.us

Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...
1,244 views
April 6th, 2009

Bananas: A Mini History

During the middle-to-late 19th century, coffee accounted for nearly 90% of Costa Rica’s export revenue. The success of the coffee trade prompted business-minded entrepreneurs to seek other lucrative agricultural markets. Thus, the late 1800s witnessed the growth and development of the banana production and export business.

Until the end of the 1800s, Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast was all but inaccessible from the rest of the country. Its jungles and thick vegetation made trade with the area next to impossible, and politicians decided to finance the construction of a railroad that would link the Atlantic coast to the rest of the country. Construction of the railroad took longer than expected, and costs went significantly over budget.

In the end, an American contractor, Minor C. Keith, completed the railroad project, a fact which tied American interests to the Atlantic region for many unhappy years. As part of his contract for completing the railroad, Keith received large tracts of land in the Atlantic region. He used this land as a banana plantation and financed part of the railroad construction with banana exports. Keith exported many of his bananas to the United States and played an important role in forming the United Fruit Company.

The United Fruit Company soon developed a monopoly over banana production in the Atlantic Region, expanding its agricultural holdings across the region. Before long, the United Fruit Company—or “Yunai,” as it was known among agricultural workers—came to symbolize the worst of American imperialism. Banana workers suffered in the harsh coastal conditions, and Costa Ricans protested their mistreatment and the fact that workers received almost none of the profit from the lucrative banana exports. The Costa Rican Communist party emerged as a significant force in the clash between the United Fruit Company and its Costa Rican workers.

Revenue from banana exports soon equaled that from coffee exports, and a new chapter in Costa Rican agricultural history had begun.

The United Fruit Company influenced Costa Rica’s literary history as well. For more information about the United Fruit Company in Costa Rican literature, click here.

[See Historia de Costa Rica, by Iván Molina and Steven Palmer, Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica: 2007.]

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

del.icio.us

Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...
1,108 views
March 30th, 2009

Coffee: A Mini History

For over one hundred years, coffee has been one of Costa Rica’s primary export products and a great source of wealth for many Costa Rican families. The history of coffee cultivation is closely related to the history of the country itself.

Costa Rica was a Spanish colony until 1821, when all of Central America received its independence from Spain. During Costa Rica’s colonial period, sugar cane and cacao were important agricultural products, but neither was lucrative enough to allow the colony to enter the global agricultural market. Livestock, lumber and mining provided income to a few entrepreneurs, but none became a national economic force. Throughout this time, small coffee plantations existed in Costa Rica, but they were not yet productive enough to generate significant income.

In the 1820s, the Costa Rican government took an active interest in the production of coffee, hoping to enliven the Costa Rican economy by encouraging coffee cultivation. Some sources indicate that the government became involved in land distribution, providing land grants to small coffee cultivators. Wealthy landowners also amassed large holdings, growing coffee in their vast plantations. Costa Rica’s climate proved ideal for coffee production, and coffee growers were soon producing large crops. By the first half of the 1800s, coffee production was booming, and the country finally gained a foothold in the world economy.

At first, Costa Rica exported its coffee to Chile, where it was repackaged as Chilean coffee and then shipped to Great Britain. Later, Costa Rica exported coffee directly to Great Britain, the real start of the foreign coffee export business. Other countries joined Great Britain in buying Costa Rican coffee. The lucrative coffee bean soon became known as “el grano de oro,” or the golden bean.

The wealthiest of coffee growers were those who owned beneficios, or coffee processing plants. In the earliest years, beneficios used a “humid” method to shell and process the raw coffee beans. More recently, beneficios have becoming increasingly mechanized, automating processes that were once done by hand.

Coffee revenue changed Costa Rican culture, architecture and society. Major coffee growers built expensive mansions and large commercial buildings in San José. Coffee magnates financed the construction of schools, cultural centers and of the National Theater building in the capital. Wealthy coffee growers took an interest in European culture, introducing the country to Old World literature, entertainment and activities. Most importantly to the country’s history, coffee money financed the construction of the first railroad to the country’s Atlantic coast.

By the end of the 1800s, coffee had become Costa Rica’s predominant agricultural product. However, the turn of the century also witnessed the emergence of a new and very important cash crop—the banana. Its cultivation brought with it a host of new social and political problems for Costa Rica.

[See Historia de Costa Rica, by Iván Molina and Steven Palmer, Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica: 2007.]

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

del.icio.us

Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...
1,705 views
March 16th, 2009

Eat a Casado

Costa Rica’s most typical meal—for lunch or dinner—is the casado. Generations of Costa Ricans have enjoyed this near-perfect conjunction of some of the country’s best flavors. Up until the mid-1960s, most Costa Rican businesses closed at lunchtime. Workers who lived near their jobs would go home to a hot meal. Others ate lunch at nearby pensiones, whose owners cooked lunch for office workers every day. Whether they ate at home or at a pensión, almost everyone ate a casado for lunch. Now, most Costa Rican businesspeople and office workers eat the same fast-food lunches that their American counterparts do. However, the casado is still the national dinner dish, and it remains dear to the hearts of all Costa Rican lunch-eaters.

Although casados vary from house to house and from restaurant to restaurant, all have the same key ingredients—rice, beans, salad, and some kind of protein. The rice is a true Costa Rican specialty; glistening slightly with oil, each grain is separate from the others, and all have just the right amount of firmness. The beans served with the casado are almost always whole black beans, although some people serve refried beans with their casados. The traditional casado salad is a vinegary cabbage salad that mixes well with either the rice or the beans and gives them a pleasant crunch. Recently, many restaurants have begun to serve lettuce and tomato salads with their casados, a slight departure from tradition. A piece of beef, chicken or fish rounds out the casado. This protein is grilled, pan-fried with garlic or breaded and fried. Many casado-makers also add fried plantains and tortillas to the dish. While not essential, these two additions make for an ideal casado.

There has recently been some controversy about the origin of the term “casado.” Many people believe that the word “casado” is derived from “casa,” the word for house. This theory makes sense because of the homey origins of the casado. When everyone made lunches or dinners at home, the casado was the food of the casa. However, a recent theory has emerged, which traces the meaning of the word, not to the place where the food is prepared, but to the person who once normally consumed it. Thus, the theory is that a casado takes its name from the other word “casado,” which means a married man. When most women worked only in the home, it was only married men—or casados—who ate these meals during their lunchtime breaks.

Whatever the origin of the word, the casado is a wonderful dish. The Magnolia Restaurant serves a first-class casado, complete with fried plantains, perfect rice and delicious, smoky black beans.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

del.icio.us

Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...
1,765 views
March 9th, 2009

Don’t Let Pejibayes Pass You By

The pejibaye is one of Costa Rica’s most intriguing fruits. Readily available all across the country, pejibayes add an unexpected dimension to Costa Rican cuisine.

Pejibayes grow in clusters on the very same palm trees that produce hearts of palm. Costa Ricans hack the entire cluster from the tree once the fruits ripen. The shiny orange skin of the pejibaye might suggest a sweet, fleshy, mango-like interior. But pejibayes are dry and not at all juicy like their other orange tropical fruit counterparts.

The starchy pejibaye, potato-like in its dryness, makes for very interesting eating. Costa Ricans drop whole pejibayes into vats of boiling salted water and cook them for at least half an hour. Once the pejibayes soften, cooks slice them in half and remove the large central seed from each one, leaving a perfect hollow for a dollop of mayonnaise. Pejibayes and mayonnaise are as happy a combination as bread and butter, the smoothness of the mayonnaise pleasantly mitigating the dryness of the pejibaye, the tangy creaminess gently sharpening the pejibaye’s shy sweetness.

Some adventurous gourmet chefs forgo the mayonnaise treatment. They cook the pejibaye as though it were an exotic potato, lending a vibrant tropicality to more staid potato recipes.

One beach restaurant serves mayonnaise-filled pejibayes alongside spears of hearts of palm, a clever pairing of two fruits from the same palm tree. The orange pejibayes cluster charmingly on their side of the plate, their sister hearts of palm lying cool in their paleness. And the combination is wonderful—a moist vinegar tang with a tropical starchiness.

Roadside vendors sell boiled pejibayes at makeshift stands all across the country. Their stalls often feature hand-lettered signs with various idiosyncratic spellings of the fruit—“pejivalles,” or “pejivayes.”

But no variation in spelling can alter the allure of the pejibaye.

Click here to learn more about pejibayes.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

del.icio.us

Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...
6,271 views
February 15th, 2009

Spanish Lessons: Easy Questions

English speakers who learn Spanish often seem to have trouble with two particular types of questions—1. those that ask for some sort of permission (“Can I park here?”) and 2. those that ask about availability (“Do you serve rice?”) In English, these questions can involve relatively complicated constructions, because each requires conjugating verbs, and the first requires the use of a verb like “can” or “could.” English speakers often tend to assume that the Spanish equivalents of these questions are equally complicated, and they tangle themselves up in needless conjugations. For each of these two types of questions, there are relatively simple Spanish equivalents that use only the infinitive, in one case, and that are easy to apply in most situations.

The first type of question is the kind requesting permission: “Can I order now?”; “Can I see the green one?”; “Can we go there?” Many English speakers translate this type of question literally, beginning with the Spanish equivalent of “Is it possible…?” Thus, they begin, “¿Es posible…?” Although technically correct, this question is not a construction most Costa Ricans use, and it tends to make the speaker sound more like a foreigner than necessary. In addition, a question that begins with “¿Es posible…?” tends to be needlessly wordy and potentially convoluted. Instead, a good alternative is the use of the verb “poder,” which translates as “can” or “to be able to.” The speaker can, thus, begin with “¿Puedo…?” (“Can I…?”); “¿Puede…?” (“Can you…?”); or “¿Podemos…?” (“Can we…?”). Then, the next word is the infinitive of the verb in question: “¿Puedo ordenar…?” (“Can I order…?”); “¿Puedo ver…?” (“Can I see…?”); or “¿Podemos ir…?” (“Can we go…?”). Not only is this construction what a typical Costa Rican would say, but it is also far simpler to use. The speaker need only remember “Puedo,” “Puede” or “Podemos” and then add an infinitive. For fancier constructions, of course, the speaker can add other words to the sentence: “¿Puedo ordenar ahora?” (“Can I order now?”); “¿Puedo ver el verde?” (“Can I see the green one?”); “¿Podemos ir allá?” (“Can we go there?”).

The other type of question—the one about availability—is even easier to ask in Spanish. It involves the use of “Hay,” in which the “h” is silent, and then the noun in question. Thus, a question like “Do you serve rice?” can become “¿Hay arroz?”, which translates literally as, “Is there rice?” This question makes perfect sense when asked in a restaurant setting. It also works in a store, like when a customer is searching for something in particular: “¿Hay pastel?” (“Is there cake?”/ “Do you sell cake?”); “¿Hay otro?” (“Is there another?”/ “Do you have another?”). A question beginning with “Hay” works best in a particular context, where the existence of something is limited to a particular place (in a restaurant, at a store, standing in front of a vendor’s stall), but it is a good alternative to more cumbersome constructions that would involve conjugating verbs (“Do you sell…?”; “Do you serve…?”).

Visitors tend to ask these types of questions regularly, and it is reassuring to know that these questions need not be as complex as they seem at first.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

del.icio.us

Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (4 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...
1,300 views
January 6th, 2009

A Useful Gesture

For those learning a new language, vocabulary is a constant challenge. Language students often struggle with word lists, memorization and many unfamiliar terms. There is, however, one relatively simple, but undeniably important, part of language-learning—the use of gestures. As many language students know, one gesture can take the place of several words, encapsulating an idea through motion. In Costa Rica, there is one particular gesture—a vague arm wave—that visitors might find particularly useful.

The gesture is very simple—just an extended wave. The person making the gesture moves an arm upward from the side of the body, so that the hand ends up level with the ear on that same side of the body. The fingers point downward until the last part of the gesture, when they move up in a sort of a hand wave. The gesture is fluid and graceful. People usually accompany the gesture with a wailing sort of a “Whoooo” sound.

This gesture is an integral part of Costa Rican conversation, because it serves many important purposes. In general, it indicates a quantity, distance, number or idea so vast and imponderable that it is almost beyond human understanding.

For example, a driver who has become lost on a country road might pull over and ask a passerby, “Is this the road to the Irazú volcano?” In order to indicate how immeasurably far the driver is from her hoped-for destination, the passerby might make the gesture and say, “Whoooo. You’re nowhere near Irazú.” More specific directions might follow, but the passerby has graphically illustrated the extent to which the driver is lost.

Or you might ask someone how long he has held a certain job. In order to indicate the vast expanse of time he has been employed in this particular place, the person might gesture and say, “Whoooo. I’ve been here for years and years.” The gesture indicates that the years are far too numerous to count or even to contemplate.

Costa Ricans use this gesture for other imponderables as well. It would be an appropriate response to a question like, “Does you wife like soup?” In such a case, it would indicate that the wife’s love of soup is so immense as to be beyond the bounds of human understanding. The gesture would also serve to illustrate an event so well-established that it no longer requires consideration. The gesture in response to “Was that building demolished?” would indicate the immutable fact of the demolition. It would also be an appropriate response to “How many dogs does she own?”; “Is the Coca-Cola factory still here?”; “Did the man ever come back to pay his fine?”; or “How long have you known Fernando?”

The gesture has a subtle complexity, in that it simultaneously indicates both certainty and uncertainty. The building has been demolished, the driver definitively lost, the Coca-Cola factory long gone and the wife clearly enamored of soup. However, the extent to which each of these facts can be understood is imponderable in itself—infinite and forever beyond the grasp of human knowing.

The gesture is eloquent and powerful. Visitors to the country might consider adding it to their conversational repertoires.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

del.icio.us

Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...
4,413 views
December 17th, 2008

Pura Vida

The expression “pura vida” is a favorite among authors of guide books to Costa Rica. These authors—often newcomers or visitors to Costa Rica—claim that the expression, literally translated as “pure life,” perfectly embodies the Costa Rican love of purity, nature and of life itself. Costa Ricans, these authors argue, have such an ingrained love of life that it trickles down into even their slang expressions. While Costa Ricans really do embrace life joyfully, this guide-book interpretation of “pura vida” is not entirely accurate. Just as widespread American use of the term “cool” does not mean an ingrained love of low temperatures, Costa Rican use of the term “pura vida” does not, in itself, encapsulate the whole Costa Rican philosophy of life.

Despite what the guide books say, “pura vida” is not an expression on the lips of every Costa Rican. Many Americans could go a whole lifetime without uttering expressions like “rock on” or “totally awesome,” and most Costa Ricans do not use “pura vida” as often as the guide books would have us believe. In fact, the term emerged about twenty-five years ago, mostly among young urban males, as part of a whole set of slick expressions they used to describe their activities. Before it was seized upon by the guide books, “pura vida” had as clear a demographic association as terms like “grody to the max” or “radical, dude.” It was a term reserved for only a specific young population.

Even when it first emerged, the expression probably did not indicate a deeply felt philosophical conviction. Its users were no more enamored of the purity of life than are most other twenty-somethings all across the world. Instead, the expression was just a colorful new way to comment positively, as “the bee’s knees” was long ago.

Interestingly, the guide books have probably breathed a life into the expression it never would have had otherwise. Like all slang, the expression probably would have all but disappeared as its users grew and adopted other expressions. Now, however, visitors to Costa Rica often buy “pura vida” merchandise, because the expression seems so life-affirming and positive. Vendors sell hundreds of t-shirts, hats and flags emblazoned with the expression, which now boasts an economically fueled existence. “Pura vida”’s current meaning is one it never had among its original users.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

del.icio.us

Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...
3,225 views
December 9th, 2008

Standing Around Outside, Eating

Costa Rica’s near-perfect weather is one of the country’s greatest charms. Visitors marvel at its breezy sunshine and tropical mildness. Locals spend much of their time outside, where it rarely gets cold enough for even a light jacket. Schools often have large outdoor courtyards, and children spend their free moments in the fresh air. Government buildings, like the immigration office and the driver’s license renewal office, usually have outdoor waiting areas.

Costa Rica’s mild, pleasant climate is, of course, as ideal for vegetation as it is for outdoor activity. Plants thrive everywhere, without fertilization, watering or any kind of human attention. Fruit trees sprout on the spot where someone tossed a few seeds, and many of these trees have edible stems and seeds as well.

The combination of constant outdoor activity and edible vegetation creates an interesting phenomenon in Costa Rica—a sort of opportunistic outdoor snacking.

Schoolchildren all know the bounty to be found around their schoolyards. The older children teach the younger ones which fruits and leaves are edible and how to go about eating them. One particularly common schoolyard fruit is the manzana de agua. Loosely translated, this fruit is a “water apple,” and the name is fairly accurate. The pale red fruit looks like an oval apple, and its flesh is like a watery version of the same. The fruit has only one seed, and it make for good between-class snacking. Another prevalent schoolyard fruit is the jocote. Shaped roughly like an olive, the jocote is greenish as it ripens and yellowish when fully ripe. Its flesh is thick and dense, and it clings to the fruit’s one large seed. Jocotes vary in flavor from sour to sweet and are ideal eating during down time in a game of tag. When jocotes are out of season, their leaves make fine snacks as well. Chewy and very sour, one small branch of jocote leaves can last an entire recess. Clover, too, is slightly sour and particularly good during games that require crawling near that ground or under bushes, as clover grows close to the ground.

Adults in the out-of-doors often find as many snacks as schoolchildren do. Mango trees grow wild all across the country, and their fruit is good both ripe and unripe. People in line at various government agencies often eat mangos as they wait. Guayaba trees are also fairly common, and people at bus stops can often reach the pink, aromatic fruits as they stand on the sidewalk. A variety of citrus fruits, ranging from the sweet to the very tart, grow wild in the city and also make pleasant on-the-spot eating.

Although Costa Rica has become very modern during the last few years, it still retains vestiges of its old rural self. Like farm-dwellers of previous decades, Costa Ricans can—and do—harvest the fruits around them, gathering treats as they go about their daily activities.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

del.icio.us

Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...
2,635 views
November 20th, 2008

Campesinos

Before Costa Rica became as developed as it is today, most of the country was agricultural. Some of the provinces, like San José and Alajuela, had relatively large cities, but the rest of the country was rural. Until about fifteen years ago, many of Costa Rica’s roads were unpaved, not all places had electricity, and lush vegetation covered much of the land. The rural countryside is called “el campo,” and the people who live there are called “campesinos.” These “campesinos” are an important part of Costa Rica’s national identity.

In Costa Rica, humility is probably the highest virtue. Pride and arrogance are looked down upon, especially in politicians, and soft-spokenness and quiet deference are considered great attributes. Describing someone as humble—“humilde”—is high praise. Costa Rica’s heroes, like Juan Santamaría, often came from the “campo” and are almost always described as humble, as Juan Santamaría always is. Costa Rica’s favorite presidents were all humble men as well, especially in retrospect.

In general, “campesinos” are idealized and described as being filled with a noble sense of humility. The Costa Rican national anthem, like most of the country’s other patriotic songs, praises field and other manual laborers, hard-working “campesinos” on whose backs the modern country now rests. The red stripes of the Costa Rican flag are often said to represent the red faces of agricultural workers, who did their work virtuously, without seeking undue praise or attention.

During the early 1900s, in a period of heightened cultural awareness, students of Costa Rican tradition attempted to unearth and preserve the traditional dances of the “campesinos,” promulgating the idea of a national Costa Rican dance form. A collection of several dances now comprises the Costa Rican dance repertoire. Although some argue that these “bailes típicos” are more a cultural afterthought than a legitimate tradition, the dances are interesting in that they celebrate the Costa Rican “campesino.” The women wear ruffled peasant blouses and long skirts, and the men wear work shirts and the canvas hats typical of traditional Costa Rican farm workers. All dance barefoot, and the men often twirl red bandannas—the very bandannas they presumably used to wipe the sweat from their brows as they toiled in the fields.

Even as Costa Rica marches confidently into the future, there is a strong national sense of its agricultural beginnings and a strong feeling of love for the hardworking “campesino humilde.”

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

del.icio.us

Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (4 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...
1,690 views