Good food, stage 1

When we first moved to Costa Rica in 2006, we didn’t mind the food.  In fact, we had the idea (although that turned out to largely be a gross misunderstanding) that in a “simpler” country, the food would also be “simpler” — as in, more natural, maybe even better for you — and we knew it wasn’t a country known for its fine cuisine so I think we arrived with some reasonable expectations.

San Ramon "feria" or farmer's market

So, for the first few years we were actually pretty content with the food.  It was all still part of the adventure. The very fact that we even had supermarkets with a broad array of relatively “North American”-seeming food was seen as a bonus that made life easier.  And the feria — or weekly “farmer’s market” — was a fun occasional trip to add a little “local color” to our food shopping.

But then, time passed. We came to learn that “simpler” meant not that the food was more natural, but just the opposite. Simpler meant that the ticos, overall, didn’t waste too much energy worrying about things like dangerous pesticides or toxic fertilizers.  No need for fuss and bother — they just applied them with abandon, often using chemicals that had long since been banned in the U.S.  And we came to realize that while there was, indeed, colorful stall after stall after stall at the feria, they basically all sold the same few things, and the sense of variety was somewhat of an illusion.

Finding “organic” anything was very difficult, with one small organic vegetable stand at the feria and almost never anything in the local grocery store.  (A little bit more was available at the large Auto-Mercado chain, but the closest one of those was about 45 minutes away so not convenient for your regular shopping.)  There is a “local” (Costa Rican) company, Bioland, which does make a few natural products, but almost nothing we needed, so that wasn’t much help.

The chickens you could buy in the store were all from “industrial” chicken farms and although much of the beef is perhaps “grass-fed”, there’s no real suggestion that it was humanely raised or hormone and antibiotic free or anything else that one might desire for their meat. (Now, on the plus side, we did get wonderful eggs from the cage-free chickens that our housekeeper’s family kept, and equally wonderful raw milk when the cow wasn’t feeling ornery, so it’s not like it was all bad!)

But mostly, it was simply that the lack of variety became wearing on us after a while.  They butcher their cows into virtually unrecognizable cuts (most of which we found borderline unusable) and seemed to simply “not have” so many things that to us seemed normal — both in cuts of meat, vegetables, and other ingredients or if they did have it, it was incredibly expensive.  So as time went on it became more and more of a struggle to come up with dinner plans or feel inspired by our food.

Now, I say all this NOT as a bashing of Costa Rica (and apologies, in fact, that it might sort-of sound like that!) but rather as a stage-setting, of sorts, leading up to what we’ve been enjoying so much for the past two months here in Utah.

FOOD.  Food, glorious food.  In a vast variety that we’d nearly forgotten existed.

A few of the foods we'd missed in CR that we're enjoying here

Our small town of Centerville has the big-box grocery stores (WalMart and Target) but also a wonderful “normal” supermarket called Fresh Market.  By local standards, it’s considered a small store, but it serves us just fine.  Even its variety is a bit overwhelming at times, so we haven’t even gotten up our nerve yet to go to Harmon’s.

(For those of you still in, or at least familiar with, Costa Rica, the difference between our Fresh Market and Harmon’s would be about the same as the difference between the local MegaSuper or Maxi-Pali and AutoMercado, except that Fresh Market is the AutoMercado and Harmon’s has no equivalent in the entirety of Costa Rica.  Just to give you a feel for it.)

Ah, the glorious variety of it all

We’d missed cheese terribly in Costa Rica, so have been delighted to find a huge wheel of brie at Costco for about $7 — the equivalent weight of about four of the tiny rounds we would occasionally indulge in down there, paying about the same price (that is, the $7 for the tiny one).  Just the variety of cheeses at the local market — and the incredibly reasonable prices, again comparing to what we’ve been paying the past 5+ years,  — has made us happy.

And that’s before you get to the huge assortment of vegetables, seafood, and — in some ways, most interesting of all — organic products available.

We’ve savored our share of tender asparagus and artichokes (both items we desperately missed in CR) and eaten lots of mushrooms. (These items are available in Costa Rica, but typically not at our local stores in San Ramon, at least not the asparagus or artichokes, and when you did find them, say at AutoMercado, the prices were astronomical and the quality low.)

The pleasures of a well-stocked fridge

We’ve enjoyed lots of steak (nice sirloins at $3.99 a pound) and london broil ($3.29 a pound), along with good old American pot roast, ribs, and pork tenderloin.  (Pork tenderloin is mysteriously missing in most CR grocery stores — although we did finally find it, at least sometimes, at PriceSmart — but since they eat plenty of pork, you have to wonder what in the world they do with the tenderloin?!?)

Our groceries, overall, cost so much less than they did in Costa Rica, that our budget can withstand the slightly higher prices for the readily available organic foods, so we’re able to buy much more of that — organic whole milk right at the supermarket, organic chicken broth (for only 30¢ more a quart than the non-organic), organic flour and rice and spinach.  There’s organic canned black beans, just in case we feel a craving for gallo pinto coming on. Even my “little” local market has “all-cranberry” juice (not to be confused with the “all-juice” varieties you can find in CR, where most of the juice is apple or pear) and organic unfiltered apple juice, right on the shelves with everything else.

Now, all of this has been lots of fun, but it’s also only the first step toward better eating, as I alluded to in the title of this post.  In the years that we were in Costa Rica, we’ve become more and more interested in eating as much “real food” as possible, eating “closer to home” with food grown more naturally and sustainably. (I don’t think there’s any “cause and effect” here — it doesn’t seem that being in Costa Rica inspired that interest, although perhaps the sheer lack of that there did fuel the fire a bit….)

So, that means that many of the packaged or prepared or exotic foods that we felt like we’d missed in CR, are now available to us, but we’re less interested in eating them. (By exotic, in this context, I mostly mean out-of-season, transported to the store some vast distance so that you can eat fruits and vegetables that were never meant to be eaten where you are, at that time of the year.)

We’ve only been here two months, so this has been “stage 1″ of our enjoying good food.  I’m looking forward to stage 2 over the coming weeks and months as we begin to buy organic, grass-fed beef and chicken, plus cage-free (and organic) eggs and raw milk from a local farm we’ve found.  Farmer’s markets will be starting up before too long, where the wide array of produce and other food items really did come from local farms and where heirloom breeds abound and variety is the name of the game.  We’re looking into whether there’s still time this year to join up with a local CSA — community supported agriculture — where you pay a “share” upfront of the costs of the farm and then reap the benefits throughout the harvest season.

So, stay tuned.  There will be other food posts to come, I’m sure.  And in the meantime, while there are, indeed, things we miss about Costa Rica (our friends first and foremost), food isn’t one of them.  We’re enjoying being back in the land of plenty, and while I’m sure it’s possible to spend a lot of money on food here, the complete variety of options means it’s very easy to spend a lot less. So for now, we’re appreciating a lower food budget with a higher level of food enjoyment! Bon appetit! (Or buen provecho, as they say in Costa Rica.)





This entry was posted in Cost of Living, Family, Food, Moving back to the U.S., Things we won't miss. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Good food, stage 1

  1. Deborah Kauffeld says:

    It is funny how we have such diametrically opposed experiences in some ways. For me, having moved back three months ago from CR, I am finding my food bill to be enormously more expensive! Produce, in general, is about three to four times what I paid in CR. Lettuce, as an example, was $.60 for a huge, organic head of red tipped lettuce. Here, I can get a rather wimpy head of non-organic lettuce for around $2.00! Organic, of course, is more. Yes, the variety of produce is much larger here, for sure, and more easily available, too. And I do believe that even the non-organic foods here are probably safer than the “organic” foods in CR. One huge difference in our food bills can probably be accounted for by the fact that I do not eat much meat and it sounds like you eat meat regularly. I think that is why I could keep my food bill lower in CR.

    One thing you did not mention but alluded to is the fact that Costa Rica is the NUMBER ONE user of pesticides and herbicides in the world!!! And the number two country was not even a close second!!! I found that to be a staggering statistic, not to mention scary. I saw photos of how they washed produce heading for the US to get the pesticide residue off of it. They were washing the produce in recycled 50 gallon drums that once held pesticides! If the produce ended up not making the cut for the States, it was then sold to the locals in CR.

    I have to admit to feeling much better eating foods from the States than from CR. Knowing the amount and types of pesticides used in CR is quite sobering. Add to that the fact that eating out was always an exercise in the consumption of MSG and you get an idea of just how behind their nutritional information is.

    I am glad to be back in the States eating foods that aren’t quite so detrimental to one’s health. Welcome home, Arden. Welcome home! Enjoy the land of plenty!

    • arden says:

      Hi, Deborah,

      Hopefully you’ll read my reply to Paul’s comment as well — I’d *meant to* cover some of that in the blog post about how much food costs do vary around the U.S. So i’ts a great example of the expression YMMV (your mileage may vary) for sure! Although the organic, grass-fed meat and chicken we’ll be buying at the local farm is pricier than what we’re getting at our supermarket, it’s not *outrageously* so, and I figure we’ll make up for it by eating meat a bit less often (but being able to feel good about what we’re eating). And when I’d written about food costs in Costa Rica in the past, I too had noted the inexpensive lettuce (although mostly all of pale green, nutritionally devoid types) and cilantro, for example. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that really nice lettuces here — like lovely rich red-tipped lettuce — is often only 90¢ or so. So, more than in CR, for sure, but not painfully so. And avocados cost about the same, and so many other things are SO MUCH less. I think we really lucked out with Salt Lake City as our chosen destination — there are many pleasant surprises like that.

      Yeah, my growing realization of the out-of-control pesticide use in Costa Rica was discouraging, as well as realizing that the only chicken I could buy in San Ramon had spent its miserable little life in an industrial chicken farm (which pretty much, by definition, means antibiotics since there’s no other way to keep chickens alive and reasonably “healthy” under those conditions). At least just at my local supermarket here I can get meats with no hormones or antibiotics, along with the extensive line of organic items.

      Much as we loved many things about our years in Costa Rica, I will admit that we’re both really enjoying being back. (And we’ve caught ourselves saying odd things to each other like, “we’ve been here two months and haven’t seen a machine-gun yet.” ;-) Hope things are settling down for you in FL. Look forward to chatting one of these days and catching up a bit more!


  2. PAUL YEATMAN says:

    Interesting post Arden, but how come Gloria and I save $100/mo. on our food bill here. We eat almost the same stuff here as we did in Balto. Our food bill is about $300 which includes paper products and cleaning supplies. Salt Lake must be less expensive than the east coast. What say you.
    PS spanish keyboard. The question mark key eludes me.

    • Barbara says:

      We are looking forward to getting asparagus, sweet Vildalia onions, fresh blueberries, and
      and tender beef. We will miss fresh strawberries year long, fresh flowers, and fruits and vegetables that have been picked at the peak of flavor. Many things are wonderful here but there is no variety.

    • arden says:

      Hi, Paul,

      Yes, both your comment and Deborah’s bring up a point I’d actually *meant to* make in the blog post which is simply that the U.S. is a HUGE country, and food expenses (just like so many things) vary enormously from one place to the next. (Like utilities — we paid nearly $6,000 a year to *heat* our home and hot water in Maine — 6 years ago! — and here it will be literally 20% of that, in a similarly cold climate.) I know you and Gloria have mentioned that you eat less meat there in CR than you used to, and if I recall your budgets that you’ve published in the past, you also spend anywhere from another $85 to $250/month eating out, so that’s actually part of your “food” cost. We’re really lucky in that Salt Lake City became our “ex-expat” destination, as you know, primarily because of Jen, Larry, and Avila living here, but it’s also turned out to be a very reasonably-priced place to live. Our utilities are less that they were in Costa Rica (when everything is added together), we’re spending less on better food, gasoline is much less expensive (although we do find we somewhat make up for that by driving longer distances which “fly by” on the better roads), and consumer goods are much cheaper (our new TV, for example.) Of course, as I alluded to, there are also options to spend much *more* on things — there’s just so much more variety of everything here — but we’ve not had trouble finding good quality items that are keeping our budget intact.

      Love you guys and miss you!

    • Barbara says:

      How can you be sure you are saving so much? Have you checked US prices lately?

  3. Barbara says:

    Here we have had chicken and pork that is tough and impossible to eat. To get good beef we have to go to Walmart and get US Choice beef-more expensive. Having to “do without” is sometimes the only thing we can do.

    • arden says:

      Hi, Barbara,

      Yeah, as I said in the article, we didn’t really “mind” the food issue for the first few years, but at the end there it was getting hard. I’m sure I’ll get used to it eventually, but at the moment I’m still blown away by the sheer variety of food here (and the lack of same in CR). Hopefully you’ll be back here before *too* much longer!


  4. Gail Hudson says:

    My thoughts exactly, Arden! We are eating so much better food now that we are back in the U.S. and it is costing us much less. Seriously, MUCH less. We had Italian sausage, Hoppin’ John, and French-style green beans for supper tonight, all foods we missed in Costa Rica. We don’t care too much about “organic,” but it’s definitely available cheaply here in Chattanooga if you’re into that.

    • arden says:

      Hi, Gail,

      So nice to hear from you! Clearly food prices (just like housing and utilities) really vary around the very LARGE country that is the United States, but certainly we’re having some specific experiences of being able to eat better for less. We continue to be stunned, literally, almost every time we leave the grocery store at how little we’ve spent. In a sort-of strange “reverse currency conversion” we tend to convert what we just spent to colones, and then marvel at all we got for that amount of money compared to a typical trip to MaxiBodega (MaxiPali). And that’s not even counting when we would occasionally venture to AutoMercado to buy some of those “luxuries” that we’re now buying easily and cheaply (often for 1/4 to 1/3 the price.) It’s not true for absolutely everything, of course, but sure is true for an awful lot of it. ;-) And I know what you mean about foods you miss — after nearly 6 years we had a distinct “backlog” of food we’d been missing — some of it quite “ordinary” but just not available in CR.

      Hope you and George enjoy your re-entry into the U.S. Even though we’d *never* considered ourselves unhappy in CR, we are VERY happy to be back, as it turns out. Hope it works well for you guys, too.


  5. Saratica says:

    Hi Arden,

    Man, I hear ya! As Joel Salatin likes to say: “If you think farm fresh real food is expensive, have you priced the cost of cancer lately?” I’m going with that! It’s not all about the money.

    We are now in KY, which is fortunately abundant in farmers raising grass-fed pastured hormone/antibiotic free meats, eggs, milk… food heaven. I had the exact same awakening as you had re. the pesticide use in CR. That was an ugly moment! The Alajuela feria was so much fun…

    We miss Costa Rica A LOT and worry that we might not make it back for a few years, sigh. We had a gardener come round the other day to till up a few garden boxes. He’s from Mexico so we make him speak Spanish with us and kept him far longer than the time it took to till a few square feet!

    • arden says:

      Hey Sally,

      Great to hear from you! Yeah, the first time I went into the local branch bank here, my teller was a native Spanish speaker and we exchanged some pleasantries in Spanish, just for fun. I do enjoy not *having to* figure out how to say everything in Spanish — that actually took some getting used to! — but, like you, it would sure be nice not to lose it. We hope to get back regularly, but that might not happen while my mom is still with us, so we’ll have to see. Utah, interestingly, really does have a pretty good “real food” movement going on, so it’s turned out to be a great place to be. Still trying to get “settled” enough to get back into my bread baking and yogurt making and so on, not because good quality versions of those things aren’t available here (unlike Costa Rica) but just for the “fun” of doing it.

      Stay in touch!


    • Debora Edholm says:

      Hi Saratica,
      Just looking here as the prices of food are insane lately here in Costa Rica and nice to see you here. I am glad you are doing well in Kentucky. How is life treating you there? Love, Debora from Uvita

  6. tk69 says:

    Anyone who think that you get a good Varity of meat and cheese from places like costco and Walmart has not tried good meat or cheese. And one is delusional if one thinks there are no pesticides in “organic foods”, especially imported ones.

    I suspect that there is a lot of misassumptions that have been made, various organic nativism, and mistakes due to a non native speaker. Having a native speaker is crucial. The key to Cr is the people whom are very nice, not American misconceptions and fallacies such as organic and sustainability. Get into the details and what do these things mean, anyway. And at least in Cr kids can be kids and have fun, not depressed, public school zombies, and tax objects of various regulating agencies and whom can arrested for being a kid. The future from them does not bold well in the USA.

    Anyway, we live with the locals and things like fruits,veg,breads,etc get delivered, via vendors, to our door for a few dollars. And We have local ranchers who are butchers near our village and locals who sell there eggs and chickens And yes, compared to the states the Varity is limited and meat tough. You do well to know how to season which most Americans think they no how, despite their delusion.

    But in Cr such choices, convinces, services, and products can be found in San Jose. The further away, the less choices you have.

    • arden says:

      Thanks for your comments. Sounds like you’re happy with your food choices in Costa Rica, so that’s great. To each their own! ;-) Our experiences were that even when we got “local” food in CR (which we did for raw milk and eggs, for instance) still meant things were likely to be heavily pesticide laden since we found that’s how most Ticos deal with most pest problems.

      Now that we’ve been back 2-1/2 years, we continue to be pleasantly amazed at the food we can get here, by contrast to what we could get there. We’re lucky to have some unusual availabilities, though, such as [local] Utah raised, completely pastured beef at our local Wal-Mart. I do completely agree, though, that the term “organic” has to be taken just a bit with a grain of salt (so to speak) especially from the big companies and locally grown, where you can ideally get to know the farmer, is often best–no matter what country you live in! Cheers!

  7. Barry Moss says:

    hi.. Living here in Costa Rica Now 15 years..

    Organic has grown alot over the weekly markets kne can get certified organic products pretty Cheap…

    Lettuce huge head..:90, Tomatoes..$2.75,kale .75 bunch, potatoes, $1.75, spinach .75 .Large pineapples..$1.75, beets….50 each..apples… $2.10

    Free Range Chicken..”Chicken Campesino is available at Auto mercado.. $8.50 kilo….

    <org Brown rice $1.75, org blackbeans… $2.25, red $2.75…

    more and more org markets are opening up…

    • arden says:

      Hi, Barry — Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, even these years that we’ve been back, I still have business in CR so I stay in touch through some of the FB groups and forums (and still have a few friends there, although most have now returned) and I’ve been really pleased to see the growth in organic availability. Of course, similarly, organic continues to become more and more available here in the states, and is still usually cheaper (where we live, at least) than in CR. (Pretty much every grocery chain has its own “private label” for organic foods that are often cheaper than the brand-name conventional.) It’s sure good to see better options becoming available there! (Sorry, too, for the slow reply. Somehow I missed the notice of your comment and only just now stumbled upon it. Apologies!)

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