I just returned from three weeks in Costa Rica where I was conducting research on aging with a small team of three undergraduate students and another professor. Costa Rica is known for healthy living in general, with a life expectancy slightly greater than that of the United States. One region in particular is known for extreme longevity, and we went to investigate factors related to that pattern. We were not looking at diet, because so much has already been studied regarding what people eat, but people often brought up food when talking about what was different when they were children.
They talked about how they ate what they grew – rice, beans, corn, vegetables, fruit. They talked about how what they grew had no chemicals or pollutants, and how all that is different now, even for farm animals. They talked about collecting food in the forest, and hunting for wild animals to eat. They talked about how life was hard then, but how it was also beautiful. One woman spoke longingly about the land she was raised on – un ranchito – that her father sold when alcohol landed him in trouble with money. She described the little stream there, the plants, the animals that they raised for food, the beauty of the fields. She said, “Now it is all gone and we can never return.” She cleans luxury houses for people from Canada and France, and some Costa Ricans too. And she can cook.
One afternoon, she had come to our place for our interview and to clean (walking over an hour up steep hills as she did not own a car or motorcycle). Since she was killing time before she went home, she rummaged around in the fridge and cupboard, pulling out chicken and rice and a plantain. She asked us if we would mind if she cooked for us. She walked outside and grabbed some wild herbs and cooked up an incredibly savory but simple feast for us. We were bowled over by how tasty it was, but also by her generosity. She, like so many Costa Ricans, had found a way to share with us.
I had warned my students that people would want to share food with us, and that they would have things ready for us to eat when we arrived. Even though I knew this, I am still startled by how much people give, particularly when they often have so little.
It started with mangos. Mangos were ripe and mango trees are big. We were sent home with bags and bags of mangos.
It might be easy to see this gesture as getting rid of what you have too much of, but this pattern repeated constantly. One day, we had just met a woman when a guy came in her office with a bag of small fruit for her, which she purchased from him. I inquired about what it was, and she insisted on giving all of us some to try. They were nances, a small, yellow fruit that tasted like nothing else I knew. When we interviewed her at her home later in the week, we could see how very little she had to share, yet she didn’t hesitate for a moment.
Another woman had prepared atol for us. The version we received was a light purple color from the corn she had used and was solid and sweet, like a pudding. She pulled out two big bowls and watched with pleasure as we consumed them. When we returned in three days to pick up some materials from her, she had prepared chicha for us to try, and sent us home with a two-liter bottle. Made from the same corn as the atol, she let the corn-water mixture ferment until it was alcoholic. She was also sucking on a small fruit to help with her sore throat. When I asked what it was, she pulled out a bag and insisted that we take a sack with us. They were mamón, and I just couldn’t bring myself to take more from her, as she was using them to help cure her cold while she was working.
When we walked out of her house, we were happy to see another woman we had enjoyed interviewing earlier that week. She was visiting a relative across the street and called out to us. Just as she did, another woman came down the lane on a bicycle with the basket filled with homemade bread, pan casero. Our friend quickly bought some for us – the best kind, filled with papaya jam – and insisted that we take it and try it since we had not had the chance yet.
Let me emphasize: no one had money to spare. No one was free of worry about getting enough work. One woman we met with talked of borrowing enough money when she was truly desperate to make atol to sell on the street. Her resourcefulness allowed her family to eat. Her home had chickens running through it, and fruit trees outside as some security from hunger.
But everyone shared, all the time. And I started making more coffee when I knew people would come by, and serving whatever we might have in the house.
Eating like a Costa Rican means being ready to feed other people. Eating like a Costa Rican means valuing the flavor of the fruit or the vegetable, and appreciating how it was grown. The food I miss the most are the naturales, the drinks made from putting fresh fruit in a blender with water or milk. They vary daily, because the fruit you have varies.
Back at home now, I can’t help but think about what eating like a Costa Rican can teach us. Use fewer chemicals and more whole foods. Eat what is fresh now. But most of all, share, even when it feels like you don’t have enough. Take pleasure in trying something new and sharing something that a guest has never tried. I can’t promise it will make you live longer, but I can promise it will make you live better.
Recipe Bonus: Watermelon Juice!
Fill your blender with fresh watermelon. Don’t worry about the seeds. Add enough water to make the blender go and puree. Pour the blended watermelon through a strainer into a pitcher to refrigerate. The strainer will remove the seeds and some of the pulp so you don’t have to worry about it. Sometimes I like to add mint. Enjoy the most refreshing drink of summer!