The sign reads “Super Mercado,” but the word “super” lends a grandeur to the establishment that exists only in the mind of its owner. The whole store would fit into the frozen food section of a typical Winn Dixie. I was doing my first tour of Vicky’s (Viquez, as it is spelled here), the biggest super market in Santa Barbara de Heredia, Costa Rica. I will be doing a lot of shopping there in the next year or so.
The layout of the place was vaguely familiar. Only the guy wearing the bullet proof vest and pistol at the door caught me by surprise. Rows of shelves are stocked with packages. Glass front freezers and coolers line the back wall. A long glass cooler displays fresh meat and fish. The meat isn’t wrapped in neat packages. Bins in the cooler overflow with chicken, fish, pork and beef. The bins are sorted by animal and body part, priced in Colones per kilogram, large numbers representing small money.
The meat looked fresh. Four butchers worked the busy counter. I struggled to remember the Spanish word for “five-hundred,” “gramos” was easy. I gave up and ordered six hundred grams of chicken, 600 being one of the few numbers larger than 10 that I know in Spanish.
I toured aisles stacked with products I will probably never try including loaves of bread hard as bricks, lots of cookies and sweets and enough canned goods and dried beans to pull the country through a nuclear winter. Then I noticed the little side-room produce section. It was about the size of a large tool shed.
Fruit and vegetables covered three walls. The table in the center left just enough room to walk around it. The table featured tropical favorites, papayas as big as footballs, pineapples even bigger, guavas and oranges. But what had caught my eye was a display on the right-hand wall dedicated to the Prince of Produce, the King of Crops, the Hermaphrodite of the Harvest, the noble tomato.
Ever since childhood summers on my grandma’s stoop with a tomato in one hand and a salt shaker in the other, I’ve had a fervent attachment to the pulpy red fruit.
For many years I’d resigned myself to the disappearance of the delicious vine ripened tomatoes of my youth. To one used to the pale shrink-wrapped, ethylene-gassed fare of my homeland, the pile of firm, ripe orbs on display here in Santa Barbara looked like a shrine. Every specimen showed the deep yellow-red, the plump, mature firmness and the classic, sunken, Buddha’s belly-button stem scars of the truly fine eating tomato.
Without having given it a thought I had stumbled into the native land of this wonderful treat, solanum lycopersicum. Cultivated by Central America’s native Mayans, the tomato is a member of the nightshade family, which includes eggplant, spuds, and a number of uniquely poisonous plants like belladonna. It features history and legend as flavorful and appealing as a good pizza.
The tomato is scientifically a fruit although served and used as a vegetable. The term “vegetable” has no scientific definition. Always ready to make the language fit Uncle Sam’s need for revenue, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the tomato a vegetable for tax purposes in Nix v Hedden in 1893. Fruit was exempt from tax.
Because of its close relations in the nightshade family most Colonial Americans believed tomatoes were poisonous. Thomas Jefferson is among those enlightened souls who knew better, cultivating them at Monticello. The Puritans shunned the red orbs for their reputed effect as a powerful aphrodisiac. I live in hope and lay on the ketchup.
Legend has it that the matter of the wholesomeness of tomatoes was put to rest in 1820, when Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson announced that at noon on September 26, he would eat a basket of tomatoes in front of the Salem, New Jersey courthouse. A crowd of some 2,000 is reported to have gathered to witness Johnson’s death. They were shocked, and likely disappointed, when he survived.
By the 1830’s the tomato had gone from poison to wonder drug. There followed a tomato craze of sorts. Tomatoes were said to cure diseases from dysentery to cholera. You could buy tomato pills at the local pharmacy. It is doubtful that tomatoes cured any diseases. It is not too far fetched, however, to think that eating tomatoes could have had a salutary effect on patients who had given up such popular remedies as mercury and bleeding.
By the time the tomato mania ended the bright red fruit was an established part of the American diet. I’m delighted to find they are even more of a staple of the Central American diet.
I was ready to pay any price, but when I finally did the math to see what this precious commodity was worth I had to do it twice in blinking disbelief. The sign said 220c. That’s 20 cents a pound in dollars. I resisted buying the whole pile, but only just. If God eats, he eats tomatoes like these every day. He eats them on fresh baked corn tortillas if He can find them, but I’ll leave those for another column.