My neighbor Padi, good friend Rufino and I in Punta Mona Costa Rica
I grew up in North Miami, Florida in a Jewish family that is obsessed with food. A deep relationship with food began at a very young age and anytime my entire family was together, several hours before a meal, my dad would always bust out with t"Let's talk about important things, what are we doing for dinner?" Everything revolved around food in all generations of my family. My grandparents and great grandparents were making Jewish food eastern European style with things like chopped liver, gefilte fish and brisket with gravy.While my parents always sought out the best restaurants and many vacations would revolve around where or what we would be eating. From the finest restaurants in Italy or France to our freshly made ceviches on the boat as we caught the fish, food has always been the favorite hobby of my family. My older sister Lisa and I took our relationship to food to another level as we became dedicated to eating organic and righteously sourced foods and together planted an exotic tropical fruit tree orchard on our farm in Punta Mona, Costa Rica. Our farm is located off the grid, meaning it has no road to get there or public services like water or electricity, and this forced us to get super creative about what we grew and subsequently what we ate.
Off the grid in Punta Mona, Costa Rica
When I first arrived to Punta Mona in the fall of 1995 I found living there my dearest friend Padi who is now 80 years old and was born on the very spot where he lives to this day. He often says to me "My cord is buried right out there in the yard" which is even more impactful than saying he was born there 80 years ago. The area used to be a town of more than sixty Afro-Caribbean families though everyone left because the road never made it there and they went seeking "progress". Padi is the last resident of the original Punta Mona town or "Monkey Point" as it was called then. Padi's diet is super simple and consists of fish that he catches, chicken and eggs that he raises and yucca, tropical yams and plantains that he grows.
An aeriel view of our farm in Punta Mona, Costa Rica
Padi also is unfortunately accustomed to having turtle and iguana in the mix although a lot less since I've been around. It's a complicated situation with the turtle hunting in this area of the world. The Afro-Caribbean people first settled these coasts actually following the migration of the hawksbill turtle, which moved in groups so thick that the water would turn brown. It's a deep part of their culture. Hawksbills are also famous for their incredibly beautiful shells, which are used to make jewelry and combs and the turtles nearly got wiped out with the arrival of the United Fruit Company in the early 1900's. It has recently become illegal to hunt and eat turtle, as they are super endangered; yet it is hard to say anything to the local people.
The creative use of few foods
So when I first moved there I pretty much just ate eggs, fish, yucca and plantains which was a very big move from what I was used to. These days we are so used to having so many ethnic foods to choose from: Chinese or Japanese, Peruvian or Ethiopian, it is common to eat 3 different ethnic meals in a day. Simple eating is common around the world and many cultures only eat a few different fruits and vegetables and either raised or wild game. So I began figuring out as many ways as possible to eat the few foods I had. I felt like the Bubba Gump of yucca and plantains. I never could have imagined it possible to eat them so many different ways.
In the spring of 1998 a dear Italian friend of mine named Silvio gifted me a stick and told me to just stick it in the ground back at the farm. This stick changed my life forever! It is called chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius) and is native to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and contains high amounts of protein, iron and calcium. All of a sudden I had unlimited steamed greens added to my diet that was easy to grow, super nutritious and abundant. It was this incredible food that led me on a global useful plant hunt around the world. I began to seek out the most useful plants and share them with my neighbors. Shortly after I visited the botanical garden in the nearest town of Puerto Viejo and ate many kinds of exotic fruits and foods, saved the seeds and planted them. I was hooked!!
Stephen Brooks is a jungle tropical fruit farmer in Costa Rica, the co-founder of Kopali Organics and is the Food Field Reporter on Planet Green's G Word.
The Diaspora of Food
Ethical Eating: Our endangered food supply
Beyond the Supermarket: A Global Tour of Exotic Fruits and Vegetables