Good food is like good sex – most people don’t need it every day, but life becomes drab and colorless when it disappears entirely. Here Panama ranks low (on the food index, not the sex index). Most meals in Panama, whether at home or in restaurants, consist of white rice and beans with a bit of leathery meat or chicken. Fried foods are also popular – especially hojaldra (fried bread), tortillas and other things made of corn -- with predictable results for the national body mass index.
The curious thing, familiar to every experienced international traveler, is that countries with the best national cuisines also seem to have the thinnest people. One of the great mysteries of the world – on all fours with Mormon Holy Underwear and the Last Days of Atlantis – is how people in France, Italy and Thailand stay so thin. They have the best food in the world, and always appear to be eating, yet rarely appear overweight. Countries with the worst food, on the other hand, seem to have the highest levels of obesity – including the US, England and notably Scotland, whose national dishes are the deep-fried Mars bar and vomit-inducing haggis, made from various bits of offal wrapped in sheep stomach. Something about the harsh climate must have made Scots crave only the most wretched foods.
Or maybe it was the heritage of John Knox, the Protestant reformer, who took a dim view of earthly pleasures.
I leave deeper examination of this issue to scholars, who, unlike myself, know something about it and can get multi-year government grants to study it. Whatever the scientific explanation, I prefer to think of these correlations as rewards and punishments bestowed by the Roman goddess of food, Edesia (from the Latin verb edes, to eat). To my mind, it is only just and fair that those who honor Edesia should be rewarded, while those who sin against the goddess should be punished – severely so.
The greatest food adjustments we had to make when we moved to Panama involved the shortage of good restaurants and the hideous quality of local meat. For the average Panamanian family, Sunday dinner at KFC or MacDonald’s counts as a fine-dining experience. I aim a little higher. My wife and I eventually found some good restaurants in Panama City (my favorite is Ego & Narcissus) and a few pleasant options in David (Parmesano, Casa del Churasco and Boca Chica). By a happy coincidence, my favorite restaurant in Panama happens to be in a small country resort, Rancho de Caldera, half an hour from our home in David, where Chef Craig Miller works miracles with food. Rancho de Caldera turned out to be the anti-dote to a new disease from which I seemed to be suffering. The symptoms were light-headedness, inability to concentrate or complete tasks, inertia and bulging stomach. Not knowing the correct medical name, I called it PTFD (Post-Traumatic Food Disorder). Whenever I ate too many lunches of rice, beans and fried chicken, the symptoms would appear, but would just as quickly vanish when I visited Rancho de Caldera.
No such solution was available for the meat problem. Recently, I made yet another attempt to cook local meat, this time for beef stroganoff. I knew it would be tough and stringy, so I marinated it for twenty-four hours in olive oil, red wine and garlic. This was as no more effective than Hitler’s attack on Stalingrad. Just as no amount of shelling and bombing could break the heroic Russian resistance, so also no amount of marinade was able to loosen the sinews of the meat. Once again, I stared in the eyes of culinary defeat. Our dogs weren’t so fussy. To them, it was just like a New York striploin.
The good thing about the bad meat was that it forced me to switch to eating more fruit, vegetables and fish. Twenty pounds dropped off my frame in the first three years. Billie was also happier. She never liked the idea of killing animals to eat them. I had been a meat-eater for many years, but always tried to avoid thinking about what happened to the animals when they got to the meat-packing plant. I still eat meat once in a while and still struggle not to think too much about the fate of the unlucky beasts.
About the best that can be said for food in Panama is that there is lots of it. Whether it is fresh is another matter. One of the great challenges buying groceries in Panama is determining whether a cake, pastry or loaf of bread was made today or last week. It isn’t so difficult in a grocery store, where you can squeeze the loaf or read the expiry date on the frozen Sara Lee cake. But it is tough when you have to decide whether to buy a cake or loaf of bread hiding out of reach in a glass-enclosed bakery counter. Without the opportunity to poke or squeeze, I am reduced to guessing the vintage. Sometimes I ask store clerks whether the cake, bread or baguette is fresco. Freshness, however, is a relative concept (fresh compared to what?). They invariably say it is, but I know otherwise when I take the baguette home and discover that it is works better as an assault weapon than as a source of nourishment.