I can remember the first time I ever tasted a pineapple because it was also the same day I first tried a pickle. Not unlike belatedly stumbling on a popular sitcom, I became immediately addicted to pineapple and tried to introduce it to anyone I could. It sounds silly and hopeful, trying to introduce someone to the pineapple, but when you’re young, ignorance tends to be nothing more than blissful.
When I first visited to Casco Viejo and Panama, the country’s exoticness and allure was heightened by the shock of how cheap things were. Beers at the bar for a dollar, nice hotel rooms for twenty or thirty bucks. These were real things I could buy at home but for triple or quadruple the price.
I once remember a show on the Discovery Channel where a professional explorer was shown in the streets of Thailand buying a handful of ant eggs for what equated to a dollar. “If you’re lucky, you can even buy the ant nest from the vendor for an extra 90 baht,” the man said holding what looked to me like overcooked rice. “Great. We’ll use these for a soup later on.”
I wanted to appreciate how cheap things were in Thailand, but ant eggs weren’t something I’d necessarily throw in my basket of goods. As a result, them being inexpensive didn’t excite me. It was like a totally useless gadget on a late night infomercial: a carrot crisper or a laser stud finder. You could reduce the price from eight easy payments to two. I’m still not interested.
Consider the pineapple. One of Panama’s most underrated attractions. You won’t find it on the cover of any guidebooks but this wonder fruit, when in-season, is about as miraculously part of my everyday Panama routine as the hot tropical sun.
It was returning from downtown Panama City to Casco Viejo a few years ago that I passed a pick-up truck loaded, almost overflowing with spiky football-sized pineapples. (I’d seen these carriers on the highway, but had always thought they were in route to the market or some sort of restaurant purveyor. Little did I know they were available to the public.) The cardboard sign that hung from the tailgate read “4 por $1″ and a withered old man sat atop the heap like some sort of swami.
Now coming from the East Coast, a place where Whole Foods and Wegmans charge roughly one million dollars per pound of tropical fruit, I had trouble believing the four-for-one sign, so I drove up and stuck out a dollar bill to see what’d happen. Sure enough, the man picked four giant, ripe pineapples, put them in a bag, and told me to eat them soon, that they were incredibly sweet. I felt like I had stumbled on the holy grail of fresh produce.
In cutting them up later, these would prove to be the most delicious pineapples I’d ever taste in my life. A good in-season pineapple in Panama is unlike anything you have tasted from your local grocer or stuffed into an overpriced cup of fruit salad. This deep, citrusy, almost coconut flavor emerges – a flavor I never knew existed in the pineapple – and it suddenly becomes hard not to eat the entire thing. The Panama pineapple: a product that, to this day, can still be purchased on Avenida Central near Casco Viejo for less than $0.25. A product, amidst Panama’s increased restaurant prices and amplified employee wages, that still remains exotically cheap and exceptionally satisfying. You can find them in any Casco Viejo chinito shop or up by the public market where the same man still parks every day during pineapple season.