A Not-so-familiar Taste of Home from a Panamanian Grocery Store

Since the days of the Panama Canal construction and administration (and before that, the railroad construction), bits of American culture have been sneaking into the Isthmus. It’s always interesting to see how these borrowings of culture and language, often modified and adapted once in Panama, end up manifesting themselves. Anyone familiar with the Panamanian town Arraijan, just west of the Bridge of the Americas, knows that its name came from what the Panamanians heard after asking Americans in the Canal Zone for directions to the place. “On the right hand side,” the Americans would say, which became Arraijan. The word camaron (shrimp) also refers to an odd job in Panama, since the Americans who used to live in the Zone would tell the Panamanians looking for extra money to “come around” for work.

A recent trip to a grocery store in Penonome, Panama revealed a treasure trove of Panama’s take on American cuisine. And when one talks of American cuisine, the obvious starting point is junk food. How well did it travel to Central America? Just ask the kids who beg their parents for Snackitos, an ice pop product whose label reads “contains no fruit juice.” Of course, the immediate attraction of this product is the pairing of an English word with the Spanish diminutive ending. These ice pops, imported from their neighbors in Costa Rica (another place where Americans have generously donated influence) appear to be faithful reproductions of the American version, down to the artificial color and flavor. But something about them rings distinctly of Latin America: they are made with sugar and not high fructose corn syrup. Hopefully the kids won’t notice that it’s not the real thing!

The States are more known for growing grapes than Panama, making grape juice an exotic treat. Therefore, it’s best to build up the mystique by branding it with a truly American name: Western. Even the saloon-style font of this Panamanian brand of imported Concord grape juice has been successfully aped.

Because of such marketing and packaging efforts, there’s no reason for Panamanians to think that the barroom brawls in lawless towns in the Wild West were over dames, or maybe a prematurely empty bottle of hooch. They were fought over bottles of pasteurized grape juice! And why not? The antioxidants must have come in handy when combating free radicals while robbing stagecoaches under the blaring sun of the afternoon.

Since there’s no better way to make a product look modern and American than by giving it an English name, a canning company chose the brand name Good Fish for its sardines. But these sardines were modern and American in name only: the sardines were imported from Peru and only packed somewhere in Panama, a country whose name means “abundance of fish.” I decided to move past such irony and sample the day’s purchase when I saw that the can had expired almost a year ago, sort of negating the supposed goodness. But I suppose that’s the fun of it. Like many American influences in Panama, what you get may not be what you expected.

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About OmnivorousTraveler

Darrin DuFord is a travel writer, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has won numerous awards and has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas (released in July 2016) and Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.
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