Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jungle Jim’s: An Oasis In Ohio

If you were born in America and have never really been anywhere else that’s all that different (Canada doesn’t count), then it might be hard to see the place through someone else’s eyes. Of course, this is true anywhere. Back when America was the sworn enemy of the USSR, a popular trope for the difference between the two cultures could be found in any number of anecdotes featuring the exposure of an Eastern European babushka fresh off the plane, to an American supermarket. Overwhelmed at the vast well-lit displays of fresh produce and especially meat (steaks), the lady would fall into a kind of stupefied shock at the mere possibility of such bounty — available to anyone, ordinary citizens, and not just party operatives on the black market.

Russian ladies admiring some meat

True or not, there’s a point to this story, and it’s not just to show off. Using food as the medium of awe demonstrates what was perceived to be a fundamental division between communism and the free market — the provision of basic foodstuffs. The message is that a free market allows for competition and therefore choice (hence the supermarket’s metropolis of aisles) where the consumer is king, as opposed to the State deciding who gets to eat what, like some kind of cafeteria gulag. Americans were fed the idea that ordinary Russian women spent most of their days in long lines in the snow shuffling towards a decrepit “store” full of empty shelves, walking away with whatever desperate item happened to be in stock that day for which a few rubles or a ration book token was paid. Dinner in the one-room apartment an extended family shared might have consisted of a single potato boiled in watery broth, say, washed down with gallons of virtually free vodka.

Russian supermarket full of food

Both sides are guilty of propaganda, naturally, and always were. There exists a bifurcation in both cultures between rich and poor, the over-stuffed and the hungry. It’s as if Jim Bonaminio (he of the Jungle) founded the place in 1971 specifically to provide the perfect place to stun the entire Russian population in one fell swoop, though it didn’t start out that way — it grew into the monster it is a little bit here, a little there, which explains the labyrinthine layout.

But if you look closely at this stereotype you will see something else: the message that food is either too serious to be the stuff of fun or joy, or that because it is central to life, food IS fun and joyful. This is expressed in the very fabric of the store, and thus the consumer experience. The dank empty shelves of the Russian grocery advertise the folly of deprivation in the world’s breadbasket. The groaning shelves of the American supermarket advertise the folly of excess aimed at a very slim palate.

It's a giant singing soup can on a swing

The modern antithesis of this paradox can be found at Jungle Jim’s, the eponymous Cincinnati market which never fails to reduce me to a confusion of metaphors. It is the Versailles of supermarkets. It is also the Disneyland of supermarkets. If Elvis were a supermarket, he would be Jungle Jim’s (actually, Elvis can be found all over Jungle Jim’s, and you don’t even have to look very hard to see him). If Jungle Jim’s were a hairstyle, it would be the mullet in reverse: party on top; business below. I can’t help but want to see this place through the eyes of that anecdotal babushka every time I go there in order to soak up a sense of utter wonderment and awe.

Plums at Jungle Jim's

The first six feet or so from the ground up is for serious foodie shopping and is filled with produce and people. A general rule of thumb is that if it’s edible and comes from Planet Earth, they have it. Somewhere. And we’re not talking rubbish (although the Candy Shop area does have copious amounts of novelty items of questionable provenance and toxicity); we’re talking produce of the highest bountiful order. We’re talking baskets of peaches covered in white peach fluff in peach season that look like something out of an Old Master painting. We’re talking perfectly formed shallots the size of my whole hand. Neither of us has the time for me to list, even by accident, all of the kinds of foods sold there, but suffice it to say they stock 1,400 different cheeses. And they probably rounded that figure down, not up.

In case you need to go. Or even if you don't. 

But hovering right above your head is a whimsical world of profound juvenilia whose kitchness beggars belief. If you can pry your eyeballs off the avocados for a second and look up (right above the case of bamboo stalks, mangosteens and dragon fruit), you’ll realize you’re being serenaded by a display of giant stuffed animals from popular cereals (the Lucky Charms bunny, for example) playing musical instruments and actually opening and closing their gaping furry maws in time to the lyrics. Then again, if Jungle Jim could possibly squeeze a cliché to death in aid of the ambiance, he would, and does. Look up in the English section and you will find yourself peering into the hollowed out tree of Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, replete with much purloined treasure waiting to be trickled down to the poor. Don’t get me started about the bathrooms.

It's a really tall singing monkey Elvis.

I have come to think of the opposite faces of Jungle Jim’s as balancing each other; that in order to distract from the truly astonishing bounty at floor level, one has to occasionally look up and laugh, or else be reminded that heaven can’t possibly be found above our heads but at our feet. Well, if your idea of heaven is being able to buy a tub of pig’s brains, a ready-to-cook turducken, and a durian all in the same place, it is. If you’re the sort of foodie who salivates at the thought of an entire store dedicated to honey, say, or butter, or balsamic vinegars — then this is the place for you. An entire section is just gluten-free.

I have not mentioned the cigar store, the post-office, the wines and liquors (the largest collection in the entire United States), the cookwares, the cooking school, or any of the other things Jungle Jim’s has to offer, because like a souk, it’s best left with a little mystery, a few corners to turn down and get lost in. I have not mentioned the inexplicable fiberglass pool of exotic animals one walks through to exit the building. Or the award-winning bathrooms. Or the monorail. Don’t ask. All in all, the splendor runs to a whopping seven acres. Pushing a heavily-laden cart behind me on my most recent visit, I heard a guy tell his companion, “I see how people spend four hours in there.” My advice? Eat in advance. Don’t go hungry. Wear comfortable shoes. Grab a cart. Let at least half the things you fill it with be things you never heard of before.

Then come back. Bring some Ruskies with you.

Here’s Jim himself telling us all about it: JUNGLE JIM'S

No comments:

Post a Comment