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Welcome to Jungle Jim's

You don't just shop at this international food mart in deepest Ohio—you go on safari

Hungry again. really hungry. I scan the refrigerator: plain bagels, past their prime; slices of American cheese, individually wrapped to keep flavor out; imitation grape jelly.

Guess it's time to go shopping. But I m tired of trying to please two kids who won’t eat anything spicier than Spam. I'm in the mood for something exotic. Instead of plain meat, I think I'll get a few kangaroo steaks. In lieu of potatoes, how about yucca from Peru? Drooling on, I fantasize about South African guava halves. In heavy syrup, of course. I've always loved the creamy Italian dessert tiramisu. Maybe I’ll pick up a six-pack or two.

With visions of German marzipan piggies dancing in my head, I take off for that well-known center of groceries from around the globe, Ohio. There, a half-hour north of Cincinnati, alongside car dealerships and strip malls, the whole world can be found under one roof. Whether it's kumquats or litchi nuts, strange seaweed or everyday lutefisk, if it isn't at Jungle Jim's International Farmers Market, it must not be edible.

The average supermarket may set aside an aisle or two for Thai noodles, Irish tea and jars of mango chutney, but at Jungle Jim's, more than 100,000 items from 60 countries are spread across acres of concrete. Jim's has thousands of imported canned goods, and meats ranging from ostrich to boar to rattlesnake. More than 20 aisles are devoted to individual countries whose wares include scores of strange sauces and bags of gritty grains. Jim's has 1,400 meats and cheeses, 800 beers, 100 kinds of honey.

Driving into Fairfield, Ohio, on Highway 4, I see three life-size fiberglass elephants standing in a blue concrete pool in front of a one-story stone facade. Gorilla statues perch on nearby rocks. Towering faux giraffes look down as I approach the entrance. Then a smiling voice says, "Hi, boys and girls! Welcome to Jungle Jim's!"

Inside, I find Elvis, "the King." Standing on a bamboo stage, guitar in hand, the eight-foot-tall mechanical lion is crooning "All Shook Up." Following colorful animal tracks painted on the floor, I head deeper into the mysterious jungle.

This wacky, multicultural cornucopia is the brainchild of Jim Bonaminio, a determined entrepreneur who has been in sales since his mother pushed him around in a baby buggy while selling Fuller brushes in Cleveland. A can-do kid, Jim peddled dried cattails for a penny apiece, and washed golf balls before selling them back to the golfers who'd lost them on the course. In his late teens, he turned to produce, working 18-hour days at roadside stands he built from old dime-store display tables. "A salesman's got to dream," Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman. And Jim Bonaminio always dreamed of owning a real market.

In 1975 he bought a lot in Fairfield and built a small produce store on it. He already had his nickname. "Daddy, who's that man?" a little girl asked one day when she saw Jim emerging from a walk-in freezer at her father's warehouse, steam clinging to his broad shoulders like mist in a rain forest. "Oh, him. He's Jungle Jim." The name stuck. For the next dozen years, Jim's store grew beyond produce to embrace a full line of domestic groceries. Then, in 1988, Bonaminio began to leap borders.

“I never thought about becoming an international market,” he tells me as we sit in his office overlooking the aisles, “until I started going into specialty shops in Chicago, places with 800 cheeses or 100 kinds of olives. I’d come back here and say, ‘Why can’t we have that?’ I wanted to be the best in each food department.”

He probably is. Many supermarkets sell Ugli fruit, the Jamaican tangelo. But Jim’s also has durian, big spiky fruit from Southeast Asia that have to be kept in the freezer lest they stink up the entire produce section (Smithsonian, September 1999). I can get a few different rices at my local market, but Jim’s has a Great Wall of Rice, two dozen varieties in 25-, 50- and 100-pound sacks, stacked like dog food, filling one wall to the ceiling. And while the music you listen to in other markets is as canned as the tuna, Jim puts a little pizzazz into his. Off in the distance, I hear “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Later, while sampling the ravioli, I enjoy being serenaded by Luigi, the Italian chef. He’s mechanical, of course.

Along with being an impresario of foods, Jungle Jim is also a collector of junk. When he’s not working 80 hours a week, he says, “I go junkin’.” His collection fills two barns next to his store. Spilling into the market — which now covers four acres — Jim’s junk helps give this cosmopolitan emporium the kitschy atmosphere of a yard sale: a 40-foot cabin cruiser fronting the seafood section, a full-sized ricksha perched above the Chinese-food section, an Amish buggy next to the meat department.

It’s time to start shopping. I buy Queso Manchego, a hard cheese from Spain, and some salted watermelon seeds from the Middle East. Going Down Under, I pick up Koala Tea from Australia. Tightening my veldt, I find canned youngberry jam from South Africa. Turning tropical, I buy some tamarind from Thailand.

Usually it’s unwise to grocery shop when you’re hungry, but at Jungle Jim’s it pays because of all the free samples. I try several cheeses, Luigi’s ravioli and an Italian wedding soup. Then, up against the Great Wall of Rice, I check out several hot sauces ranging from “mild” to “inferno.”

Just because the food at Jungle Jim’s is more interesting than the stuff my kids eat doesn’t mean I have to like all of it. Monkey gland sauce from South Africa? No thanks. Swamp cabbage pickles from Florida? Sorry, but I’m allergic to anything grown in a swamp. A can of green boiled peanuts? I prefer my peanuts any way but boiled. And although I might like the Asian produce — lemongrass, daikon radishes and some black rope of a root — I’m afraid that after eating it I might never be hungry again.

According to Jungle Jim, recent waves of immigration have brought many new customers to his market. If America is a melting pot, Jungle Jim’s is a multicultural salad bowl. In the cheese sections, downwind from the Gorgonzola, I hear a man and a woman speak French, pricing Brie and Boursin. I hear Hindi in the Indian aisle, Spanish near the Mexican mole sauce, Japanese at the sushi bar. “Back when I started putting international foods here, most American shoppers didn’t even know what romaine lettuce was,” Jim recalls. “To them, that was exotic.” A typical week sees tens of thousands of shoppers pass through the market. Get there early on Saturdays and Sundays. And for those of us who are still learning to venture beyond meat and potatoes, Jungle Jim’s offers cooking classes in several cuisines. Yet when it comes to foreign foods, many of Jim’s customers need no introduction.

Growing up in India, Falguni Oza learned how to cook samo, an Indian rice. She boils it, adds green chile, ginger and sour yogurt. Oza could buy samo at the Indian store in Sycamore, Ohio, where her husband, Rashmi, is a chemical engineer, but then she’d have to make a separate trip to Jungle Jim’s for the Belgian chocolates sitting in her cart. Over in the Asian section, Lisa Chu has come all the way from Louisville, Kentucky, 125 miles away, to fill her cart with things she says she couldn’t buy anywhere else, including pea tips, galong and Asian yali pears. Meanwhile, Donna Spenny has her cart filled with French cheeses, ground buffalo meat and, true to her heartland heritage, Stove Top Stuffing Mix. Spenny is an adventurous shopper. “If something looks good, I’ll give it a try," she tells me.

After three hours on safari, I follow the animal tracks to the checkout counter. Elvis is still singing “All Shook Up," and when I find out I’ve spent $128, I’m pretty shook up too; that ought to be enough to put some spice in my family's meals for a while. Back home, my kids find the blood oranges "gross," yet youngberry jam passes the test in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But wait! I forgot the kangaroo meat! And the guava halves! And how could I have come home without Creole hot pepper sauce from Dominica? Oh well. I guess I’ll just have to get them on my next shopping trip to the jungle.

By Bruce Watson

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