Exploring Ohio GeneFoods

The History of Jungle Jim’s: Homeland Cooking from Around the World: GeneFoods #4

If you are looking to try experimenting with cooking the cuisine from your ancestors’ homelands, you can search your town for international ingredients, buy from Amazon, or have an incredible, theme park-like shopping experience and try Jungle Jim’s, if you live in or near Ohio. Here is the history of this remarkable store.

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One of the wonderful things about genealogy is discovering your ancestral homelands. Remember, unless one is Native American, one’s ancestors always came from another country before coming to North America, and it was in the recent past (usually the past three to four centuries, which is relatively recent, genealogically speaking). Learning where our ancestors originated opens up so many intriguing things to research and try, including customs, traditions, methods of dress, and food. Food is one of the biggest pleasures, and many people do want to try the food of their ancestors.

There are many great cookbooks out there on international cuisine, and you should definitely try them. They allow you to make and sample the foods your ancestors ate in their homelands, and it brings you closer to them. It also lets you know a little bit more about what their lives were like, and who they were as people. However, obtaining international food ingredients can sometimes be a challenge in the United States. While some supermarkets have small international food sections, the selection usually isn’t great. There are country-specific markets in some towns where you can get what you need, but you usually need to live in a big city to access these places easily.

If you are really interested in making the cuisine of your ancestors, and even discovering some new foods of their homelands you may not have known about, and live in or near Ohio, a wonderful place to go that is easily accessible to a lot of people is Jungle Jim’s. Rather than just ordering what you need from Amazon, Jungle Jim’s gives you the opportunity to explore a wide variety of international foods in person, and even sample them, while discovering new foods from your ancestral homelands you never knew existed. It is a terrific place to get in touch with the culinary side of your genealogy.

Jungle Jim’s is officially called Jungle Jim’s International Market. It was formerly a farmer’s market of the same name. It is a huge international supermarket located in Fairfield, Ohio, and has a second, smaller location in Union Township near Cincinnati. Its primary location is known as a “theme park of food.” The store was founded in 1971 by a man named Jim Bonaminio, whose nickname was “Jungle Jim.” It started as a tiny produce stand and has since become a huge store that stocks more than 180,000, about a third of which are international foods, and the primary location has more than 300,000 square feet of space. That’s about six and a half acres of store space stocked with all kinds of food from all the far-flung places on the planet.

It has a lot of features to it that stand out to visitors, such as one of the largest collections of wine in a supermarket in the United States, tanks of live seafood, and even a cooking school housed on the premises. People flock to Jungle Jim’s, with about 82,000 people coming through the doors each week. These are mostly people who are passionate about food, and who are commonly referred to as “foodies.” Because the store has so many foods that are difficult to find elsewhere in the state or even tri-state area, customers have been known to drive from miles away, coming in from other towns and even across the borders from other states to shop at Jungle Jim’s. Their Asian and European foods are particularly difficult to find in the United States, and especially in high demand at the store among its loyal shoppers.

While the store is referred to as a theme park of food, it actually does resemble a theme part in appearance. This is thanks to the wide array of unusual and delightful displays they have there. The entrance, for example, has replicas of animals that sometimes roar (thanks to speakers behind them), and a small waterfall in the background that makes splashing sounds as people enter the store. Once you are inside the store, there are a few animatronic displays that have cult followings, like an animatronic lion that sings Elvis songs, and a rock band made up of characters from General Mills cereal boxes. There is also an animatronic human named Pedro, and three animatronic blackbirds to delight the store’s guests.

Sections of the store have unique entrances all their own. The European sections have entrances represented by the architectural styles of those countries, while the Mexican section has an adobe façade and a wood-framed cantina. It is almost like visiting the international pavilion at Epcot at Disney World, except on a smaller scale—though it doesn’t feel smaller when you are in the store. Each section is like a mini-visit to the country it represents.

The store was expanded in the 1990s, and now has a strip mall on one side of it. The strip mall has all kinds of other stores in it, such as a Starbucks, a CiCi’s Pizza, and a Hallmark store. Just outside the store is the restored Lion Country Safari Monorail from what was once a local attraction called Wild Animal Habitat at King’s Island. The store has an Oscar Event Center, which hosts wine tastings and concerts in its 15,000 square feet of space; this addition to the store was built in 2007.

The second, smaller satellite Jungle Jim’s store was planned in 2005, but abandoned in 2007 because of lack of work on the site. However, interest in a second location picked up again a few years after, and the satellite location finally opened at the site of the former Bigg’s Place Mall in Eastgate in 2012.

Jungle Jim’s is somewhat of an institution to those who shop there, and the people who come are devotees. The store is so popular that it has been featured on TV numerous times, including on Unwrapped on the Food Network, Good Morning America on ABC, and Modern Marvels on the History Channel. If you are looking for a place to experiment with making the cuisine of your ancestors, this is definitely the place to do it.

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Will Moneymaker

Will established Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has helped genealogy researchers for over 25 years. He is also a freelance photographer, husband of twenty-eight years, father of four children, and has one grandchild.