The year is1962. Newlywed Joan Fry has joined husband Aaron Ward for a year in the village of Rio Blanco, deep in the rainforests of Belize. Twenty-years-old, innocent and unprepared, Fry is game for an adventure with Aaron, a budding anthropologist who models himself on Robert Jordan, Hemingway’s über-masculine protagonist in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Aaron’s persona makes for a rocky beginning: he forbids Fry from wearing slacks or smoking cigarettes, behaviors he fears would offend the Kekchi-speaking natives of Rio Blanco. Worse, he calls her Squirrel. He, in turn, is Bear-Bear. The nicknames, along with their patronizing tone on one side and coquettish acquiescence on the other, soon become nauseating. Fortunately for us, the marriage rapidly sours, ending the affectionate repartee, leaving only “Answer Man”, Fry’s jibe at Aaron’s smug all-knowingness.
How to Cook a Tapir is published under the University of Nebraska’s At Table series, which includes esteemed titles by Jane Grigson and Betty Fussell. It’s something of an odd fit: though food and cooking play a large role in village life, they are part of a larger picture. Equal attention is paid to the rituals surrounding farming, festivals, traditional clothing, childrearing, religion, and education. That Fry is able to evoke such a rich picture of village life 40 years after the fact is sufficiently interesting and admirable: it need not be crammed into the “foodie lit” genre.
And Fry does evoke a completely different, now largely vanished culture of Mayan and Mopan native people who intermarry and survive on very little. The Rio Blanco villagers practice slash-and-burn agriculture to farm corn, which they grind into tortillas. Meat is scarce; occasionally there are chickens, the rare pig, currassow, a kind of bird, a rodent called a gibnut, and once, mountain cow, something the village women refuse to eat. Desperate for meat, Fry cooks the mountain cow and finds it delicious—“like filet mignon”. She is knowingly eating rhinoceros. She also tastes the tapir of the title—also delicious.
Readers of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible will recognize Fry’s trajectory from horrified incomprehension to dismay at departure. Along the way, we meet the villagers who, though meticulously laid out at the beginning of Tapir in a sort of family tree, don’t flesh out into real people until we—and Fry—come to know them. Some speak fairly good English, thanks to the Catholic missionaries steadily attempting to eradicate native worship.
Others know a little Spanish, and though Fry never becomes fluent in Kekchi, she manages to communicate. Soon the couple is paying village women to provide cooked food and wash their laundry. Fry’s culinary skills are limited to opening canned soups, melting Knorr Bullion cubes in hot water and heating freeze-dried beef stroganoff. Aaron, meanwhile, dislikes tortillas, the village’s staple food. The couple compensates by spreading them with margarine and jam.
There are other adjustments. The villagers do not share American notions of physical space or privacy. Every day they fill Fry’s small hut, crowding her two benches, sprawling in the couple’s sleeping hammocks, thumbing magazines, staring at the very blond Fry, gaping as she uses a typewriter. Closing the door is considered a rude act; bathing takes place in the river, though men and women bathe separately. Initially Fry is driven crazy by strangers literally pulling her hair, but she soon grows accustomed to the endless parade.
The few times Aaron leaves her alone to visit other villages, the citizens of Rio Blanco react with near panic. A woman alone is bad luck. The village children are sent, steaming pots of food in hand, to spend the night with her. Directed by missionary Father Cull to teach the students English, Fry is horrified when a village father encourages her to lash his disobedient son. The father feels this will teach the child to behave, thus improving his chances at rising above poverty.
Fry does beat him, once, then decides this is one folkway she cannot accept. She also struggles with the indifferent treatment of children, who are cosseted as infants, then rather ignored, and domestic animals, who are maltreated.
Aaron Ward fares little better than the dogs. Curious, I searched the Internet for his name, finding nothing: perhaps Fry has changed his name. For his sake, I hope so, for he comes across as a caricature He-Man in the jungle, rather like Kingsolver’s Nathan Price. Price wanted to convert the heathens and ended up stark raving mad; while this fate doesn’t befall Aaron Ward, his stubborn refusal to see beyond a narrow anthropological framework renders him a limited, dislikable man whose blunt questions are met by blank stares and mumblings of “Pues, I don’t know.” His blundering wife makes more headway with simple observation and genuine affection.
At one point Fry claims herself the better anthropologist, and while she may be right, we as readers must take into account that she writes—with rancor—of an ex-husband, and that the events described transpired during the last gasps of a pre-feminist era.
So what else do the villagers eat? Fish wrapped in banana leaves, dried beans, lots of soups, rice, a native green called callaloo, rum, and a devastating moonshine concocted from fermented corn and sugarcane juice, which Fry gives a recipe for. Fry attempts a few dishes on her “stove”—essentially an open fire and some heated rocks. An attempt at cookies—lard, sugar, and tortilla dough—is a hit with the kids. And though her cooking gradually improves, we are led to understand that she only became a truly proficient cook after returning to the States.
Remarkably, despite never boiling water and eating foods produced in comparatively unsanitary conditions, Fry falls ill only once, after eating at a roadside restaurant outside Punta Gorda. Though husband and wife are sickened by tainted soup, they recover rapidly. But Aaron’s health takes beating: after stupidly attempting to climb a waterfall, he falls and is seriously injured, necessitating a mule ride to the nearest city for antibiotics. Later he contracts malaria, anemia, and experiences severe vitamin deficiencies leading to weakness and double vision.
Eventually the year draws to a close. The couple is set to return to their lives Stateside, their education at the University of Michigan, and their marriage. Returning home is reverse culture shock: the hard, gleaming surfaces of an airport bathroom, the way Aaron rules the household funds, demanding Joan return some much-needed clothing.
Finally, at a faculty party, a professor eyes her, turning to Aaron and remarking “She’s pretty. She’ll be an asset to your career.” In the end, she is not, fleeing Answer Man for a life in equine management.Yet the marriage, however ill-suited, did allow her a fascinating, unusual year that, in time, made for a fascinating, unusual book.