How to Cook a Tapir by Joan Fry

Readers of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible will recognize Fry’s trajectory from horrified incomprehension to dismay at departure.

How to Cook a Tapir

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Subtitle: A Memoir of Belize
Author: Joan Fry
Price: $24.95
Length: 294
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780803219038
US publication date: 2009-04

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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