Dec 21, 2008
How to Cook a Tapir
A Memoir of Belize
by Joan Fry
Interview with the author, by Colette Kase
Five years or so ago, I joined an online forum about Belize. This was in the early days, when Maya and I were doing research on starting a new life and we had set our sights on Belize. It was through this forum that I met Joan Fry.
Joan is an award winning author. She has written several books about horses and it was this shared interest in animals that sparked a fascinating, fun, stimulating and wonderful modern electronic pen pal relationship. Joan and I would discuss her book projects, my writing efforts, our animals, our shared irritations and gradually developed a strong friendship.
It was a surprise though, when Maya and I were standing in Belize International Airport, waiting for our flight back to England after one of our reconnaissance trips to San Pedro, when I heard someone shout my name. I turned to see a familiar, yet strangely unrecognisable face approaching me with a big smile. It turned out to be Joan Fry. Fortunately, I am somewhat more recognisable than she is. We were both very excited to get the chance to meet, totally unexpectedly, and this only proved to strengthen our friendship over the years.
Joan is an amazing writer and I was thrilled when she really dug in and started to work on her most recent book, How to Cook a Tapir, which is a memoir of her time living in Belize in the 1960's. She had tempted me with interesting snippets about her experiences but I couldn't wait for her to put it all into print. I probably encouraged her to the point for being a nag, but I am just absolutely delighted to be able to help introduce this wonderful new book.
How on earth did you end up in Belize in the first place?
I married an anthropologist who was interested in studying the Maya. Actually he was my high school sweetheart--two years older than I was, and did he ever use that fact to his advantage! The early 1960's were "the good old days" when fathers and husbands always knew best. But--I digress. My husband had spent the previous summer living with a Kekchi family in Crique Sarco and had met the local priest, Fr. John Paul Cull. Father Cull promised me a teaching job, even though I was only a sophomore in college and not Catholic.
What did you think when you first discovered that you were going to Belize? Had you even heard of it?
The country was called British Honduras in those days, and no, I'd never heard of it. Nobody in family had either, except my grandfather. He'd been a sailor in his younger days and remembered taking mahogany out of Stann Creek. It was fun for me when I actually saw Stann Creek, although I was violently seasick at the time and couldn't properly appreciate it.
What were some of your preconceptions about Belize?
I didn't have many, although there had been a spate of jungle movies when i was a kid, and they inevitably featured tarantulas the size of toy poodles. I've always been terrified of spiders. The first time I saw a real tarantula was when I was washing my hair in a stone "shower" underneath the cistern in our boarding house in Belize city. I thought some of the stones were covered with black moss until I splashed shampoo on one and it moved.
What was the biggest culture shock?
I was one of the first white women most of the women of Santa Elena had ever seen, and they gawked at me nonstop--I was their entertainment. Being a blue-eyed blond who was taller than most of them made them even more curious about me. I was never alone. At least one person was always in the house with me, and if my husband and I walked to the Rio Blanco pool for a swim, half a dozen kids would follow us. That went on for months. Actually it went on as long as I lived there, although by the time we left, the people who visited genuinely wanted to visit, not stare.
Who was your first real friend in Belize and when did you realise that you had become 'friends'?
Her name was Lucia Bah, and she was a neighbor who spoke fairly good English. Her daughter was one of my students. I realized we'd become friends one day when she confided that she didn't like another neighbor's husband because he beat his wife and kids so violently. Yes, it was gossip, but it was also the first time a woman trusted me enough, and was interested enough in hearing my thoughts about something, to initiate a conversation. Lucia also taught me to cook. I owe her a lot. I wish she'd lived long enough to see this book.
Did your husband (at the time) prepare you sufficiently for your experiences or did he mislead you at all about what life would be like?
He showed me photos but made everything sound very romantic--and there's really no way to convey the humidity, the smells, the feel of the jungle through photos alone. I had done virtually no traveling (except to Ontario, Canada, which was like traveling to upstate NY), and was in no way prepared for any of it--the open sewage canals in Belize City, the caste system (don't forget, BZ was an English colony then), and particularly the poverty of the Maya. They were subsistence farmers--very few of them even used money. They bartered for what they needed. My husband insisted that I wear skirts and blouses because that's what the Maya women wore and wouldn't allow me to smoke because the Maya women didn't. He was wrong on both counts. Most women didn't wear blouses at all, and they smoked home-rolled cigars.
What is your favourite Belizean recipe and why?
Escabeche. It has a unique taste (each cook arrives at a different balance between chile pepper and vinegar), and to me, believe it or not, it's a comfort food.
Do you still eat Belizean food? What foods do you miss from Belize?
I still make escabeche from time to time, and I still like making and eating soup of all kinds. Especially when the weather gets cold. I love chili but hold the beans. I do miss tamalitos--green corn tamales--but the food I miss most is corn tortillas. They don't taste authentic even in the Mexican restaurants that have a token Mexican woman in front making "fresh" ones. As for corn tortillas you buy in the store--have you ever taken a look at what's in them? I'm looking at a package right now, ant it lists nine ingredients! What the hell is amylase? All they should contain is corn treated with lime (the mineral, not the fruit), and water. The best are incredibly fragrant with a soft, moist texture. I'm drooling!
You clearly have had a lifelong love for Belize since coming here in the 60's, what is it about Belize that has kept you enthralled all these years?
"Enthralled" is a good word. I've asked myself that question, and I still can't give you a definitive answer. I'm sure the Maya continue to fascinate me because they had a lot to do with forming my values. I was an only child and a girl and had led a very sheltered life in the States. But in Belize, I was alone a lot--my husband was always off conducting ethnographic studies. So when I had a decision to make, I only had myself and the Maya to fall back on. I made some bad decisions but more often than not I made the right ones, probably because there was no authority around to tell me any different.
Did you really cook a Tapir?
Yes. And it was delicious!
How to Cook a Tapir - A Memoir of Belize, by Joan Fry will be released in April 2009. The book can be pre-ordered from Amazon, which happens to be offering a great pre-publication price. To order click here.
Happy Holidays from Colette, Maya, Buddica, Midas and Octavius.