Eating Authors: Ellison Cooper

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Ellison Cooper

This week’s EATING AUTHORS guest and I share an odd bond. She did her undergraduate studies at the same small and eccentric school where I spent my first years as a professor. Alas, I left a couple years before she arrived, but I know the magic of the place well and I’ve no doubt that it affected her in ways both subtle and profound.

Ellison Cooper has a doctorate in anthropology, so among other things she can say she’s conducted research on the island of Yap. That’s some serious and cool-sounding street cred. From archaeology to cultural neuroscience, the study of ancient religions to human rights, murder investigation to wilderness K9 search and rescue, her full resume reads like a better version of Indiana Jones. It was only a matter of time that she wrote a book, once she paused long enough to do so.

Her first novel,Caged, is being published by Minotaur Books, and comes out one week from tomorrow. It features an FBI neuroscientist protagonist, manufactured DNA, near-death experiences, and psychopomps. What’s not to love? If we’re fortunate, it’s just the first of many more books to come.

LMS: Welcome, Ellison. I’m always especially excited to ask this question of anthropologists: What’s tour most memorable meal?

EC: This was a hard question because I’ve had so many amazing meals! But, rather than dwell on the amazing thiéboudienne (local fish and rice) I had in Bargny, Sénégal, or the unounet (coconut molasses candy) in Yap, Micronesia, I thought I would talk about the tomato I had once in Belize because it is honestly the most memorable food experience I’ve ever had.

Caged

When I was in graduate school, I lived way out in the jungles of Central America on a nature preserve right where Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize meet (called the Program For Belize, go if you ever get the chance!). Our camp was genuinely in the middle of nowhere, a two hour drive on rutted old logging roads from the nearest village. We lived in tents without electricity or running water while we were scouting and mapping lost Maya ruins. Because we were on a research grant, our budget only allowed us to make the long drive into town about once a month so we primarily lived on rice, dried beans, and canned veggies supplemented by the meat we (legally) hunted in the area. We would occasionally splurge on peanut butter and jelly or canned tuna, but that was it.

In the summer of ’97, I lived in that camp continuously for six months before I hopped on the back of the monthly truck heading into town. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some beans and rice, and I didn’t even realize how much I’d missed fresh fruits and veggies until a local woman approached our truck in town. She held a basket of fresh tomatoes and, on a whim, I decided to buy one.

The tomato was warm and still kind of covered with dirt, and I remember biting into it and literally gasping at the vivid taste. I swooned so long that I wasn’t able to catch the woman and buy more! Something about sitting on the hot metal of that truck in the scorching Belize sunshine, covered in road dust and months of jungle muck, eating that warm tomato just seared itself in my memory. Which is why a tomato is the most memorable meal of my life.

Thanks, Ellison. You know, I’ve spent my entire life defending the proposition that tomatoes are evil (not tomato sauce, mind you, pulverizing the fruit purifies it), but you almost convince me there might be exceptions. Almost.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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