Sunday, July 11, 2010

scientists' dinner table conversation - and a one-liner for the real dorks among you

What do we talk about at the dinner table in the field every night? How do we come up with new topics of conversation, after spending weeks on end together, 24/7, especially without current events to fall back on (though some of us do check the news online fairly regularly)? Some of us have spent years together, collectively, in this camp, 24/7....

We can basically divide our conversations into three catgeories: field stories, work, and food. Oh, and just getting-to-know-each-other kinds of conversations, especially with students/visitors/etc.

Much of the time we tell and re-tell field adventure stories. Two of the scientists here, John and Alison (who are married), have spent years doing work in a variety of places in Africa (Congo, Botswana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania,  and more) since the 1970s. Kay and I have probably had the most time on game reserves with wild animals, including ones that could kill people with one well-placed foot (hippos), tusk (elephants), horn (buffaloes), or tooth (lions). There are stories of car misadventures, students-in-the-field social drama , close encounters of the animal kind, tales of working with famous paleoanthropologists, all kinds of stories. I especially like John's stories of his time in the 70s with the Bushmen in Botswana - which often involve him trying to shoot a wild animal and missing embarrassingly, or being chased up a tree, or both - and I'm always impressed that he and Alison  can speak the Bushmen's click language to each other. Many of these stories are told year after year, especially to wide-eyed, captivated students in the field for the first time, but I never tire of them. It's impossible to tire of John's genuine, infectious laugh, and he sure seems to enjoy laughing at himself!

We also spend a lot of tine talking about work. How the excavations are going, what's been found that day, what the plans are for the next day -- as well as larger questions in paleoanthropology. What were handaxes used for, anywayAre Homo erectus and Homo ergaster really a single species? Is the first appearance of a novel behavior (like using pigments) the important data point, or is the timing of it becoming a widespread behavior more important? 

We also spend a lot of time at the dinner table (and lunch table, and breakfast table, and in camp in general) talking about food. Don't get me wrong, the food in this camp is *great* - but a few of us like to cook, so we're always thinking of ways to improve. We have a few food rotations:
- 3 different breakfasts 2x per week: cereal & toast (Monday & Thursday) / oatmeal & toast (Wednesday & Saturday) / eggs & toast (Tuesday & Friday), with a special breakfast - French toast! - and sleeping in a bit on Sundays, our one day off per week
- 2 different lunches that alternate every other day: salad with fresh-baked rolls and sides of cheese, avocado, and small 'minute' steaks / 'safari njema', which means 'have a nice trip' in Swahili and is our camp's name for a mix of rice, meat, veggies, and tomato sauce)
- 2 set dinners per week: fish & chips on Tuesdays since we get it fresh from Nairobi that day, and baked macaroni & cheese with veggies on Sundays
- And several random dinner options on the other 5 nights per week, including: pork chops; roasted chicken; chicken stew; pasta with meat sauce; gitau - a traditional Kamba dish made of beans, corn, and green beans (I think?) all mashed together, usually served with beef stew and sukuma wiki, local greens similar to kale. These come with sides like roasted carrots and potatoes, curried veggies, rice,  chapatis (sort of like naan, made of flour, water and oil), and ugali (a Kenyan staple made of cornmeal).
- And by the way, the cooks make amazing desserts: apple pie! pineapple upside-down cake! mango cobbler! Every Tuesday, fresh strawberries and cream! Ah, the field delights. Occasionally one of us researchers will even bring ice cream back from Nairobi - it's usually part melted by the time it gets to camp, but we can stick it in the freezer (we have a pressurized gas powered freezer, and two fridges) until dinner. The cooks also make a mean chocolate birthday cake for those of us who celebrate during the field season. :)

The cooks also welcome us into the kitchen to help and teach them new dishes. This summer I've made bruschetta, garlic bread, grilled cheese, BLTs (that was a big hit!), Chinese chicken salad, and a bean/corn/avocado/etc. salad. One of the students made Cincinnati chili last week and that was a big hit too, so we plan to do it again.  And, as John said, "We spend so much time talking about food because there's nothing to gossip about in camp! No one's in love with each other!" Presumably that excludes John and Alison. :).

There are also a lot of dorky one-liners that crack us all up. One that sticks in my mind from this season comes from Kay. Rick caught me staring off into space during tea time one late afternoon, and gave me a gentle tease about spacing out. Kay quipped "well, archaeologists may flake out, but taphonomists just ossify." Get it? Archaeologists study stone FLAKES. Taphonomists study bones (which OSSIFY - uh, turn into bone, but ossify can mean just stiffen and harden in colloquial language - over time). It's funny. Really. :D