The official Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook and the organization’s various country guides tell new volunteers how to do many things related to their service, from dressing appropriately to getting proper vaccinations. But there’s not much in the literature about food.
So where should a volunteer turn if she needs to know what do to with uncooked fufu from the market? Or if she finds herself craving pancakes in sub-Saharan Africa? She turns to the wisdom of her predecessors. Because, chances are, at the start of her service, she was given a newly-printed copy of a country-specific cookbook, written by volunteers who came years before her, and updated frequently since. Though the cookbooks often look simple, with copy-shop plastic ring bindings and MS Word layouts, they’re intricate products of their environments. And they’re good for much more than cooking. Peace Corps cookbooks are handmade guides for personal survival and world peace.
More Than Recipes
The Peace Corps itself does not produce them, but unofficial, volunteer-made cookbooks exist in most, if not all, of the 65 countries the Corps operates in, according to the organization. The volunteers create the books and keep them up to date, then give them to new volunteers as they arrive.
The books vary by country, but they tend to feature a mix of indigenous cuisine (the book for Tanzania has a recipe for Kachumbari) and approximations of American favorites (the volunteers in Armenia have a recipe for pizza rolls).
Many of the recipes are simple—small lists of ingredients followed by a handful of steps or a short paragraph of directions—to accommodate for the limited budgets, tools, and cooking devices volunteers have. And for the most part, they are printed on paper, not online, because in many locations, Googling yam recipes is not an option. (See How Millennials are Driving the Digital Cooking Revolution.)
But the most important feature of the books isn’t the recipes (though each book I’ve seen has enough options to keep a two-year service gastronomically interesting). A cookbook for a young volunteer in a remote section of a foreign country has to serve different needs than a cookbook for a well-supplied home chef, or even for an away-from-home-for-the-first-time college student. The openings of Peace Corps cookbooks read like survival guides. There are essays on proper nutrition, lists of essential vitamins and minerals and what foods they can be found in, translations of ingredients into native languages, and instructions on where to shop, complete with estimated costs for ingredients so volunteers don’t spend more than their stipends.
Some of the books even give explanations of the most basic cooking concepts, from roasting to filleting to baking to boiling.
Getting to their assigned country “was the first time some of the volunteers had cooked for themselves,” says Fan Yang, who revised and edited the Peace Corps Togo cookbook, Where There Is No Whopper. The name is a takeoff on the remote care handbook Where There Is No Doctor, which the Peace Corps distributes in some countries.
“[Some volunteers] had no idea tomato paste wasn’t the same as spaghetti sauce,” Yang says.
‘The Most Useful Thing’
Yang served in Togo from 2006 to 2008, and she was stationed in Chad the year before that. When she arrived, Peace Corps officials gave her a demonstration of how to cook on the charcoal grills native to Chad and they handed her Chad’s volunteer-made cookbook, At Least It’s Not Boule (a ball of rice eaten in the country). “I think the cookbook is one of the most useful things Peace Corps gives you to settle in,” Yang says.
Yang used the book, but she also found a use for it outside of her kitchen. She taught village women how to cook small treats they could sell at markets. That led to her teaching them how to run a small business.
And since the goal of the Peace Corps is to build friendship and peace by representing America, and by learning from other cultures, Yang cooked for others.
“I made calzones for my host family in Chad once. They thought that was really, really weird,” she says. “Mac and cheese went over like a dead weight.”
But it bonded them. And volunteers often bonded over cooking parties, when they gathered to assemble the taste of a home that’s thousands of miles away.
A Guide for Making a Cookbook
When Yang decided to take on revising the Togo cookbook, she had to not only collect and curate recipes, she had to put together a guide for living under constrained, sometimes dangerous situations—a guide that wouldn’t just fill volunteers’ stomachs, but save them from malnutrition, and help them build friends and promote peace.
So why, if the book is so important, does the Peace Corps not make it an official assignment for volunteers, or even issue an official cookbook?
Because there are other tasks to do that more explicitly save lives and promote peace. Peace Corps employees arrange for volunteers’ service, help with medical emergencies, and generally run a multinational service organization. There are explicit survival guides to give out. The Peace Corps certainly approves of the volunteer books. In a statement, the Corps says it encourages food-based cultural exchanges for volunteers. And the organization hands out the books to volunteers and provides space to work on them.
And the volunteers already do a pretty good job making cookbooks without official guidance. They’ve taken what might be a standard cookbook, or just a collection of volunteers’ favorite recipes, and turned it into an essential guide for life. The things that can make a regular cookbook indispensable in your home kitchen—a relative’s notes in the margins, an inspiring opening essay, a surprising use for tarragon—are inherent in the very nature of the Peace Corps cookbooks. They’re group projects, compiled from collected tastes, used in formative times, passed down for generations, and saved as mementos.
“After I left Peace Corps, I went to a friend’s birthday party. He was one generation after me in Togo and he knew generations who were after me. I met volunteers and they all knew me as the one who had edited the Whopper,” Yang says. “That was not what I expected to be remembered for in the Peace Corps.”
My wife served with Yang in Togo, and when she returned to the U.S., she brought some small gifts her host family had given her, a few yards of waxed fabric, and a battered copy of Where There Is No Whopper. We’ve acquired more cookbooks in the years since, and they all stand next to the dogeared, spiral-bound guide with a pixelated picture of a hamburger on the front. It gets just as much use as its shelfmates.
There’s a chart in the front that says what to do if you’re cooking and don’t have a bulb of garlic or a fresh egg. That’s handy if the ingredients aren’t available in your region, or if you (like me) forgot to check the refrigerator before starting on a new recipe.
Plus, the pancake recipe is good, no matter what country you’re in.
Gabe Bullard is a senior producer at National Geographic. He’s also on Twitter.