Guest Post: Oxfam’s Recipes from Many Lands: Tasting the Third World

In 1976, Oxfam published Recipes from Many Lands, a cookbook featuring 108 recipes from more than 43 developing countries. Oxfam’s Education Department produced this book as an educational tool to engage students of all ages in Britain with the Third World. Within a world divided, this book was meant to promote international understanding among young people. As the author, Dulcie James, stated in her introduction, “The present world is one in which men and nations are facing the problem of living together. In a world torn by strife, with thermo-nuclear weapons and inter-continental ballistic missiles, we are still fighting. But the war we are fighting is against hatred, racial discrimination, poverty, hunger, disease, religious intolerance, superstition, ignorance, bitterness, cultural separatism, and chauvinism.” Food, Oxfam’s educational team believed, was one way with which to combat such social ills and divisions and increase cross-cultural understanding. Through the multisensory experience of food, Oxfam invited students to consider the lives of other people in a way that went beyond textbooks, in a way that made the realities of foreign places more tangible (and flavourful).

The concept of the book is straightforward. It is 115 pages long and includes not only “recipes from many lands” (including countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America), but also statistics on each of the countries or regions represented (including Oxfam’s activities there), a glossary of terms, diagrams of the more exotic ingredients, a map demonstrating where the recipes came from alongside the locations of Oxfam-funded development projects, and a note to teachers on how to best use the book. Recipes came from multiple sources, including individuals presumably native to the countries represented, government bodies (such as the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Information), and nongovernment organizations (such as the Catholic Institute for International Relations). Once collected, the recipes were likely modified to suit the British classroom setting. There, depending on how the teacher chose to focus the lesson, students not only learned the taste of “authentic” Nigerian Yoruba stew, for example, but they could also discover the nutritional value of okra (a key ingredient), the social composition of Nigeria (what does “Yoruba” mean, after all...) or why an oil-exporting country and OPEC member only had an average life expectancy of 37 years (as compared to Britain’s 71 years) and a literacy rate of 20%.

This last question touches on Oxfam’s core mandate – poverty alleviation and social justice. While children and youth in Britain were asked to consider the foods and cultures of other countries in the name of international understanding, they were simultaneously prompted to think about the malnutrition, poverty, and inequality that many people around the world were facing. At least this is what Oxfam’s education staff hoped would happen. Nigeria’s statistics, stated beside recipes for yam salad, banana and coconut pudding, and Yoruba stew, serve as a subtle yet stark reminder of this. Through this juxtaposition of fact and food, the Education Department team wanted to motivate students to think critically about international development issues and consider what kinds of action were necessary to fight the war against poverty and intolerance. Armed with the cookbook’s examples of Oxfam’s successful international assistance programs, such as school-feeding schemes for children in Nigeria and agricultural training programs in Colombia, many turned to Oxfam for guidance and leadership.

Through its educational work, then, Oxfam tapped into the idealism and energy of young people in the 1960s and 1970s, casting them as a resource and moulding them as ambassadors for its cause. Recipes from Many Lands, while perhaps containing more than one bland recipe, was thus actually quite flavourful politically. Oxfam was not alone in this kind of educational outreach – by the mid-1960s Christian Aid, Save the Children, the United Nations Association, and War on Want, among others, all amped up their school programs. This joint endeavor of “development education” demonstrated an increasing consensus in Britain for the real need for action towards international development and international responsibility. Similar initiatives were also taking place in other countries – according to historian Tamara Myers, for example, nongovernment organizations in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s were also actively recruiting children and youth to become internationally aware and fight against global poverty.

Whether a professional cook was involved in the actual writing of this cookbook is not stated, although some, such as Claudia Roden, are mentioned as recipe sources. The author, James, had a diploma in social work, while the book’s editor, Marieke Clarke, was a long time Oxfam staff member. But the main point of Recipes from Many Lands was not actually the recipes. Rather, as the book’s introduction and Third World statistics make clear, it was an attempt at personalizing international development issues for young people in Britain and promoting international understanding. In the words of James, “Various ways of learning to understand one another should be found so that we can learn to live together peacefully. We must not only talk about peace and understanding, but we must think, feel and practice peace and understanding...” And, perhaps, even taste, ingest and embody it, one recipe at a time.

About the Author:

Marie-Luise Ermisch is a PhD candidate in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University. It was through her research for her thesis, "Children, youth and humanitarian assistance: how the British Red Cross Society and Oxfam engaged young people in Britain and its empire with international development projects in the 1950s and 1960s," that she discovered Recipes from Many Lands. Marie-Luise also has practical experience in international development (and cooking), having worked for Montreal's International Bureau for Children's Rights (IBCR) and Uganda's Environmental Women in Action for Development (EWAD).

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