Representation: Processing the Ma(i)ze of Thinking About the Developing World - by Marie-Luise Ermisch
Sweet Corn Rissoles
1 tin of sweet corn
A little milk, if necessary, to moisten
1 egg, to bind the mixture
1 chopped onion
Method: Thicken with flour. Drop by spoonfuls into hot deep fat. Fry light brown. Delicious with ham.
The Rhodesian recipe for sweet corn rissoles asked for “1 tin sweet corn.” I wrote it down on my shopping list. Once in the store, I stared at the shelf. There were tins of various sizes containing whole kernel corn, corn niblets, peaches & cream, creamed corn, and miniature corn cob. Which one did I need? Critical thinking about tinned corn ensued – in Britain, where this recipe was meant to be cooked, creamed corn was not readily available, at least not in 2012 when I lived there. So likely not in 1976 either, when Oxfam published its Recipes from Many Lands. Creamed corn was thus not a likely candidate.
And what about Zimbabwe in 1976, when it was still Rhodesia – what kind of tinned corn was available there? But wait a second – if this was a book specifically about the developing world, who was this recipe representing? Who in Rhodesia was eating tinned corn in 1976, if anyone? Was tinned corn a luxury? Considering the cookbook states that Rhodesia’s main crop was maize, and 63% of the population worked in agriculture, most of the population would have likely eaten it fresh from their own plots or village markets. Was Oxfam in fact promoting a recipe of Rhodesian privilege, of those Rhodesians who could have bought tinned corn? The recipe’s source does not help answer this question. It was cited as coming from Pot Luck, a cookbook put together in 1964 by “the girls of Farringtons [School], Chislehurst, Kent” for the United Nations Freedom from Hunger Campaign. Where did these “girls” get this recipe? My guess would be from imperial networks. Does this matter when we think about what it means to represent the “Third World”?
Or perhaps there is another issue at hand, another translation problem over space and time. Was fresh corn not readily available in British supermarkets in 1976 and hence the call for tinned corn for this recipe? Would there only have been one kind of tinned corn available, a one size fits all? Was the recipe altered from its original source, before being published in Pot Luck and then, 12 years later, in Recipes from Many Lands, in order to make it accessible to British students? This simple recipe was quickly becoming a maize maze of questions that I did not know how to answer ... and I was still only in the tinned foods aisle of the supermarket!
“Who and what was and is this tinned corn representing?” I asked, mumbling to the wall of tinned corn in front of me. To me, at that moment, the corn represented the multitude of choices I had in a Canadian supermarket in 2014, a choice likely not available to most people living in Britain in 1976 and even less so for the majority of people in Rhodesia that year. After my thoughtful hesitation, I grabbed a tin of peaches & cream corn. It seemed like the right choice in the end, although perhaps any tin of corn could have worked – the recipe seemed vague enough to be accommodating. And perhaps that was the key – the end result was surprisingly tasty with what I had had available to cook with.
When thinking about the “Third World,” now more commonly referred to as the global south or the developing world, representation is key. In the case of Zimbabwe, many people will only have access to it through representation by the media, charities or government. And these days that representation is often negative, centered on violence, corruption, poverty and chaos. Yet aside from corn, Recipes from Many Lands also had me thinking about infant mortality and literacy rates, since these statistics were listed beside the corn rissoles recipe. According to these, in 1976 life expectancy in Rhodesia was 51, infant mortality was 122 per 1000 live births, and the adult literacy rate in 1962 was 40%. I decided to compare – according to a UNICEF survey, in 2012 Zimbabwe’s life expectancy was 58, infant mortality (under 1) was 56 per 1000 live births, and the adult literacy rate was at 83.6%. While still low, the improvement in these areas, particularly the adult literacy rate, is impressive and made me reconsider what the lived reality of Zimbabwe was really like.
Although some people, like Bob Geldof and Bono, have been asking since 1984, “How can they know it’s Christmas time at all?” in sub-Saharan Africa, Oxfam has me asking, “Do they eat corn rissoles made from tinned corn in Zimbabwe?” While my question may seem trivial, it is actually much more potent than the one asked by Bob and Bono. Rather than essentializing the continent of Africa to “let them know it’s Christmas time again” this year, my quest for authentic corn rissoles was more personal and had me re-imagining what it meant to be Zimbabwean (and Rhodesian): an imagining centred on statistics and the universal medium of food. My vision of life in Zimbabwe is still flawed, but at least Recipes from Many Lands destabilized my preconceived notions of that small country and reminded me to think critically about how distant lands are represented.