Tag Archives: Peace Corps History

Tweaking Qormeh Sabzi Khoresh


As I skimmed through our newest accession–a collection of correspondence, photographs, and books donated by a PCV who served in Iran from 1964-1968– at the Peace Corps Community Archives, a flash of red caught my attention. At first glance a charming–yet unassuming–text, complete with an advertisement for Pan Am’s in-flight meal service on the back cover, Cookbook: Peace Corps · Iran seized my attention, and here is why:

The original recipe for Qormeh (more commonly spelled Ghormeh, meaning fried in Azeri) Sabzi (the Farsi word for herbs) Khoresh–among the “most famous and common rice-based food products in Iran”–calls for sautéing “meat, onions, [and] fat,” then adding “1/2 cup dried red kidney beans,” followed by a low and slow simmer for several hours. [1] The stew is then garnished with “1 cup chopped parsley and or 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.”

In the meager margins between recipes, however, someone had tweaked the recipe for Qormeh Sabzi Khoresh in red pen, suggesting that “1/2 cup chopped fenugreek, 4 dried lemons pressed or 2 tbsp lemon juice” be added to the recipe. This was not an anomaly; in fact, other recipes were modified throughout the cookbook with the same distinct red ink.

The cookbook contains recipes for a wide variety of staple Iranian dishes, but it also details recipes that would have been more familiar to American palates, such as: stuffed peppers, pan gravy, and porcupine balls. The latter is a cost-effective relic of the Great Depression.

The cookbook further features a comprehensive guide on how to make mulled (or spiced) wine and red wine.

Seeing as a cohort of Iranian cooks, Peace Corps Volunteers, and nutrition specialists all contributed to the cookbook, it is perhaps best read as an iterative artifact–a microcosm for the (ongoing) negotiation between Western and Iranian culinary cultures. On the one hand, the PCV who marked the cookbook in red ink embodies part of this negotiation: an American who embraced Iranian cuisine in a tangible way, via their service in Iran and interaction with Iranians. Their tweaking of Qormeh Sabzi Khoresh was not an attempt to co-opt or Westernize the dish; rather, the addition of fenugreek and dried lemon is actually reflective of the traditional version of the recipe that the PCV likely encountered in their everyday interactions with Iranians.

Houchang E. Chehabi, an Iranian scholar and professor of international relations and history at Boston University, describes traditional Iranian cuisine as “alive and well.” Rice and bread–both consumed as food, while the latter also doubles as a vessel, as makeshift cutlery, and as a general aid to eating–remain staples of Iranian cuisine, often served with a variety of traditional stews, pilafs, proteins, stuffed vegetables, sweets, and the like. The now widespread availability of Iranian food outside of Iran has, according to Chehabi, expanded our collective global palate and “helped relieve the monotony of life.”

The centrality of rice and bread in Iranian cuisine cannot be overstated; however, the image above illustrates regional variations in their preparation.

On the other hand, Iranian culinary culture has been shaped by Iranians’ interaction with outsiders and their respective cuisines, a process that predated the Peace Corps and the publication of this cookbook in the 1960s. Indeed, during the Qajar reign (1789-1925), elite Iranians at Court began adopting new culinary habits from Westerners, and these habits subsequently spread to the middle class and then to the “rest of the population in a process that is not complete–and perhaps never will be.”

Exemplified in the images above, the traditional Iranian sufra (food spread) was colorful, decorative, and dishes were served concurrently rather than in successive courses. Moreover, Iranians generally enjoyed their food atop embellished carpets, and food was to be consumed with the right hand–sans cutlery. In Qajar palaces, food was prepared by a permanent cooking staff in a kitchen some distance from the living area where it was presented and consumed.

Iranians embraced outside culinary habits in earnest during the 1900s. A 1928 decree issued during the Reza Shah period, for example, outlined several sweeping changes that Tehrani restaurants would be required to implement, including: seating around a table on chairs; containers for dispensing salt, pepper, mustard, and sumac; and strict use of cutlery, thus forbidding patrons from eating with their hands. Just before the inception of the Peace Corps, the consumption of traditional meats–chiefly camel and mutton–in Iran had been superseded by beef and veal, and today chicken–once a delicacy–is consumed ubiquitously. Immediately following the Iranian Revolution (1978-1979), however, food establishments that served western-inspired food and were operated by non-Muslims had to put signs in their windows to “alert those Muslims who considered non-Muslims, and therefore any food handled by them, as najis (ritually impure).”

Despite these changes, and especially since the 1990s, the dual westernization and resilience of Iranian cuisine remains evident; the scent of hamburgers on the grill and pizza in the oven drifts from fast food chains and global food courts scattered throughout Iran’s major cities, a contrast to the age-old aromas that flow (though not as numerously) from higher-end restaurants, street vendor stalls, and Iranian homes. Here, friends and family still sit atop Persian rugs, preferring their right hand to cutlery, as they enjoy an abundant feast (sometimes followed by a period of fasting). Until I have the privilege to experience Iranian cuisine in Iran, I look forward to trying this PCV’s version of Qormeh Sabzi Khoresh–with the addition of fenugreek and dried lemon–in my own home, and I hope you will do the same. Share your favorite recipes with us below, especially those that warm you up on a cold winter day!

“To Whom It May Concern”: The Peace Corps, Public Health, and COVID-19

In his capacity as tour manager for the University of Ibadan’s Shakespeare Traveling Theatre troupe, Tom Hebert brought renowned productions—like Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet among others—to audiences throughout Nigeria. The pictures above illustrate a core tenet of Shakespearian performance: audience interaction, which was anything but lacking in West Africa during the 1960s. In a recent blog post, Hebert recalls that millions of Nigerian students were required to study Shakespeare as part of their secondary education; consequently, audiences numbering in the “thousands would mouth the lines in an audible susurrus” during shows. [1] Hebert also came to understand that British colonialism and an entrenched caste system overshadowed the educational merits of theater: “literate African kids wandering the streets with nothing to do, and nowhere to go.”

In 1964, after two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), the time had come for Hebert to return to the United States. Addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” a disease identity card (pictured below) marked Hebert’s return:

Disease Identity Card, April 1963, Shelf: 12.03.05, Box: “Tom Hebert,” Folder: “Hebert, Thomas L, Nigeria 1962-1964, Training Materials–Supplies and Medical Information,” Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

In another example, an unnamed PCV received a similar card upon their return from India in 1968:

Disease Identity Card, 1968, Shelf: 12.03.02, Inquire for Box & Folder Information, Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

These cards were a reminder to PCVs as to the prevalence of disease in their country of service. They were also ostensibly a precautionary measure—designed to warn physicians that the returning PCV might well be a public health risk, in which case subsequent isolation, treatment, contact tracing, and the like would become necessary. [2] Thus, in addition to coping with “reentry, readjustment, and reverse culture shock,” returning PCVs further faced the (remote) reality that they themselves might inadvertently bring lethal pathogens—for which there was little protection against—home to friends and family. [3]

An example: there was no vaccine to combat Dengue Fever—one of several diseases that Tom Hebert was potentially exposed to in Nigeria—in the 1960s. To this day, a “safe, effective, and affordable vaccine” for Dengue Fever remains elusive. [4]

This is not to say that the Peace Corps only took steps to protect PCVs on the back-end of their service. Additional evidence from the Peace Corps Community Archive is revealing; even in the 1960s, the fledgling Peace Corps had a robust front-end health program. It featured preventive medicine (where possible) and pre-departure education designed to reduce disease transmission:

Vaccination Appointment & Record Card, Shelf: 12.03.02, Inquire for Box & Folder Information, Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

PCV Medicine Book, Shelf: 12.03.05, Box: “Tom Hebert,” Folder: “Hebert, Thomas L, Nigeria 1962-1964, Training Materials–Supplies and Medical Information,” Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

In the case that preventive measures such as vaccination and sanitation failed, the Peace Corps also offered active PCVs reactionary treatment in the form of a standard medical kit:

Peace Corps Medical Kit with Health Guide, ID # 2011.0228.36, Transfer from the Peace Corps, National Museum of American History, https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1412958

Medical Kit Inventory, Shelf: 12.03.05, Box: “Tom Hebert,” Folder: “Hebert, Thomas L, Nigeria 1962-1964, Training Materials–Supplies and Medical Information,” Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

On balance, the health measures enacted by the Peace Corps—from pre-service medical training and vaccinations, reactionary treatment options during service, and disease identity cards upon return—were largely successful. From 1962-1983, 185 PCVs died during their service; of those 185, 40 died due to illness. For context: some 235,000 PCVs have served in hundreds of countries since the Peace Corps’ inception in 1961.

Relative to the Nigerians for whom he organized Shakespearean performances, Hebert enjoyed a position of privilege in terms of access to healthcare. For many PCVs, the prospect of becoming ill during service or bringing illness back to loved ones upon return was remote; indeed, the public health infrastructure of their home country, the United States, was robust compared to many countries where the Peace Corps operated.

However, what if the opposite were true? What if returning home was seemingly just as dangerous—if not more dangerous—to the well-being of PCVs? In March 2020, following the onset of COVID-19, this seeming impossibility came to fruition as all active PCVs were evacuated back to the United States. [5]

In a blog post for the Pacific Citizen, Kako Yamada—an evacuated PCV who had been serving in Comoros—recounts the abruptness of being evacuated due to COVID-19: [6]

Our plans for the remaining months or years of service vanished as we collected what we could of our belongings — some able to say their good-byes, others not so lucky.

I had been allotted one hour to pack and say my farewells to my host family — leaving my friends, students, teammates and co-workers in the dust.

Yamada did not fully grasp the gravity of the situation until she embarked on the long flight from Comoros—an island country off the coast of Africa—to her home in New York City:

On my layover in Addis Ababa, I saw people in full body suits; on the subsequent plane, flight attendants wore gloves and asked passengers not to help one another. Upon arrival at Newark Airport in New Jersey, a hollow silence echoed. Welcome home.

She also remembers questioning whether the evacuation was justified, especially because the situation in Comoros appeared much less dire (in terms of infection case numbers) than it did in the United States. It wasn’t until May 1 that the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Comoros; by then, in the month and a half since she had returned to New York, “there had been 304,372 reported COVID-19 cases in New York, a number that equated to half the population of Comoros.”

Moreover, in the United States, a crisis of public trust emerged—only compounding the threat posed by COVID-19. The situation rapidly devolved into a multifaceted culture war, one which pinned public health experts against conspiracy theorists and their sympathizers in government leadership. Anecdotal evidence and misinformation were disseminated to discourage mask wearing and promote unproven miracle cures, among other flashpoints of the culture war.

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, for example, were frequently touted by right-wing conspiracy theorists as miracle drugs in the fight against COVID-19. With the benefit of hindsight, and given that credible public health experts have historically warned of the untested efficacy of these drugs, we are now certain that neither chloroquine nor hydroxychloroquine are safe to administer to COVID-19 patients. [7] Records from the Peace Corps Community Archive do show, however, the historical—and empirically proven—use of chloroquine as an antimalarial drug in locales such as Senegal:

Chloroquine Program Document, Shelf: 12.04.02, Box: “Cherie Lockett,” Folder: “Cherie Lockett, Senegal 1979-1981, Health Care N.D.,” Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

 Yamada grappled with guilt, for although the situation in the United States appeared dire upon her departure from Comoros, her evacuation ensured a better chance of survival:

It came down to privilege. After months of integrating — through language, food and dances — in the end, I am privileged. In a pandemic, I, as an American citizen and Peace Corps Volunteer, got to fly out to a country with better health care.

I could not escape the fact that I was a volunteer that would disappear if things got bad.

People often ask: how will the history of COVID-19 be written? What will history tell us about our response to a global pandemic? Historians and public historians themselves are asking different, more pointed questions: how will we remember our global response to COVID-19? Who gets to shape the memory of the American experience with COVID-19? Is it the historian’s place to weigh the immeasurable suffering and loss of human life against the resilience and moments of unity that will get us through this? Likewise, who and what dictates how Comorians remember COVID-19? What are the stakes if we omit the lived experiences of those who were and are the most vulnerable to COVID-19? Do public historians have a responsibility to interpret/challenge those actors who downplayed and mismanaged the crisis from its outset? For Yamada, her answer is fairly straightforward:

The situation of a country miles away, often labeled as one of the poorest in the world, is very much mirrored here in the United States.

The characteristics of denial, governmental inadequacies and systematic vulnerabilities of certain social groups over others are paralleled. However, one quality is certainly different: we have the resources, and yet, we dared to fail.

[1] Tom Hebert,  “Shakespeare and the Ins and Outs of Education Reform,” Peace Corps Writers, n.d., http://www.peacecorpswriters.org/pages/2001/0109/109cllkheb1.html.

[2] Amy Lauren Fairchild, Lawrence O. Gostin, Ronald Bayer, “Contact Tracing’s Long, Turbulent History Holds Lessons for COVID-19,” The Conversation, July 16, 2020, https://theconversation.com/contact-tracings-long-turbulent-history-holds-lessons-for-covid-19-142511

[3] Peace Corps, RPCV Handbook: You’re on your way Home (Office of Third Goal and Returned Volunteer Services, n.d.), 10, https://files.peacecorps.gov/resources/returned/staycon/rpcv_handbook.pdf

[4] World Health Organization, “Questions and Answers on Dengue Vaccines,” Immunization, Vaccines, and Biologicals, April 20, 2018, https://www.who.int/immunization/research/development/dengue_q_and_a/en/

[5] Jody K. Olsen, “Peace Corps Announces Suspension of Volunteer Activities, Evacuations due to COVID-19,” Peace Corps, March 15, 2020, https://www.peacecorps.gov/news/library/peace-corps-announces-suspension-volunteer-activities-evacuations-due-covid-19/

[6] Kako Yamada, “Welcome Home? From Peace Corps Service to COVID-19 America,” Pacific Citizen, May 22, 2020, https://www.pacificcitizen.org/welcome-home-from-peace-corps-service-to-covid-19-america/

[7] United States Food and Drug Administration, “FDA Cautions Against Use of Hydroxychloroquine of Chloroquine for COVID-19 Outside of the Hospital Setting or a Clinical Trial due to Risk of Heart Rhythm Problems,” July 1, 2020, https://www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-safety-and-availability/fda-cautions-against-use-hydroxychloroquine-or-chloroquine-covid-19-outside-hospital-setting-or