Changing tastes: the food revolution in New Zealand
There was a time when the New Zealand dinner was a slab of meat, a dollop of mashed potato and a mound of boiled cabbage. Now, most of us have become more adventurous in our tastes.
Picture a fictional Kiwi couple, Trevor and Sharon Ruck, in the equally fictional provincial town of Kaipiro in 1950.
Trev has arrived home for tea shortly after 6 pm, wobbling his bicycle more than a little as a result of having lined up five jugs of beer with his mate Gary Scrum 20 minutes before closing time down at the Turf Hotel.
He sits down while Sharon fetches their dinners from the warming drawer of the oven and sets them down on the red-checked plastic table cloth. As she pours them both a cup of tea, Trev switches on the wireless and listens to the sports news while he wolfs his food. He is far too absorbed in the speculation that Bob Scott may be dropped from the third test against England to notice what he is eating. Besides, what would be the point? It’s much the same tucker the missus provides every night: a couple of fried chops, a mound of potatoes, carrots and parsnips mashed together, and cabbage boiled until grey.
The piece de resistance follows: a steamed pudding of flour, milk and suet cooked for two hours, self-sauced with sugar, water, and golden syrup. And custard too.
That at least elicits a grunt of approval from Trev, as the last leaden mouthful drops to plug the gap in his stomach. Yep, the missus wasn’t a bad cook.
The scones, pikelets, Afghans, Anzac biscuits and shortbread with which Sharon filled the biscuit tins on a Saturday had been taught her by her mum, who in turn had learned them from her Scottish mother on the family farm out in the backblocks, far from the convenience of town bakeries.
Each Saturday in the summer, Sharon takes a plate to the after-match afternoon tea at the Kaipiro Tennis Club, and every year she bakes fruit cakes and sponges for the fundraising cake stalls held to send the Kaipiro Legionettes off to the North Island marching-girl championships.
On Friday night, Trev brings home fish and chips from the Kaipiro Fish Supply, while on Sunday the Ruck family joins the rest of New Zealand in sitting down to a lunch of roast forequarter of mutton (or, if you could afford it, a leg of lamb), roast potatoes, kumaras and parsnips, more overboiled greens and yet another stodgy pud. That night, the cold mutton is eaten with hot boiled potatoes and a salad of shredded lettuce, hard boiled eggs, tomato and beetroot,smothered with a dressing of sweetened condensed milk diluted with vinegar.
On Monday the leftover meat is cranked through the mincer to make shepherd’s pie, and on Tuesday, rissoles.
The fact is that neither Trevor nor Sharon gave much consideration to what they ate, beyond purely functional considerations. Food was fuel, meals were pit stops. As children of the 1930s, who came through the Depression and later wartime rationing, Trevor and Sharon’s main concern had been getting food on to the table in the first place—as indeed it had been of their parents and of their parents before them.
If food is an expression of a culture, then this diet mirrored ours: austere, colourless, philistine. In those days it was just not done for a Kiwi male to rhapsodise over fine food, or indeed, anything at all. Were he to do so, his colleagues would look at him askance and call him a sissy behind his back, or worse. I mean, everybody knew that chefs were poofs, didn’t they?
Not that there were too many chefs, or poofs, in Kaipiro.
That year, 1950, the Rucks went to stay with Sharon’s sister Marlene in the Hutt Valley. The Legionettes had made it to the North Island champs, and Sharon was along as chief makeup artist—a full-on job, because not only did the girls need facials, their legs had to be painted bronze as well.
Unfortunately, Wellington’s famous wind and rain hosed down on the day of the champs, playing havoc with the girls and their leg make-up. The poor wee mites looked as if they were suffering from a tropical skin disease. Nevertheless, they soldiered on, put on a corker show and took away the runners-up cup. To celebrate, Trev reluctantly agreed to take Sharon out to dinner for the first time in their married life.
That evening, they arrived at the Midland Hotel, Sharon in her best cocktail dress and Trev, his shortback-and-sides neatly oiled and combed back, feeling a little uncomfortable in his only suit.
They had to be seated between 6 pm and 7.30 pm, for those were the rules of virtually every hotel in New Zealand. Lunch was between 1 pm and 2 pm, dinner was of one and a half hour’s duration, and you had better not arrive too near 7.30 pm either, or you could be assured of a frosty reception from the waitress, impatient to get off home.
With her brusque manner and her white uniform trimmed with green, the woman who led them to their table might have passed for a matron at the accident and emergency wing at the local hospital, except that the blood spatters on her chest were from the tomato sauce that the hotel practically had on tap.
The menu choice was a simple matter. You could have soup, roast beef, roast lamb or a mixed grill, with either trifle or ice cream and fruit salad to follow.
It was just as well the Rucks arrived early, for in those days nothing was cooked to order at New Zealand hotels, and the Midland was no exception.
I know, because I used to be third cook there.
Admittedly, that was in 1975, but I doubt that methods had changed in a quarter of a century: huge legs of lamb and rolls of beef languished under heat lamps while the gravy and vegetables were all cooked in advance and kept warm in an enormous bain-marie. Thus, over the one and a half hours of dinner, the cabbage turned from yellow to grey, the peas from green to olive, and the “roast” potatoes wrinkled up and became floury in the middle. I say “roast,” but in fact they were only half roasted, and then thrown into the deep-fryer to get them looking nice and golden. It was a bit like messing in the army or navy, from whence, indeed, a great number of Kiwi hotel cooks had come.
In those days there was little product knowledge on the part of the housewife who bought fish or meat, and little respect for that produce from those who handled it in its raw state. Sheep were grown with a huge amount of fat. They were driven to the freezing works, bundled off the trucks and straight on to the slaugh ter board, still tense. Their by now tough carcasses would seize up still further by being thrown straight into a blast freezer. Later, in the home, the leg of lamb would be unfrozen and roasted for half the afternoon, until the meat began to fall off the bone and convert into something reminiscent of grey binder twine.
Because of the huge importance of the export freezing industry, there was a phobia about diseases in meat Just to be on the safe side, then, steaks were cooked to death. Hotel “chefs” of the 1950s even pressed steaks down on to the grill with old cast iron clothes irons to ensure that every last drop of juice and goodness was extracted from them.
Fish was considered a poor man’s dish, and, when it was eaten at all, was either fried or boiled, or bought ready-smoked. There were two types of cheese—which is to say that you could have your cheddar mild or tasty—although blue vein was daringly released on to the local market in 1951. But cheese was poor man’s tucker too. Let the Poms eat it.
The huge irony is that we lived in a land of milk and honey. The country’s natural larder was relatively unpillaged: wild deer and mushrooms were everywhere, crayfish was five shillings a pound, and fillet steak two shillings and threepence (46 cents a kilo). Country people, and many quarter-acre suburbanites as well, grew and preserved fresh produce from their own gardens and home orchards.
“Ah, and you couldn’t beat the smell of food back then,” my father used to say wistfully. “In the shops almost nothing was packaged, so there was the smell of fresh bread—and cheese, which the grocer would cut from big rounds with piano wire. And the smokey smell of the bacon. It must have been well cured, because the rolls hung there for months. There were bins of flour and sugar, and drawers which had tapioca and sago and spices in them. In the bigger stores they used to sprinkle the spices on the floor, so when you walked in you’d stir them up and get hungry. That was a well known dodge.”
But the fact still remains: the Kiwi diet of 1950 was, from a health point of view, appalling. All that stodge—those English nannies’ steamed puddings, the trifles, junkets, cakes, fatty chops—may once have been suitable for a pioneering society in which there was much heavy labour, but it was no longer appropriate to a sedentary urban society. It was also a diet laden with sugar and cholesterol, and we had one of the highest rates of heart disease and bowel cancer in the world.
Now, at a time when our New Zealand sauvignon blancs and chardonnays are winning world honours, when in our restaurants you are virtually guaranteed to get lamb tender and pink on the inside and vegetables still slightly crunchy, it seems unbelievable that there existed here, barely forty years ago, a society which so systematically murdered the fine produce our land yields.
Things just had to change, and from the 1950s onwards, they did.
The first inkling of an improvement had occurred a little over a decade earlier. In the main cities, a wave of highly refined Jewish intellectuals had arrived in the late 1930s—refugees, mostly from Hitler’s Germany, but also a sprinkling from Austria, Czechoslovakia Poland and Hungary.
The New Zealanders they became friends with in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch also tended to be educated, cosmopolitan and open to new foods. There were only about a thousand of these immigrants, but they exerted an influence out of all proportion to their small number. It was they who introduced middle class New Zealanders to such revolutionary concepts as real coffee and salami.
“Hungarian goulash was one of the great new dishes in our lives,” says Beatrice Ashton, a Wellingtonian who befriended them. Another dish she learned from her new Jewish friends was cheesecake, made from the fresh cottage cheese which was being made and sold for the first time in Wellington’s Dixon Street delicatessen. Then there were breads covered in poppy seeds, apple strudel, rich chocolate cakes and European gateaux made with ground almonds and eggs instead of flour.
Beatrice went on to marry John Ashton: one of the next group of distinct arrivals, the United States servicemen, who were here between 1942 and 1945.
“When I wanted to make cornbread I would have to go to the pet shop to get the cornmeal,” John Ashton recalls. The servicemen left a legacy of fried chicken, hamburgers, chocolate-coated ice creams on sticks, banana cream pies, sourdough bread, doughnuts with a hole in the middle and the idea of serving fresh, tossed salads with every meal. Until then, salad had only been eaten occasionally with cold meats, usually as a lunch dish.
Even more important than the newcomers as a factor in our changing tastes was our own urge to travel. From the late 1940s there was a mass exodus of those who had been prevented from travelling overseas by the war. It was the start of something which has become a New Zealand tradition: the big OE, first undertaken by passenger ship, then, increasingly, by air.
One of the things people invariably talk about after an overseas holiday is the exotic food they ate. Nineteen fifties travellers to North America might come back raving about pancakes, waffles, jellied salads, shoofly pie and apple pan dowdy. European sightseers would be imbued with the influence of pasta from Italy, spicy sausage from Germany and pastries from France.
Palate-broadening overseas experiences, though, probably began even earlier with the wartime food discoveries of our own servicemen and women. Many came back to New Zealand having tasted good food in Greece, Italy and Egypt—and loved it. And more particularly, they had often eaten this food in cafés or restaurants—establishments which were remarkably scarce back home.
In the 1950s, New Zealand restaurants were nicknamed “wallboard palaces.” Long, thin, and ugly, they invariably had two rows of formica-and-chrome tables down each side wall. Furnishings were functional and cheap, but most of the customers didn’t care about the lack of ambience, since in Wellington, at least, there were plenty of public servants with overtime chits who just wanted to get a feed before returning to work.
Only in the 1970s was the cultural climate ready for restaurants such as Christchurch’s Mykonos, where you might ceremonially smash the odd plate, or Wellington’s Acropolis,where after a surfeit of spanakopita and retsina you could try to become Zorba out on the dance floor. On a good night the owner would do a dance with a fully set table for two—in his teeth.
Historically, the restaurant trade was dominated by three immigrant groups: Chinese, Greeks and Yugo slays. Up until the 1950s—and postwar competition from Greeks and Chinese—the Dalmatian Yugoslays operated the milkbars and tearooms, dishing up milkshakes, cakes, sandwiches, sausage rolls, mince on toast, baked beans on toast, spaghetti on toast and bananas split down the middle with ice cream blobs at either end.
Very few of these new New Zealanders had been involved in catering back home. Coming from peasant stock, and often arriving with next to nothing, they would have preferred to buy farms, but the arguments for opening a grillroom, a tearoom, a milkbar or a fish and chip shop were too compelling.
Compared with land purchase, relatively little capital investment was required, and the labour costs were low, too. Trade union award conditions never existed in these family-run concerns, where grandmother would be out the back peeling the vegetables, father and mother in the kitchen doing the cooking, and daughter wailing on tables. These businesses provided an opportunity for improving one’s lot with hard work, and yet required little education, previous experience, or understanding of English, all of which excluded these immigrant groups from the professions.
The early restaurants were market-driven affairs, and there was no question of taking risks by offering unfamiliar Greek or Yugoslav dishes on the menu. The usual fare was steak, eggs and chips, always served on an oval plate with a dab of coleslaw or shredded lettuce on the side, topped perhaps with a slice of beetroot and rounds of boiled egg with the beetroot bleeding into the yoke. There was a dollop of undefined salad dressing, which usually went back to the kitchen uneaten. Fish were either crumbed or deep-fried in batter, as were oysters in season. For dessert there was apple pie, trifle, ice cream and tinned fruit salad.
Chinese restaurants, on the other hand, had been around since the very first days of Chinese settlement on the goldfields. They dispersed to the low rent areas of the inner city—in Dunedin around Walker and Stafford Streets, in Wellington in Haining Street, and in Auckland up Greys Avenue. Soon, other Chinese food shops, boarding houses, gambling rooms and opium dens followed. Such were the prejudices harboured by Europeans that until the Second World War Chinese restaurants served an almost exclusively oriental clientele. In the 1950s, however, the first adventurous New Zealanders dared to try them out.
The interiors of these places consisted of the same formica-andchrome as the Greek grillrooms, but with plastic Chinese lanterns adorned with lucky red tassels hanging from the ceilings, and dragons glaring from walls painted a shade of public hospital green. And, no matter where you went, the same peculiarly Sino-Kiwi ritual was enacted: a plate of lily-white bread and butter was brought to the table in advance of your order.
The meals these places offered were virtually identical. While the actual menus were as long as the Great Wall, they consisted of a mass of variations on a few well-tried dishes, which by now every New Zealander must know by heart: won ton soup, chow mein, chop suey, fried rice, eggs foo young, sweet and sour pork and lemon chicken.
For dessert, there were canned lychees and a couple of scoops of ice cream sprinkled with hundreds and thousands and stuck with a neon pink wafer. After dinner coffee came from an urn of coffee and chicory essence, stewed and watery. Essentially, this Chinese restaurant fare amounted to a meeting of Kiwi sludge with Chinese thrift.
If the Chinese community’s contribution to our food was significant, so too was the Indian community’s. Until the coup in Fiji, which forced many Fijian Indians to flee to New Zealand, over three-quarters of the New Zealand Indian community had come from Gujarat, a strongly agricultural province north of Bombay. Whole communities and families had been transplanted from around one town, Naysari. Indian and Chinese greengrocery shops spread through New Zealand after the Second World War until, by 1964, the two groups owned 529 of them—over half the country’s total. In 1970 they were also growing over a quarter of the country’s vegetable production.
Another group of post-war immigrants, the Dutch, noted the almost complete lack of an entertainment scene in this country. Apart from pubs and dance halls, nightlife didn’t exist. In the 1950s women queued in their best dresses just to go to the cinema. There was a growing middle class here, but no facilities for them.
To Dutch immigrants, accustomed to sidewalk cafés, cabarets, theatres and restaurants, this was a shameful state of affairs. A number of them set out to do something about it.
One of the most successful, and one who would be influential in changing the way New Zealanders would eat out in future, was the young and entrepreneurial Otto Groen. Now a food exporter, Groen sold his last restaurant many years ago, but the memories of them stay. When he opened the Hi Diddle Griddle on Auckland’s Karangahape Road in 1952 it was the first attempt in this country to create an environment, instead of a purely functional eating house. Here was New Zealand’s introduction to dine and dance, a fashion that was to span the next 20 years—and one which still exists in the deep south today.
Up on the stage, dwarfed by an enormous velvet mural of garlanded dancers in a luminous tropical Eden, the Paul Lestre Group would compete with the rushing water of an artificial clam shell waterfall to provide music for courting couples to waltz to between the soup course and the chicken-in-a-basket.
“This dish was served with a finger bowl, which often ended up being poured over the chicken, leaving big puddles on the table,” Groen smilingly recalls.
In 1954, Otto Groen and his partner Jim Jennings opened the even more successful Gourmet Restaurant in Shortland Street. When the Gourmet first opened, there were a number of quite unusual dishes for the time: Hungarian goulash, Finnan Haddie (smoked fish), and that Italian-American standby, spaghetti and meatballs. To Groen’s dismay, most Kiwis were not even minutely curious to try them.
“Within weeks of opening, I had to put chops, steaks and ham and eggs back on,” says Groen.
His biggest battle, however, was not with his clients’ tastes but with the bureaucracy, and it was over the archaic licensing laws which forbade restaurant patrons to drink alcohol with their meals. At that time the only place where drinking was officially sanctioned was in a rowdy, smoky pub; patrons of civilised restaurants such as the Gourmet were not allowed a single drop of wine with their meals.
Resisted by the so-called “unholy alliance” of the breweries and the churches, Otto Groen battled for seven years to have the law changed, with petitions to Parliament, submissions to subcommittees and even a public satirical revue.
“The laws were nonsense as they stood,” he says. “Women would arrive at the Gourmet with stashes of liquor in their coats and handbags, and men’s pockets would hold flasks. The patrons of this and the other ‘dry’ restaurants would often roll out blotto after their meals.”
Restaurants throughout the country were repeatedly raided and fined for allowing alcohol to be drunk on the premises. On one memorable occasion, Wellington’s Orsini’s, The Tulip and Café de Boulevard were all raided on the same Saturday night. This resulted in court appearances, but also sympathetic coverage from Wellington’s Evening Post, and a large, very defiant advertisement placed in that newspaper by the three defendants.
In Christchurch, Hans Levy, owner of the Milando, joined the band of resisters, though he devised a trick to avoid prosecution. He made sure he always had plenty of candles on hand, and as soon as the police began knocking on his front door he had his staff rush around the tables, sticking candles into the opened bottles of wine and lighting them!
Groen’s lucky break came when Cardinal McKeefrey, the Catholic archbishop of Wellington, broke ranks with the unholy alliance and denounced the existing laws as nonsense, agreeing with Otto that the only way New Zealanders would learn to drink in a more elegant fashion was to be exposed to it in restaurants, where wine could be served in dignified surroundings with food.
A vote was put to Parliament in 1961, and on December 13 that year the Gourmet and nine other restaurants became the first eating establishments since 1917 where patrons could legally drink.
Other Europeans were early influential movers as well. In Wellington they included a Yugoslav named Drago Kovac, who opened the Copper Room (now the Grain of Salt) in Oriental Bay in 1962, and the formidable Frenchwoman “Madame Louise.” Louise Charlton, from the province of Normandie, opened Le Normandie in Cuba Street in 1961. Her restaurant, with its crystal chandeliers, floor to ceiling curtains and velvet banquettes, might have been transported from her homeland en bloc.
Le Normandie’s menu was similarly classical: coquilles St Jacques Parisienne, chicken chasseur, tournedos Rossini (which were served with real pâté de foie gras), crayfish thermador, chocolate mousse. And, of course, chateaubriand and poulet bonne femme, flamed at the table.
Nowadays, flambe cooking is regarded as a showy way of doing very little except perhaps allowing an incompetent waiter to ruin an adequately cooked dish. But back then it was the height of fashion. When these restaurants were particularly busy, the dining area became a battlefield as flames rose with a WOOMPH! on both sides and from behind, followed by columns of grease-laden smoke which contributed to an ever-thickening black pall beneath the ceiling.
At Le Normandie these theatrics were performed by Continental waiters. Virtually all the waiting staff at Le Normandie were male immigrants—partly by design, but also because, in this era of full employment,real Kiwi jokers simply refused to do it, and would have been devoid of charm and style had they tried.
While the working class in the 1960s went on eating fairly much as they had always done, middle class women began holding dinner parties and vying for the most sophisticated menus. Britain was buying all that our farms could produce, and in the prosperous spirit of the times full-scale home entertaining returned for the first time since the 1920s, when servants had become an unaffordable luxury to the New Zealand middle class. Now, newfangled mechanical servants followed fridges into the kitchens of the comfortably off, in the form of electric beaters, mixers, blenders, and dishwashers.
The appearance in 1963 of a book entitled A Taste of France: French Cuisine for New Zealanders was thus timely. Its author, Madeleine Hammond, was of French parentage,a mother of six and a part-time lecturer in French at Victoria University.
She told us how to make French onion soup, which was later to find itself on the menu of just about every BYO restaurant in the 1970s, only to become a worn-out cliche a decade later. There was also an excellent formula, adapted to New Zealand conditions, for bouillabaisse, a dish which was also beginning to find its way on to the menu of the better New Zealand hotels and restaurants.
At a time when New Zealanders were barely used to drinking wine, let alone “wasting” it in cooking, she encouraged us to pour it into a beef casserole with steak and mushrooms, to make boeuf a la bourguignonne. This became one of the popular dishes to serve at a dinner party of the era, along with vichyssoise, beef stroganoff, spaghetti and meatballs, wiener schnitzel, waldorf salad, chocolate mousse and cheesecake. And of course, vegetables weren’t “special” unless they were smothered with a blanket of mornay sauce.
Throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, fondues were all the rage.The guests would huddle around the made-in-Hong Kong fondue pot, which was so thin the cheese burned on the bottom before the top was hot,and engage each other in sword fights with elongated cocktail-type forks to extract their particular cube of cheese-dunked bread from the stringy morass.
Correctly made, a Swiss fondue with white wine and a touch of kirsch cutting a fiery dash through the rich nutty gruyere can be delicious. But, like any fad, fondues died through over-exposure, though their demise must surely have been hastened by some of the more revolting deviations from the original cheese recipe:
Liverwurst with sweet sherry and cream, for example, or crushed gingernuts and tinned pineapple in instant beef stock. Or how about marmalade, garlic and soy sauce?
As for the everyday fare of the 1960s, the tradition of meat and three veg continued as it had done for most of the century, except that as more women entered the workforce and had less time to cook, a host of convenience foods came on to the market: frozen peas, dried Surprise peas, instant mashed potato, instant cake mixes, instant puddings, instant coffee.
By the end of the decade, hamburger bars and Kentucky Fried Chicken would be starting to provide stiff competition to the traditional pie carts and fish and chip shops, but, meanwhile, there were many issues of international importance which had to be sorted out over a cup of the newly fashionable beverage, real coffee—preferably in the surroundings of a real coffee lounge.
Within a few short years such venues were sprouting up in every main centre, and each new eatery had to have a Continental theme. Thus, the Top Hat Coffee House in Mt Maunganui arranged its tables and chairs outside on a patio in a Parisian kerbside setting. In Auckland, Ca d’Oro had a wrought iron mural of a gondola stretching for one entire wall. Dunedin’s Little Hut had a sunlit Mediterranean fishing scene on its back wall—and the sound of rolling breakers to soothe customers as they drank their coffee and ate their cheese rolls.
In Christchurch, Number 16, in Chancery Arcade, was the height of conservative good taste, while nearby the original Attic was frequented by bearded students in black-rimmed glasses, duffel coats and ripple-soled desert boots, their girlfriends in drainpipe ivy league slacks and voluminous sloppy joe pullovers. To the strains of Dave Brubeck and Peggy Lee, they smoked their curly pipes or cigarettes from holders, and whiled away hours in earnest discussion about The Bomb over a single cup of coffee.
The coffee bars of the early ’60s had bridged an important gap between the pubs and the formal restaurants, but somehow the management failed to appeal to oncoming generations, and they all closed one by one (with the notable exception of Nelson’s Chez Eelco, which is preserved to this day as a sort of monument to the era). They had all bought espresso machines, yet there was no body in the country to service them, and, like dinosaurs, the huge ungainly hissing machines gradually became extinct, until the wheel turned full circle 30 years later, and a fresh wave of coffee bars made a newer, sleeker espresso machine extremely fashionable once more.
In 1965, in galloped Graham Kerr. His personality was perfect for the new, exciting live medium that every New Zealander strove to have: television.
It was Kerr, the enthusiastic, confident and immensely entertaining chef who tempted Pakeha New Zealanders to try paua, even if they did end up mincing the long-dead lumps of black rubber into patties. They were not so game to try possum, however (this famous episode was surely intended as a joke), or squid, which continued to be used mainly for fishing bait.
Ever the showman, Kerr would dangle lengths of pasta into his mouth to demonstrate the al dente test. He was the first to point out how badly New Zealanders overcooked their greens, and he fried with butterclarified—instead of following the old Kiwi tradition of keeping a bowl of dripping, built up layer upon layer from the latest roast, whether it be lamb, beef or pork.
Kerr was criticised for throwing in a few scallops, a pint of cream or a glass of brandy a little too often. But at the time we needed a bit of loosening up from our dour lifestyle. And Kerr, with his passion, his on-air tastings and the accompanying raptures of “oohs,” “aaahs” and “mmmms,” was just the man to do it.
Some of today’s top restaurant chefs owe their beginnings to Kerr. People such as Tony Astle of Auckland’s Antoines: “I was 14 when I saw him on television, and I was so entranced by his shows that I wrote to him and asked him to help me become a chef.” Kerr invited Astle to come to Wellington, and then sponsored the youngster through his cooking school.
But possibly the main spin-off of Kerr’s Galloping Gourmet series was the introduction of Alison Hoist to the New Zealand public. Television viewers split into two camps over Kerr’s shows—half loved him, the rest hated him with a ferocity which sent the then New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation scampering to find a good “plain” cook who would help them fight off the attacks.
Alison Holst was in the right place at the right time. She recalls the first contact: “They came to the School of Home Science in Dunedin, where I was lecturing at the time, and said, ‘Do you have someone who could do a show which is a complete contrast to Graham Kerr?’ While many people loved his showmanship, very few people made his recipes. I was to teach basic cooking—the sorts of things people would actually make.”
From then on, the two shows alternated on television, but it was Holst who became the trusted, beloved model of modern home cooking. If she did a recipe with sausage meat and mince in it, shops throughout the country would be sold out of both the next day. Through her, New Zealanders learned simple ways to improve their cooking. “People would stop me in the street to thank me for showing them ways of cooking cabbage which their families liked,” Hoist says.
Now, more than 25 years later, she has gone on to become a New Zealand institution. Her books sell in the hundreds of thousands—the two editions of her microwave cookery book alone have sold over 400,000 copies here—in a country of only a million households.
But the passion that many of us had for Kerr’s shows was a sign that our attitudes to food were ready for some changes. Sophistication was on its way in, and the ’60s was a decade of many changes.
In every provincial town, committees of enthusiastic amateurs formed Wine and Food Societies and organised tasting evenings where cubes of the new Galaxy danbo, erbo, gruyere, feta and blue vein would be stuck with toothpicks and served with trailblazing cabernet sauvignons from Tom McDonald’s winery in Hawkes Bay.
Then, in 1966, Tegel introduced the concept of meat chickens to New Zealand, and in doing so changed our whole attitude to the bird. Until then, chicken had always been a rare luxury, reserved for birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmas.
The standard practice on poultry farms had been to sex new pullets at the end of the winter. The hens would be set aside for laying eggs while the cockerels would be reared for the Christmas market—hence the popular Kiwi expression “spring chickens.” Fish shops would take orders and supply the chickens and turkeys at Christmas. Usually the only chickens available at other times were retired grandmothers whose laying days were over. In order to make these tough old birds suitable for the table, they had to be cooked for hours. Thus, when meat chickens came along, Kiwi cooks knew only one way to cook them.
Former television cook and owner of Wellington’s Coachman Restaurant, Des Britten, tells the story of his mother, who put a large chicken in the oven at 2 pm one day and went off for an appointment in town. “While she was away I pulled the chicken out of the oven, and when I saw her car coming up the drive, I rushed back into the kitchen and put it back in. That night my father went into raptures over the end result. ‘How did you get it like this?’ he kept asking.
Now, although our annual meat consumption of 107kg per head remains pretty much as it’s always been, the mix of meats is different. Over the past 10 years sheep meat has stayed fairly constant at 25kg each, although lamb is now more popular than mutton. Pig meat, too, has remained about the same, at 14kg, but beef has steadily declined from 45kg to 31kg. Meanwhile, chicken has gone from virtually nothing in the mid-1960s to 17kg a head today.
It was the ’60s, too, which saw the demise of that most coveted of positions in primary school: the milk monitor. In 1937, the Labour government introduced a scheme in which primary school children were each given a daily half pint of milk. While supposedly ensuring that our children were well nourished, at the same time the scheme helped a dairy industry which had an embarrassing surplus of milk. To the relief of many who could not stomach the beverage after it had been left for hours in the sun, the scheme was abandoned in 1967.
To an older age-group of drinkers, that year was just as significant. It was the year in which pub closing time was extended from six o’clock to 10 pm. Six o’clock closing had been introduced because of temperance pressure in 1917. Ostensibly, it was a temporary wartime measure, and the weak pretext given for it was to “prevent wounded soldiers from injuring themselves.” Soon, the drinking hour between knock-off at five and closing time at six became known as the six o’clock swill, as, shoulder to shoulder, men struggled valiantly to down as much beer as possible.
“A few minutes before six, various rituals would start,” one drinker recalls. “Bells would ring, and the barman would call, ‘Drink up, you jokers.’ The practice was to fill up everything you could get your hands on and glug it down at top speed before the herd was propelled out onto the street.”
It was the passing of an era which would not be mourned.
In 1971, my next door neighbour Hamish arrived back for the university holidays with his new girlfriend, a petite waif laden with a small tonnage of silver jewellery. He announced that she had converted him to vegetarianism. His mother was shocked.
Several days later, my own mother walked in the door and announced with a victorious expression that Hamish’s mother, a dietician at the local hospital who “knew what she was talking about,” had told her that she had been monitoring the young people’s diet ever since they had been home. She had concluded that Hamish could not possibly be getting enough protein.
Even today, the older generation still trots out this old protein deficiency humbug. The fact is, many New Zealanders eat far too much protein, and vegetarians have no difficulty reaching a recommended daily intake of around 50 grams from dairy products, nuts, legumes, seeds, grains and even green vegetables.
Of course, vegetarians had been around for a long time. The New Zealand Vegetarian Society was established in Auckland in 1943—interestingly, at a time when meat was being severely rationed. However, vegetarians were then so few in number that they could safely be categorised as cranks along with Seventh Day Adventists and conscientious objectors, which, indeed, a number of them were.
This new wave of vegetarianism, though, was associated with a younger generation which was questioning every established value. It went with long hair, beards, embroidered muslin smocks, Moroccan money beads, sandals with tyre soles,shoulder bags, bell bottoms, rock music, promiscuity, Vietnam war protesters, Indian mysticism and drugs. It was all profoundly threatening to Trevor and Sharon Ruck.
We ate lentils. We battled with beans. Muesli was not yet commercially available, so we made our own, as well as sprouting our own bean sprouts and incubating yoghurt in our hot water cupboards. Brewers’ yeast and wheat germ were sprinkled over muesli, slices of toast, salads—everything. This, note, is in complete contrast to the health food fashion of today, which is to have your naturopath discover that the cause of your ill-health is an allergy to yeast, wheat and dairy products.
At least this hippie food was an improvement on the first influx of vegetarian fare, the pinnacle of which had been to produce the dreaded nut cutlet and other ersatz meats.
As the drop-out generation dropped back in, they bought and began restoring this country’s Victorian and Edwardian villas, undoing all the so-called kitchen improvements of the 1950s. Off to the tip went the chrome-edged, by now faded red formica bench tops, and back came grandmother’s kitchen: colonial farm tables, bentwood chairs, old crocks and wood stoves. Into the stoves went loaves of wholemeal bread. At a time when Vogels bread was the only wholemeal loaf that could be bought, and even then not regularly in the provincial towns, home bread baking underwent a brief revival.
However, in the 1970s the appearance of hot bread shops filled the gap in the market, offering a variety of wholemeal and fancy breads never seen here before.
Pâté and garlic bread were the big appetisers of the 1970s, found on the menus of every BYO and home dinner party as well. Very soon it was not enough to produce straight chicken liver pâté. Port, bacon, and smoked snapper were forced through mincers or put in blenders which were not really up to the task, food processors having yet to hit the local market.
The other big dish of the 1970s was quiche. Today quiche sits alongside sausage rolls, custard squares and lamingtons in the perspex serving cabinet of your average suburban lunch bar, but in the 1970s only very cool chefs like us at Macavity’s in Wellington knew about it.
People were also beginning to do more with vegetables than just plain boiling them. Nicoise salad took off, as did the idea of dressing raw spinach and serving it with chopped bacon. Vinaigrette replaced the old condensed milk and vinegar forever, and only grandmother still shredded the lettuce for a salad.
“You have to remember that until then we’d had no oils to make vinaigrettes,” notes Alison Hoist.”Neither did we have any for cooking—the only olive oil in the house would have been in the bathroom cupboard and used for cleaning ears.” Suddenly, too, everyone had to own a wok, and every flat cooked chicken chow meins or stir-fry vegetables ad nauseam. Pasta no longer meant just macaroni cheese or spaghetti and meatballs. Lasagne and spaghetti bolognese became the great new family favourites—except for diehard fathers who wanted none of this foreign rubbish. And everybody learned to make pizza, even if it did end up topped with canned spaghetti, pineapple, cheddar and a multitude of other Kiwi ingredients which would have given an Italian a fit.
From the mid-1970s, Hudson and Halls camped it up on television with a show that was plainly intended more for entertainment than instruction.
As an over-filled food processor burst and sprayed David Hudson’s pristine dinner suit from head to foot, he had the presence of mind to stand there and laugh. They were the first to tell you that they were cooks, not chefs.
By contrast, Des Britten brought to his television show a decade’s experience as a professional chef at his restaurant The Coachman. (He now spends most of his time as parish priest of St Barnabas, in the Wellington suburb of Roseneath). With his mop of hair coming down over his ears, his sideburns not quite meeting at the chin, and his wild floral shirts, Britten certainly cut a flamboyant figure on the screen as he demonstrated the dishes which for years had served him so well: French onion soup, vichyssoise, Mice Lorraine (pancakes filled with ham, cheese and cream), béarnaise sauce. It’s a pity that béarnaise sauce has gone out of fashion today, particularly since the fresh tarragon, which we can now get, adds a pungent edge to this wickedly rich liaison of egg yolk and butter.
The influence of Britten’s weekly show could be tangibly measured. It was noted by Jack Forsyth, then of Turners and Growers, but soon to become a national institution himself as New Zealand’s “voice of the vegetables” on National Radio every week.
“When Des used eggplants in a show, we’d sell out of them at the Wellington produce market next morning,” Forsyth says.
Our range of fruits and vegetables was expanding all the time. No longer did we have to grow our own courgettes, capsicums, endives and Chinese cabbages, as the local greengrocer now stocked them. Papayas and Limes from the islands began to appear in small quantities.
By the mid-1970s, it was becoming obvious to certain astute restaurateurs that people’s attitudes were changing. Going out to a restaurant was still an extra-special occasion for most New Zealanders, but there was also a growing number of city dwellers who would eat out a lot more if the prices were lower and the atmosphere more relaxed.
At that time there were still a few jaded coffee lounges and the really posh restaurants—but nothing in between. Along came the BYO, with accompanying fortunes for a handful of pioneers such as Wellington’s Harry Seresin, founder of the Settlement, Jeff Kennedy of Toad Hall, and Pierre Meyer of Pierre’s.
With the obvious success of these places, a host of imitators got into the act in the late 1970s. Suddenly every frustrated schoolteacher or company representative decided their true vocation was as a restaurateur. They decked out their restaurants with red tablecloths, and chalked on the obligatory blackboard the inevitable menu of garlic prawns, pepper steak, chicken chasseur, potato croquettes, steamed broccoli and carrots and Black Forest cherry cake. And regardless of how well they could actually cook these things, their tables filled up night after night.
“Whose turn is it to cook?” was the nightly question on the lips of the 1980s generation. As more women entered the workforce, and night after night both husband and wife arrived home tired after a day at the office, the ideal solution, if they had no children, would be to both go out to dinner. Cafés and brasseries were now seen simply as an alternative to cooking at home, rather than as somewhere special to go for a grand slap-up meal.
This was the decade when New Zealand food really came of age, coinciding with a food boom which was happening in Britain, Australia, and the United States, and an entertainment boom which gave us more and better nightclubs, live music venues, theatre and cinema.
A flood of new, lavishly illustrated and photographed overseas cookery books joined our trusty Edmonds Cookbook (still the most popular, with three million copies sold since it was first published in the early 1900s).
Television tempted us with a wider range of exotic foods than ever before. Robert Carrier took us on a food and wine tour of France, Ken Horn showed us the cuisines of China, and Madhur Jaffrey those of South East Asia.
Food and wine festivals became an annual event in the main wine regions of Marlborough, Hawkes Bay and Martinborough, joined in 1991 by Wellington, where 8000 patrons sipped and tasted to the tunes of a Russian balalaika band, surrounded by giant Bacchanalian banners and Greek urns.
New Zealanders began to realise how suitable our climate was for growing Mediterranean foods, and our home cooking began to reflect this. The closely related Middle Eastern cuisine also took on. Thus, of the fashionable home dishes of the eighties, some that stand out are hummus, ratatouille, tabouleh and, in more recent years, pesto.
We also discovered afresh that we are surrounded by sea, and, as a result, many new deepwater species have reached our tables—fish such as orange roughy, with its shellfish flavour, succulent texture and tendency to break into thick, pearly white flakes at the touch of a fork. In 1989 it was named Fish of the Decade by Time.
This heightened profile for the fishing industry has paved the way for New Zealanders to try hitherto neglected species such as blue cod, kahawai, and bluenose—all of which are regularly sold in fish shops now—although this has partly been a matter of necessity, since stocks of traditional inshore species such as snapper and tarakihi have been severely depleted by over-fishing.
The last five years have seen the growth of greenshell mussels in the domestic market—both as marinated mussels in pottles and sold fresh in the shell in tubs of running water in our supermarkets—along with other less traditional shellfish such as cockles, clams and queen scallops.
This increased openness of Pakeha towards shellfish reflects a wider cultural outlook away from Europe, and an increasing appreciation of New Zealand’s culinary place in the Pacific. Fish marinated in lemon juice and then mixed with coconut cream is no longer considered so very strange, nor is the idea of combining fish with tropical fruits.
The F-Plan, the Vogel bread diet, the Beverly Hills diet and the Pritikin diet all came and went during the 1980s, but a concern with healthy eating—cutting down our intake of fats, sugars and salt—has grown steadily. It was closely connected to the 1980 cult of fitness, which is still with us today.
People began to switch from butter to margarine, cream to yoghurt, meat to fish. In response, fat-reduced sour cream hit the market, and trim and super-trim milk began to take over from traditional full-cream.
The number of cheese types we produce has leapt from 15 to nearly 70, as small craft cheesemakers such as Kapiti, and large factories such as Ferndale Dairies have revived ancient techniques. Our winemakers are winning international awards. Our range of vegetables is wider than it’s ever been, and getting our fruits and vegetables fresh has become a national obsession. And now the growing seasons have blurred—there are so many varieties available that most vegetables can be grown the whole year round.
“Did you know,” asks Jack Forsyth wonderingly, “we now have eight different varieties of lettuce to choose from?”
At home, some of the things which have been an integral part of old New Zealand are dying. Preserving, alas, is disappearing as home gardens also disappear—last year Alison Holst was asked to do demonstration bottles of preserves which were shown around the country, almost as art pieces of a bygone era. And as women’s spare time is used for other things, baking, too, is on its way out.
It’s a fair bet we’ll see continuing changes in food retailing as well. Already, delicatessens and health food shops are being muscled out by the fast-growing range of their product lines in supermarkets. In 1990 wine, too, went on sale in supermarkets for the first time. Will this mean the end of the wine outlets, which sprang up all over the country with the astounding growth of the wine industry in the past 40 years?
Some things change; some stay the same. A 1990 study of what’s on our shopping lists shows fewer newcomers than you might expect. In the top 50 grocery items Coca Cola, tea bags, dairy food desserts, potato chips, and margarine (which, oddly, was only available on a doctor’s prescription until the early 1970s) would all be new to Sharon Ruck. But most of the other top sellers—white bread, milk, butter, cheddar cheese, spaghetti, tomato sauce, to name just a few—were all there in the ’50s and seem well entrenched.
For those of us who cook at home, the past decade has given us two very significant inventions—the food processor and the microwave. Yet,after we take our dinner out of the microwave, half of us would rather plonk ourselves in front of the television set to eat it than sit around talking to each other as we would have done 40 years ago. And now, according to research, 40 per cent of us have takeaways at least once during the working week. For many of us food is still just a pit stop.
But a much healthier pit stop, surely? We’re all so much more knowledgeable about cholesterol and food additives; so much more discerning about what we put inside us. We’re healthier than we’ve ever been, right? Wrong, says the recently formed Nutrition Task Force, which has just completed a study of our eating habits. Their results show that we are still a nation of gluttons and fatties. More than 40 per cent of us are overweight, mainly because of the number of kilojoules we still gorge in the form of our dairy and meat produce. The government will this year announce a national nutrition policy, to highlight our guilt and show us the way to gastronomic redemption.
For the past three years of the current economic depression, the posh restaurants have been hurting. There is huge competition from café-style ethnic restaurants, run by a new wave of immigrant groups—Indian, Turkish, Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian. Ethnic food fairs are almost a monthly event in Wellington, whether it is the Chinese Anglican bazaar, that of the Indian Association, or the Buddhist community raising funds for their monastery in Stokes Valley. Some Pakeha restaurateurs have been taking cooking lessons in Thailand to compete.
Of the top restaurants, Auckland’s Antoine’s and Number Five are still hanging on, but it hasn’t been easy. The high spending days leading up to the 1987 stockmarket crash, when people were paying up to $2500 for a bottle of wine, are just a memory. The bubble has burst with a savageness that has sent many of the best restaurants to the wall. Since 1987, the reluctance to spend has meant that patronage isn’t even as good as the quiet days of the 1980s. In Wellington, Le Normandie has closed, Orsini’s lies empty and Plimmer House has been turned into a bistro. As recently as February of this year, Britten’s Coachman finally hung up its reins after 26 years.
Restaurants are doing their own thing these days, and not slavishly following fashion. The public, not to mention the chefs, have become utterly sick of food which looks as though it should be framed and hung on the wall rather than eaten—feathered sauces, and arrangements that look so much the same that they appear to have fallen on to the dish through a template. We seem to be turning our back on nouvelle cuisine and yearning for the traditional piles on the plate.
And now there is a retrograde move towards what has been described in Great Britain as “boy’s food”—the sort of thing that today’s corporate executives remember with nostalgia from their boarding school days at Christ’s. One of the initiators of this move in New Zealand is, of all people, Tony Astle of Antoine’s, with oxtail stews, fish cakes, tripe and bread-and-butter pudding. “The sorts of things their wives don’t want to cook for them,” says Astle wryly.
Trevor Ruck wouldn’t be able to believe his luck. In the unlikely event of his ending up at Antoine’s, he would tuck into everything at once, blithely unaware that the wheel had turned full circle.
The fact is that the great New Zealand food revolution has yet to reach Kaipiro. Trev has been cooking for himself over the past 13 years, ever since Sharon walked out on him for Gary Scrum. You will find Trev still playing darts at the public bar of the Turf Hotel, and he may even invite you back to his place after closing time for a feed.
Now that Sharon is gone, the house is filthy and the kitchen table so sticky you are not quite sure where to put your hands.
“Right, I’m going to cook you some of the tucker I was brought up on—a real Depression meal,” Trev announces.
On top of the stove is a large frying pan. In it is fat—solid congealed fat, centimetres deep. Out of the fridge come sausages—two each—and these are placed on top of the cold fat while the element is fired up. Eventually they drop through the holes in the fat, and as the whole stale mass heats up you realise that this is where the predominant smell of the house comes from. The sausages, once fried, are tossed on to your cold plate, so the grease splatters across the surface and turns white.
“Now, let me show you the only way to butter thin bread,” Trev says. Holding a loaf of white bread in the crook of his arm, he scoops a knife into the pan and slathers a coating of fat over the end of the loaf, then carefully cuts off a thin slice from near the end.Two slices of bread and dripping. two sausages—that’s your meal, sport, and you’d better be grateful for it.
Is this an exaggeration? Have things really not greatly changed in rural New Zealand? Well, consider the meal I was served, not three days ago, at a country pub in the backblocks of Hawkes Bay: a slab of steak, a pile of chips (to be fair, both cooked well), with a dab of shredded lettuce on the side, saturated with sweetened condensed milk dressing and topped with sliced beetroot bleeding into a quarter of hardboiled egg.