Towards a decent feed, Lois Daish

A Distant Feast. The Origins of New Zealand’s Cuisine
Tony Simpson
Godwit, $34.95,
ISBN 1 86962 037 2

One of the most important pieces of baggage any immigrant brings with them to their new home is a knowledge of how to cook. Not just any old food, but how to cook the food which to them feels right and proper. Tony Simpson’s new book gives us an insight into the food that felt right and proper to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to New Zealand from the British Isles in the second half of the 19th century.

Simpson, who is as much the raconteur in print as he is in person, builds his story anecdote by anecdote. Some anecdotes reach right back to the time when Britannia was a province of Rome and the ruling classes adopted the Roman habit of elaborate banquets consumed while reclining on couches. Later, the Crusaders returned from the Middle East with spices, dried fruit and a taste for sweet and sour. Adventurers to the New World brought back potatoes, tomatoes and corn.

By the beginning of the 19th century, cooking in Britain had absorbed all these influences, although it could not be said that British cuisine was either simple or unified. Simpson records the sharp contrasts between rich and poor, rural and urban, North and South – all groups represented among the thousands of people who set sail for New Zealand.

Astonishingly, Simpson contends that most immigrants were of one mind when it came to the food they wanted to eat in their new home. The rich intended to continue gorging on noble roasts of beef, soups, ragouts, pies and pastries, while the poor longed to leave behind their usual bread and potatoes livened up with a few scraps of bacon. Simpson makes the interesting point that the poor would have been well aware of how well the rich ate. Some had already observed it first-hand on feast days and market days in rural towns while others had been servants in aristocratic households. Once on board the tiny sailing ships, they couldn’t avoid catching a glimpse of the complex meals consumed by the 16 or so cabin passengers and comparing these with the simple fare dished up to the 300 steerage travellers.

The defining characteristic of British cuisine at this time was that meat held pride of place. Beef was the most revered, although bacon was often the only meat available to the lower classes. Bread and increasingly potatoes provided the necessary starchy filler. Cheese, milk, cream and eggs were also important. Fruit and vegetables, usually eaten thoroughly cooked, were of lower status. Cakes, puddings and pies were a regular part of the diet of the well-off. In the archives of my own wider family, this was nicely summed up by John Kerr, a Nelson runholder who was the son of an immigrant Scottish ploughman. In an election speech in 1890, he declared in his broad Scots accent: “I’m a British man and I believe in beef, pudding and beer.”

For many immigrants it was easy to make their dream cuisine come true. Most arrived with seeds and plants ready to establish kitchen gardens and until these bore fruit, they could buy familiar foods such as wheat, potatoes and pork from local Maori who had been growing them since the time of Captain Cook. Cattle, sheep and goats were soon thriving and there was even local game in the shape of pigeons, kaka and pukeko. The climate was similar to Britain and once the bush was cleared, the ground was fertile.

Other factors, too, helped British cooking to survive. Published recipe books were becoming commonplace and supplemented smaller hand-written collections and memories of home. The kitchen range, invented only 50 years before and in Britain found only in wealthy households, quickly became a standard item in most New Zealand kitchens, with Henry Shacklock’s design becoming the most popular. These ranges had good ovens for roasting meat, which was much easier than using a spit, and also allowed the baking of cakes and scones. Servants were hard to find in the new colonies, and ladies entertained with bread, cakes and tarts which could be prepared ahead of time. Naturally, the many excellent English and Scottish baking recipes set the standard. Generous and unquestioned hospitality was an essential element of colonial life and this too helped establish a standard cuisine that would be enjoyed by all comers.

The departure of the first cargo of frozen mutton in 1882 and the consequent growth of pastoralism were not only  significant economic events for farmers and shippers but also for local consumers, who could buy cheap meat and so satisfy their meat-eating aspirations. Before long New Zealanders were consuming more mutton per capita than any other nation on earth. There was every reason to maintain and develop traditional British cooking and no reason at all to abandon it.

Although the Maori had successfully lived off the land before European settlement, the British settlers never established a subsistence or peasant cuisine, based on a handful of local ingredients, which might have led to a distinctive regional cuisine. It was too late for that to be either sensible or possible. Simpson makes the important point that right from the beginning of British settlement New Zealand was part of the international food economy and our trading role as a producer of meat and dairy products served to lock us into a British style of cuisine. In a concluding chapter, which reads as something of an afterthought, Simpson puts the case that New Zealand’s food is still controlled by global influences, which are still largely outside our control.

However, the main body of the book ends in the closing years of last century when British influence on our cuisine was still almost intact. Now a hundred years later it is a popular notion that most New Zealanders have left all that British stodge behind. Certainly, if you study the menus of restaurants in any of our cities, it might appear that we live on Thai curry, Italian risotto and Pacific Rim gingered hapuka on polenta; and as you drive through towns and city outskirts you can’t miss the bright signs of international fast food chains. Young cooks fill their cupboards with pasta and rice, and find potatoes too troublesome to store and cook.

But for all that, the cuisine described by Simpson is still a powerful force in our kitchens and dining rooms. Those of us with adult children who like to come home for meals know that when they open the door they hope to get a whiff of roast lamb and kumara, not basil and parmesan. The same goes for the New Zealand Navy. In June of this year it was reported that the galley of the new frigate Te Kaha, which had been designed in Germany to cook boiled sausages and pasta dishes, was about to be rebuilt with more ovens to cook roast dinners. When Captain Pat Williams was asked if the Navy could rebuild the eating habits of the sailors instead, he said: “There are some cultural norms way beyond the Navy’s ability to change.” This winter at “Nikau”, one of Wellington’s smartest cafés, there were two pasta dishes on the menu: fettuccine with white pesto and roasted garlic, and Mary’s macaroni cheese. Orders for the homely macaroni far outnumbered those for the elegant fettuccine. A couple of years ago when I had a radio talkback programme about food, the favourite subjects were whitebait fritters, pickled onions, corned beef and how to ensure that pork crackling always crackled.

Put all these together and you have something much stronger than mere nostalgia for a bygone cuisine. If that were the case, you might find a recipe for scones printed on a teatowel at the airport souvenir shop, but never bake them at home; or roast lamb with mint sauce might be served to foreign guests at a historic house, but never to our own families. Instead, the cooks of New Zealand, at home and increasingly in restaurants, are effortlessly retaining the essential idea of our traditional food while at the same time moving it along to meet changes in our taste and the way we live. The scones may now be flavoured with dried cranberries and grated orange zest instead of sultanas; and the roast lamb is more likely to be a rack than a leg, and may be served with an aubergine purée instead of mint sauce and zucchini instead of peas.

The stories Simpson recounts and the sometimes tangled historical thread that holds them together are not about a cuisine we left behind with the coal range. They are wonderful stories about the origins of the food we still hold dear.

Lois Daish is a Wellington food writer.

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