First Catch Your Weka: A Story of New Zealand Cooking
Auckland University Press, $49.99,
There’s an Aberdeen sausage, rosy pink and coated in breadcrumbs, on a plate in my fridge. I’d never made one before and wouldn’t ever have got around to it if it hadn’t been for this book and Veart’s joyful memory of this homemade luncheon sausage as “a childhood favourite …at beach picnics. A big slab with fresh tomatoes and tomato relish in white bread doorsteps fuelling hours of time in the surf.”
Although it was his tasty recollection that sent me straight to the stove, Veart’s book is much more than a nostalgic culinary journey. Even such a simple dish as this is placed in its historical context, the author providing two versions of the recipe, one from 1905 and a fancier one from 1926. He also informs us that “the idea of boiling, or more usually simmering, large pieces of meat, in this case a sort of meatloaf (wrapped in a cloth), is a technique that has almost vanished, with the notable exception of corned beef and the Maori boil-up.” The pages are full of such insights.
Any idea that the history of New Zealand food is a simple and straightforward one is quickly dispelled by Veart, who sees complexity and contradictions at every turn. On the one hand, our early cooks often had to deal with scarcity, from harvest failures to the hard times of depressions and wars. “Waste not, want not” was every cook’s motto and the art of cooking with leftovers highly regarded. And yet at the same time, local cookery books were full of recipes for luxurious confectionery, cakes and biscuits and sugary preserves.
Early settlers were determined to bake good bread, nurturing homemade sourdough yeasts and hefting cast iron camp ovens, yet once commercial yeast and domestic ovens were widely available, most home bakers gave up on yeast and embraced baking powder instead. Maori bread, rewena paraoa, is the only living relic of our early yeast breads. Veart cherishes our quaint habit of serving wintery food at Christmas as a valid festive quirk, but wonders why we haven’t also developed a winter festival that is distinctively ours. He may not have all the answers but he certainly asks some interesting questions.
The book is arranged in two alternating threads. The first is a narrative of New Zealand cooking, each chapter covering a decade or so of our history. The second thread comprises a collection of essays on subjects that have tickled the author’s fancy. One of my favourites compares the recipes in a 1940s New Zealand Women’s Institute cookbook, with a similar book from Yorkshire, a comparison showing that by then, New Zealand cooks were already striking out on their own. For example, both books included many dessert recipes, but while Yorkshire cooking was still dominated by hot puddings, our cooks had already devised more than 50 new cold desserts. Compared with our Yorkshire relatives we were also dab hands at putting cheese in everything.
Veart’s main source of information is locally published cookbooks. He admires the hundreds of fundraising cookbooks put out by community groups, but is also a champion of individual writers, such as the remarkable Catherine Julia Mackay, a journalist who wrote “Cookery Chats” under the name “Katrine” in the Weekly Press in Christchurch in the 1920s. Veart describes her as our first modern food writer, her chats weaving together not only recipes but her own experiences and philosophy of life. He also praises a handful of gentle writers from the 60s: Elizabeth Messenger, Madeleine Hammond and Noel Holmes, each of whom had a unique view of our cuisine.
Soon after this the crowds began to gather, not only in books and magazines, but also on television. He gives due recognition to the most important of these, people such as Tui Flower, Alison Holst and Digby Law, but when it comes to the last 20 years, there are so many local food writers he has space to mention only a few. I am grateful to be one of them.
The first thing you want to do when you hold this big beautiful book in your hands is to riffle through it, looking at the astonishing photographs, running your tongue over the recipes and stopping to read whatever catches your eye. This is pleasure enough, but the rewards will be even greater if you read the book from beginning to end, revelling in the author’s scholarship, wit and hearty appetite as he tells his unique story of our country’s rich culinary history.
Lois Daish is a Wellington food writer and former New Zealand Listener columnist.