Like granny used to, Tony Simpson

New Zealand Food and Cookery  
David Burton
David Bateman, $59.99,
ISBN 9781860537289

Over the last two or three years it has been almost impossible to turn on the television in the early evening or to go into a bookshop without encountering a programme or publication on traditional New Zealand cuisine. The books, in particular, have either been new compilations of traditional recipes, or reprints of past classics, such as the Aunt Daisy Cookbook. Cooking like granny used to is suddenly all the vogue.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with cooking like granny. My own grandmother was an excellent cook who taught me many of the basic culinary skills I use every day, although I suspect a lot of it was to do with the exploitation of child labour when hard graft, such as the creaming of butter and sugar, had to be done. I was nothing loath, ready to be bribed every time with the promise of being allowed to “lick the bowl” when the mixture was turned out into the baking tin.

But the most intriguing thing was that I never saw her use a recipe book of any sort, not even an exercise book with scribbled recipes gleaned from others. It was all in her head, and, if it had not at least in part been passed on to me, that encyclopaedic fount of knowledge would have been lost when granny went the way of all flesh in 1970. So it’s just as well that someone is writing all this oral and related knowledge down before it vanishes.

People have, of course, been doing this for some time, although the forms it has taken until recently have been not very accessible. The Turnbull Library has, for example, a small number of 19th century recipe books in its Wellington collections, and others have, thankfully, over the years, put together collections of those ubiquitous fund-raisers, the kindy or play centre recipe book.  Not unusually these contain a few favourite recipes solicited from “celebrities” of the day – in my own office in Parliament we keep a recipe for spaghetti bolognese on the computer so my boss can respond to requests of this sort – but mostly they follow the oral tradition of hand-me-downs, that of my own granny writ large. These latter are largely private or hobby collections and, unless you know the collector, you can’t get to them.

To his credit, David Burton got onto this need to collect and preserve long before anyone else. In the days when the height of culinary sophistication was Graham Kerr or Hudson and Halls on the new- fangled television explaining how to “do” a coq au vin, and the recipes of our forebears were starting to be spurned in Grey Lynn and Kelburn, if not in our rural hinterlands (where the tradition has never died out or been laughed at and is still going strong to this day), Burton was collecting New Zealand recipes.

Eventually many of these appeared in Two Hundred Years of New Zealand Food and Cookery, published in 1982 and long out of print. This comprehensive collection of recipes and miscellaneous information sometimes turns up in second-hand bookshops. I keep an eye out for it, buy it when I see it, and distribute copies to friends and relations on suitable festive occasions. I won’t be put to that shift any longer. Burton’s new book, while not exactly a reprint of the earlier volume, carries much of the same information and recipes, but with much also that is new, including a paean to making brawn out of a pig’s head, a culinary accomplishment to which I also own up and which I vigorously applaud.

Essentially the book is a survey. It starts with what we know of the diet of the original inhabitants – some of which came with them and some of which they found and adapted here – and the changes the gradual incursion of Europeans into this part of the world brought. It tracks the eruption of British cuisine into this country, its adaption to new circumstances and the abundance of ingredients in the period of 19th century mass immigration, and its continuation into the decades after WWII, the origin, as it happens, of my own and our granny tradition in food.

The first part of the book, an interesting and thoughtful canvas of the social background, covers the ground very well, although some readers might find Burton’s views on the origins and development of an eating-out culture in New Zealand mildly heretical.  Generally I agree with him that what we thought was rather sophisticated, as this culture developed, would look fairly tatty by today’s standards. But others may find themselves abruptly disillusioned of their fond memories of the restaurants of Wellington in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, if anyone is entitled to their views in that area it is Burton, who has not only lived through most of it, but has been a restaurant reviewer for over 20 years, and won numerous awards for his writings on this and other aspects of food. I admire his tenacity and commitment.  I lasted only three years as a restaurant reviewer before being driven out in exasperation by the pretensions of some cooks and the ignorance of eating-house managers and owners.

In a jacket note to the book, food writer Peta Mathias, who is also someone I read assiduously and with much pleasure, describes Burton as the Jeffrey Steingarten of New Zealand.  For those who don’t know, Steingarten is a highly regarded New York-based restaurant reviewer, who writes in the literary style and tradition of the New Yorker and its ilk. I don’t think this characterisation is quite right (although Burton also has a secret life as a published poet of some note and, thereby, the accompanying literary credentials); this is not that sort of book.  Like some of his others, such as the widely admired French Colonial Cookery and The Raj at Table, it is a work of research scholarship as much as it is a clear and lucid piece of writing.

That doesn’t mean it will not be useful as a working cookbook. I’m sure that my own copy will, over the years, develop a patina of buttery thumb prints and random splashes of gravy on its pages, the sure sign that this is a real cook book and not just for the coffee table or the library. But it is also going to be an indispensible work of reference for those interested in the social history of our food.


Tony Simpson is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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