First Catch Your Weka: The Story of New Zealand Cooking

First Catch Your Weka: The Story of New Zealand Cooking

by David Veart

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Analyzing more than 150 years of recipes and cookbooks, this study chronicles the culinary history of New Zealand, looking at curious dishes such as boiled calf's head and stewed liver with macaroni, to the more traditional favorites such as homemade jams and chutneys. It explores what makes New Zealand cooking distinctive, and examines how the culture has changed, from the prevalence of whitebait and mussels in the 1920s, to the arrival of Asian influences in the 1950s, and finally to the modern emphasis on fresh ingredients and fusion cooking.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781775580683
Publisher: Auckland University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 360
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

David Veart is a New Zealand Department of Conservation historian and archaeologist, and has published several papers and reports for the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and the Department of Conservation.

Read an Excerpt

First Catch Your Weka

A Story of New Zealand Cooking

By David Veart

Auckland University Press

Copyright © 2008 David Veart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77558-068-3


Cookbooks Brought From Home

The Early Nineteenth Century

When the East Polynesian colonists set off for Aotearoa 1000 years ago they took with them on their double-hulled voyaging waka all the animals, plants and tools they needed to make a new life on whatever islands lay over the horizon. They packed their stone adzes, their pearl-shell fishing lures; they brought dogs and kumara and taro, yams and gourds and probably their pigs, chickens, coconuts, bananas and breadfruit. What they found when they arrived here was a large temperate landmass quite unlike anything they had seen before. For 800 years they adapted their food gathering and production to this new land and as part of this process they became Maori.

Along the way they discovered that many of the plants they had brought from Polynesia would not grow without year-round tropical temperatures, and for reasons unknown their pigs and chickens did not survive. In the northern parts of New Zealand Maori settlers had to develop new ways of growing and storing their crops. In the south where none of the traditional vegetables would grow, the hunting and gathering of wild foods took on new importance. A Maori food culture developed based on native plants, cultivated vegetables, seafood and birds. This adaptation, however, was still recognisably Polynesian in origin, with foods similar to those of tropical Polynesia cooked in earth ovens or hangi.

The European colonists who followed Maori from the 1830s were to go through a similar process, although in their case they were moving from colder to warmer climes. These new settlers, mostly from the British Isles, also brought their familiar tools and plants and animals to assist in their Pacific reconstruction of Home. Before they left, the prospective immigrants were subject to a large amount of well-meaning and at times self-interested advice on what essential supplies were needed. Among these advisers was Edward Jerningham Wakefield.

Wakefield, son of New Zealand Company founder and colonisation promoter Edward Gibbon Wakefield, was one of early colonial New Zealand's more colourful characters. Governor Robert FitzRoy called him the 'Devil's Missionary' and one biographer described him as having a 'damning reputation for flawed and wasted brilliance'. Even his father labelled him 'a wastrel and a failure'. He had, however, spent time in New Zealand, arriving with his uncle, Colonel William Wakefield, on the Tory in 1839, so his advice had some practical application.

In 1848 he summed up his New Zealand experiences in The Handbook for New Zealand, published as a guide to prospective European settlers. In his 'Advice to Intending Colonists' he noted everything he thought immigrants should bring with them to make a success of life on the other side of the world. His list included skills in surgery, an ability to 'bleed, set a broken or dislocated limb', to 'row with sailors' oars' and to have skills in 'ship building ... fencing and the broadsword'. But right near the beginning of his extensive catalogue of instructions to colonists he wrote: 'COOKERY, – Ladies intending to colonise will of course learn it. There is in New Zealand such variety and abundance of the best materials for food that even Soyer's Book may be studied and packed up for the colonial library.' Ladies, pack your cookbooks. And not just the ladies. Wakefield continued: 'To men some knowledge of cookery, such as making bread, &c., comes not amiss in exploring expeditions; and the ability to kill and clean a hog or a sheep is far from useless'.

Wakefield had experienced the epicurean delights of Europe, so it was perhaps typical that in choosing cookbooks for life in the colonies he listed those of Alexis Soyer, the French-born chef at London's Reform Club and the greatest celebrity cook of his day. Soyer was renowned for his culinary tours de force and had prepared breakfast for 2000 at Queen Victoria's coronation in 1837. Despite his celebrity status, however, he was a man with a social conscience who led culinary crusades to improve the lot of the lower orders. He had, for example, gone out to the Crimean War at his own expense and helped to raise the standard of military cookery, to the great benefit of the ordinary soldier. The resulting cookbook, Soyer's Culinary Campaign Being Historical Reminiscences of the Late War. With The Plain Art of Cookery For Military and Civil Institutions, the army, navy, public, etc. etc., included such remarkable recipes as Turkish Pilaff for One Hundred Men, Tea for Eighty Men and Soyer's Food for One Hundred Men, using Two Stoves.

Soyer's headquarters, the Reform Club in London's Pall Mall, had been founded in 1836 and had a membership of about 2000. The kitchens, designed by Soyer, included game larders kept at a constant 40 degrees Fahrenheit, a butchery room with slate-slabbed cutting benches, special charcoal-fired ovens for carefully controlled vegetable cooking, and large numbers of assistants. The colonial cook was unlikely to find such features in her own kitchen, if indeed she had a kitchen at all.

Soyer's many cookbooks attempted to cater to all classes of society. They ranged from The Poor Man's Regenerator for a penny a copy to The Gastronomic Regenerator: A Simplified and Entirely New System of Cookery, With Nearly Two Thousand Practical Receipts Suited to the Income of All Classes, the size of which matched the length of the title. Soyer was, however, more at home cooking for the upper classes and this is most obvious in his famous Reform Club recipe classics. While New Zealand's enthusiastic sheep eaters could have successfully made a go of the first part of his recipe for Côtelettes de Mouton à la Reforme, mutton chops fried in a mixture of chopped ham and breadcrumbs, the pint of sauce to accompany it would have required the full resources of the Reform Club kitchens. The ingredients needed for this famous recipe, such as the consommé, brown sauce and sauce Espagnole, required hours if not days of work, plus a large commercial kitchen, not something available to Wakefield's immigrant ladies cooking on an open fire, their copy of Soyer's Gastronomic Regenerator propped up on a convenient tree stump.

It may have been the great chef's charitable cookery rather than his elaborate dishes that Wakefield was thinking of when he recommended that immigrants pack 'Soyer's book'. During the Irish famine of 1847 Soyer had devised and organised soup kitchens to feed the starving Irish tenantry and perhaps it was this skill in pinch-gut catering that Wakefield had in mind.

Famine cooking of this sort showed vividly why people were willing to put up with months on a sailing ship to travel across the world to a new life. As the renowned English cookery writer of the last century, Elizabeth David, said of Soyer, 'the great innovator ... lost his touch when it came to addressing a humble audience in print'.

Despite the New Zealand Company's hopes of attracting Britons of all classes, the new colonists did not usually include prospective members of the Reform Club or many starving Irish peasants. Recipes for upper-class dining or charitable cookery from restaurant rubbish bins were not what the colonists needed; what they required were recipes from cooks. Despite Wakefield's advice, we need to look elsewhere for applicable and available cookbooks that were actually brought to New Zealand and which, by their page wear, indicate kitchen use.

The cookbooks that would have been familiar to the colonists were written by both men and women. The male authors were mostly, like Soyer, professional chefs; the women were cooks. Judging by the surviving cookbooks from this era, the books by the women seem to have been the most common. Among these women were Hannah Glasse, Eliza Acton and Isabella Beeton, the great female triumvirate of English cookery. All their books were enormously popular and give us a glimpse of English home cookery in the first few decades of European settlement in New Zealand. These cookbooks also provided a basis for later developments as local cooks and recipe writers adapted their nineteenth-century recipes to antipodean ingredients, weather and society.

By the 1840s the first of the triumvirate, Hannah Glasse, one of the great cookbook writers of the eighteenth century, was a household name, even in colonial New Zealand, where Heaphy could use her in his weka story and expect everyone to see the joke. For anyone following Wakefield's advice and thinking of packing a cookbook, a very good choice would have been Mrs Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which first appeared in 1747. One immigrant family thought so and their copy, a 1770 edition, is still in their possession over 230 years later. Hannah Glasse's boast in the sub-title of her book that it 'Far Exceeds any Thing of the Kind ever yet Published' was backed by sales: it remained a bestseller until the final edition in 1843.

The domestic arrangements in New Zealand in the 1840s and 1850s were probably closer to Mrs Glasse's eighteenth-century England than to the nineteenth-century country the immigrants had left. Her recipes largely pre-dated the Industrial Revolution: they were based, for the better-off Briton at least, on an abundance of fresh produce, especially vegetables, eggs and cream. The Art of Cookery gave non-technical recipes in a manner totally suitable to the colonial situation, where much of the food was cooked without anything we would recognise as an oven. She started her recipes with the assumption that most food was prepared from scratch: when vinegar was required in a recipe she assumed the cook would have made it, using her recipe, and most cooks in early colonial New Zealand shared this experience of beginning with only the basic raw materials. The following recipe from Hannah Glasse illustrates this type of cookery very well and still tastes as good as it did in 1770.

Another recipe using eggs and cream in a custard obviously appealed to one of the owners of this old copy of Art of Cookery; it is on the most stained page in the whole book. 'Sweeten it to your palate' – although, as we shall see, there was a strong Scottish basis for New Zealanders' love of sugar, baking and puddings, this recipe shows that English cookery had sweet delights as well.

Over the last two centuries the owners of this copy of The Art of Cookery have ticked off the recipes they have used or perhaps wanted to use. Among the most marked are those for game, perhaps reflecting the increased availability particularly of kereru, the native pigeon, which became a staple for many, meat-starved workers in the New Zealand back country. The use of a 'poor man's spit' to cook the pigeon would have been a bonus for many colonial women cooking without the benefit of a proper oven.

These recipes from Hannah Glasse reveal a world of British cookery more complex and sophisticated than we may have expected. Clever little custards rich with eggs, almonds and rosewater, perfect dishes of asparagus and carefully roasted game – all this is far removed from the giant joints and well -boiled vegetables of a later imagined British cuisine. As we work our way through the techniques used by the British immigrants learning to cook in a new land it is good to remember this rich rural eighteenth-century world where fresh food was cooked carefully and imaginatively. These foods, as much as the later Victorian recipes we are about to meet, were among the ancestors of New Zealand cookery.

A more immediate contemporary of New Zealand's colonial settlement was Eliza Acton. The first edition of her Modern Cookery for Private Families was published in 1847, the last in 1905. This book was more modern in appearance than Hannah Glasse's; it was, for example, the first cookbook to set out lists of ingredients separately and to take the cook through a logical set of instructions. With thought and some imagination you can cook from Hannah Glasse's recipes; Eliza Acton's, however, can be used in much the same way as a modern cookbook. I still use my own copy, an 1856 edition, the last version she amended before her death in 1859.

Like many of the nineteenth-century women cookbook writers, Eliza Acton was not a 'typical' Victorian. She remained unmarried, although stories of an illegitimate child, adopted by her sister and associated with a mysterious illness in Paris, were current in her family for the next two generations. She had originally submitted a volume of poetry to the publisher Longmans for consideration. This was rejected but with the advice that she would be better off going away to write a cookbook. Luckily she did.

Modern Cookery was written for an audience that had access to shops and commercially prepared ingredients. The vegetables Acton used included many that were just becoming fashionable at the time of New Zealand's European settlement. She included recipes for 'tomatas' (a spelling that also helps to explain my Cockney grandmother's pronunciation of tomato) and corn, a common Maori crop in this period. Her instructions 'To Boil Green Indian Corn' (corn on the cob) assumed that the cook was not very familiar with the vegetable. Acton recommended using immature cobs and commented that the Americans, 'who have it served commonly at their tables', ate the cobs at a more mature stage. However her instruction, 'send it to the table with melted butter', has been obeyed by cooks ever since.

When Modern Cookery first appeared in 1847, New Zealand had been officially part of the British world for only seven years. Other places had been British for somewhat longer and reverse culinary influences had begun to filter back into British dining rooms. Food historians have seen the place of curry in nineteenth-century English cookery as a metaphor for the domestication of imperialism and as an agent of cultural exchange between the colonisers and the colonised. Eliza Acton was part of this. The final chapter of Modern Cookery, entitled 'Foreign Cookery', included a number of recipes that owed their origins to British India, such as the breakfast classic, 'Kedgeree or Kidgeree', and another for curry powder made from freshly ground coriander, cumin, fenugreek and black pepper.

Curry powder was a British invention, criticised by numerous writers as a travesty of Indian cooking, and curry recipes from Home would leave their mark on later New Zealand cookbooks. Britain's early adoption of 'the curry' meant that Indian food as prepared by Indian cooks was almost totally absent from New Zealand cookbooks until at least the 1980s, replaced and overwhelmed by this bastard child of Anglo-Indian cookery.

Among Eliza Acton's British recipes were the outlines of dishes that would metamorphose into colonial New Zealand standards. The classic Colonial Goose, a stuffed leg of mutton, has its origins somewhere in New Zealand's past. Its name came from the use of poultry stuffing and from the fact that when the leg is tied appropriately it looks a bit like a goose, the lower part of the leg mimicking the bird's long neck. Acton gave a good recipe for stuffing, or forcing (hence forcemeat), a piece of mutton: Colonial Goose in all but name. Versions of this recipe continued to appear in New Zealand cookbooks until after the Second World War.

Among the most stained pages of my copy of Modern Cookery are the recipes for rabbits and hares. One nicely splattered page has a recipe for roast hare, an animal first seen on Banks Peninsula in 1851 but probably introduced by the French before then, which illustrates a major change in food presentation in the last 150 years. Victorians, in common with their medieval ancestors, liked to serve animals at the table in a form that reproduced the original shape. Today we do not like to be reminded that what we are eating once had a life; even a cursory examination of the butchery department at most supermarkets shows meat reduced to protein blocks in colours ranging from red to pink to white. In our local supermarket the offal section is kept well clear of the rest of the meat to protect shoppers from unpleasant surprises from meat with tubes, heads or feet. This was not a problem, however, for Victorian or colonial cooks and this robust attitude to meat cookery would be a feature of New Zealand cookbooks until at least the 1960s.


Excerpted from First Catch Your Weka by David Veart. Copyright © 2008 David Veart. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Half Title,
Title Page,
1 Cookbooks Brought From Home: The Early Nineteenth Century,
2 Our Daily Bread,
3 The Cookbooks of Empire: The Later Nineteenth Century,
4 Preserving the Quarter-Acre Harvest,
5 Cooking for Ourselves: 1900–20,
6 Sweet Teeth,
7 The Electrified Cult of Domesticity: The 1920s,
8 Handy Hints for the Household Manager,
9 Hard Times Meet Hollywood and Health Food: The 1930s,
10 The Cookbook Goes to War: The 1940s,
11 Jam and Jerusalem,
12 Beaming Housewives and the Meals Men Prefer: The Post-War World,
13 History in the Baking,
14 Flash, Foreign and the Arrival of the TV Cook: The 1960s,
15 Festival Food,
16 Test Kitchens and Gin-Soaked Salads: The 1970s,
17 From Foodies to Farmers' Markets: The Last 30 Years,
Index of Recipes,

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