Ask Peter: Food heroes
Dear Peter. I have just had a very festive and indulgent Christmas and food was constantly on my mind. When you look back at your inspiration in the kitchen, who are your food heroes? Are they Michelin-trained chefs, international restaurant owners, TV celebrities? What got you on the road to cooking? Best wishes, Peter Gordon
Dear Peter. Funny you should ask that as I’ve been wondering the same thing recently, and I have to say that my inspiration as a young child was a combination of: eating meals at my paternal grandmother Molly Gordon’s home in Strathmore, Wellington; clipping recipes out of the always intriguing Woman’s Weekly, reading Alison Holst’s books and watching Hudson and Halls, Graham Kerr, and Des Britten on TV.
But the recipes that really stick in my mind are those incredibly simple ones that come from a time which seems a long while ago. I remember well the League of Mothers cookbooks that my gran and various other women had contributed to. What I loved about these recipes was the simple way in which they were written, because the authors assumed that the reader knew how to cook.
Late last year, my partner Al’s mother Muriel gave mean old cookbook and it immediately took me back to my childhood. Muriel inscribed it “With loving memories of my mother Muriel (Molly) Brown”. The fact Al and I both have a grandma Molly is also rather sweet.
Initially, I thought the book I was given, Tui’s Third Commonsense Cookery, was by my food hero equal to my gran, Tui Flower. However, it turns out that before Tui Flower, this other Tui (as described by Tui Flower) was apparently just an ordinary buddy who cooked well and put her recipes in books.
She may have been on one of the radio stations’ women’s hour programmes but our Tui can’t remember. She said that when she initially went to Woman’s Weekly and the Auckland Star, people did mix them up, but the early Tui had long gone and it wasn’t long before our version made her influence known!
I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with Tui Flower in Tonga and Auckland. We met for the first time at Auckland Airport’s check-in on June 8 2010; we were both headed to the Heilala vanilla plantation with a lovely group of food writers and food lovers. I was almost speechless when I went to introduce myself — such is her reputation.
Above: Tui with food writers Allyson Gofton (rear, from left) and Natasha MacAller at Heilala Plantation, Tonga, June 2010.
Many times throughout my childhood, my mother Timmy and my grandmother had spoken about Tui in thankful and loving ways. Tui structured many a meal for Timmy when she was first married to my father, Bruce, and I know she was thankful for the guidance. Mum had grown up reading all Tui had written and had followed her recipes and wise words to a T.
I had a terrific time in Tonga with our group and quite quickly fell under Tui’s magical spell. In fact, I think I developed a crush on her! Some months later I took my rather excited mum around to see Tui. Mum became speechless and slightly nervous and knocked a glass of wine over. Tui immediately stood up and told her how soda water and salt would clean it up —much as she’d written countless times before, no doubt.
In Tonga, under the palm trees and on a yacht trip, I loved talking to her and hearing her wise words on cooking mutton, baking shortbread in one of the earliest gas ovens, the changing ways of cooking at home and the importance of feeding a family real food, ideally from your own garden. Tui was bright and chipper and lots of fun. She also has the most sexy husky voice!
I caught up with Tui, now 91, a few months ago at her lovely Auckland home with its fabulous garden. Her great friend Joan Gilchrist was there and we all took morning tea in her conservatory. Tui had baked shortbread and we sat and chatted about her early years in Matamata, her lovely name (really, Tui and Flower — it’s just perfect), the time she went to live in America with her uncle, which opened her eyes to all sorts of new experiences. And then her time in England immediately afterwards — rather more grim in those days compared to a vibrant America.
She spoke fondly of a teaching job she took when she first got back, before she was awarded a scholarship to study cooking in Paris for a year, We spoke about Paris and how alien, yet comfortable that had felt; about people embracing the culture of food and wine and how that had a huge impact on her.
Her next job was working for a vegetable-processing business that needed a Home Economist. She loved the job for its challenges and potential, and enjoyed her time in Wellington. Looking back, my first interaction with Tui would have been in 1967 — two years after she took the foodie helm at the Woman’s Weekly, when I was 4. My mother recalls that she saw me cutting recipes out of the magazine and putting them into my scrapbook. These were the work of Tui and her team from the Weekly’s Test Kitchen.
I can’t recall noticing her name then, but as I got older, and kept cooking and clipping, Tui became a name I knew well. Before meeting her at the airport I must confess I’d imagined she was a six foot tall Maori woman! So, for all sorts of reasons, Tui Flower is my Food Hero. My gran passed away many years ago now, but Tui lives on and her books are worth sourcing and reading.
Her first was Tui Flower’s Cookbook dedicated to “my Mother and grandmother and great-grandmother whose love of cooking is my inheritance”. What I love most of all are the simple recipes, as Tui says in her introduction “… recipes from here for here”. She goes on, “This is a small book to use in the kitchen. A practical book. A book to work from.”
As a food writer, I know how much angst I feel when wondering whether my instructions are clear enough. In Tui’s writing, it is this simple. She instructs, “Read the recipes before you start to make them”. First comes the recipe title, then the ingredients, listed in strict order of their use in the method. Then the method, step by step in the same strict order.
The instructions are simple common sense. This is partly why Tui touched so many women and families, because she encouraged the housewife to cook better— and to leave some of the old ways behind as kitchen technology slowly improved. But she also had huge respect for tradition, and in Sarah Stuart’s Herald column Twelve Questions from 2013, Tui says “I think we need to get back to grating our own cheese and squeezing a lemon, rather than pouring it out of the bottle. We’re losing technique and the subtlety of taste.”
She always regarded herself as a teacher — just one without a classroom with walls. Tui, you are a legend!
Photographed at top of page: Tui (centre) with good friend Joan Gilchrist and Peter Gordon, at her home in November 2016.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.