Real Life

From the archives: Tui Flower in full bloom

The former New Zealand Woman's Weekly food editor's lasting legacy.

She may have been gone from the pages of New Zealand Woman’s Weekly for more than 25 years but former food editor Tui Flower has not been forgotten.

Every now and then – often when she’s popped out to the shops in her old gardening gear – someone will approach and ask, “Excuse me, are you Tui Flower?”

Generations of Kiwis remember her as the woman who inspired many of the meals they dished up, and some of us continue to use her recipes.

From 1965 until 1984 – years when we weren’t inundated with magazine recipes, food TV shows and cookbooks like we are now – it was Tui and the Weekly‘s Test Kitchen that women turned to for advice on everything from making “exotic” dishes, that included wine as an ingredient, to how to cook mince a dozen different ways.

She’s the person who introduced us to cooking with garlic and oil – and copped flak for it.

“I received letters asking why I was using that ‘foreign muck’ in my recipes,” she recalls. 

However, try to suggest to Tui that she’s had a huge influence on the culinary skills and eating habits of countless Kiwis and she dismisses the comment with a wave of her hand.

When I mention a US newspaper article that describes her as “the Julia Child of New Zealand”, she mutters something about “American rubbish”.

Tui says she was just doing her job. It was one she took great pride in and enjoyed very much, but at the end of the day, it was just providing a service.

“If people got something out of it, then that’s good,” she says in a no-nonsense tone typical of the school teacher she once was.

Now aged 84, Tui is still as sharp as one of her knives.

“I should tell you that I was the company dragon,” she warns when the Weekly arrives at her home, and I can easily believe that she doesn’t suffer fools or hesitate to speak her mind.

But there’s a twinkle in those bright blue eyes and a fondness in her voice when she reminisces about her 19 years at the magazine.

Tui is making a rare public appearance at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival this month, alongside other food writers whose recipes also feature in a recently released book called The Treasury of New Zealand Baking

After she retired, she gave a few talks to women’s clubs but that eventually went by the wayside. These days she keeps busy sewing, knitting and doing embroidery.

She also spends a lot of time in the large garden of her gracious Auckland villa and enjoys reading, especially books on history and cooking. And yes, she does still cook most days, even though it’s just for herself.

She was widowed in 1984, after just four years of marriage to Keith Aitken.

“Well, I have to eat,” Tui says.

“Sometimes I’ll have meals I’ve cooked earlier and frozen, but I make sure I have at least one good cooked meal a day – meat or fish and vegetables.”

And while dinner parties are now a thing of the past, she does still enjoy getting creative in the kitchen.

“I do like to experiment from time to time,” she smiles.

One thing Tui doesn’t do is watch cooking shows on TV.

“Oh, I’m not a fan,” she says. “I’m not a great TV watcher anyway. I’d rather read.”

She’s interested to see a resurgence in the popularity of home baking.

“I think it’s a good thing, especially if it encourages children. Hopefully it will lead to a general interest in cooking.”

She’s saddened that many Kiwi kids are growing up in homes where dinner often consists of takeaways or ready-meals heated in the microwave. “once upon a time, you learned from watching your mother and you cooked because you had to. But children aren’t doing that anymore. It’s common now to hear of people who can’t cook at all.”

“I’ve noticed how much more detailed recipes have to be these days because people aren’t familiar with the skills you need. My mother’s recipes used to list the ingredients and then say things like, ‘Cook as for sponge’ – people knew what to do because they did it all the time.” 

She understands that our changing circumstances are to blame – women who work often don’t have time to prepare meals and the array of convenience foods available makes feeding a family easier.

While there will always be those who love cooking, Tui knows it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to create meals from scratch every day.

“But I do think that everyone should be taught the basics, so they have the option of cooking, if they need to.”

The changes we’ve seen over the last few generations aren’t all bad, she says.

There’s now a huge range of foods to choose from and appliances have made life easier. Tui remembers when butter was kept cool by being placed on a brick in a bowl of water, which in turn was put into a tin in a hole in the garden and covered with a damp cloth.

“Technology is great but you don’t always need a lot of these fancy gadgets – I’m happy with my wooden spoon and wire whisk.” our interview winds up and Tui is looking forward to getting into the kitchen to start making jam from a bag of quinces she’s been given. 

“I’m always busy,” she says. “I can’t imagine having nothing to do. If I woke up one day and thought there was nothing to do, I would be very concerned.”

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