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50 years of the Weekly test kitchen

From magic ways with mince to how to make muffins, we reminisce with the women who have influenced what we eat through the test kitchen.
Test Kitchen

The year was 1965 – Keith Holyoake was sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair as the population topped 2.6 million. TEAL renamed itself Air New Zealand, television in the four main centres was now being broadcast for a total of 50 hours a week, and you could get a pint of milk – delivered fresh to your letterbox – for around five pence.

It was also the year that the then-editor of the Weekly, Jean Wishart, revolutionised the way her magazine was run. Jean had examined the magazine industry in Europe and discovered many had a dedicated test kitchen – and now Jean wanted one back home. Creating recipes using ingredients available in New Zealand, specifically for New Zealanders was something that would set the Weekly apart, she thought.

Fresh from her own travels overseas – a year in Missouri and another studying in Paris – Tui Flower was a school teacher and home science graduate who put forward a successful application to run the kitchen. “I had reasonably good qualifications,” says a modest Tui, now 89. “It was a wonderful opportunity from my point of view, because it meant I was able to, more or less, teach by long distance.”

The doyenne of Kiwi food writing, Tui (right in the ’70s) ruled the test kitchen from 1965 until 1984. During that time she edited this cookbook (left), which has become a Kiwi classic.

She’d been warned she may also need to provide recipes for the Auckland Star newspaper and within just a few weeks, she was busy creating recipes for both titles. It was truly a testing time – a huge job for one person. Tui was in charge of creating, testing and writing recipes, as well as styling them for photography – on top of the shopping and cleaning. While covering the basic recipes, she was also researching new trends.

“I remember reading something in the paper about this new dish called a ‘keetch’,” she recalls. “Obviously, somebody had heard the word ‘quiche’, but not learned how to spell it!”

Meticulous planning was of the upmost importance, as Tui had to work ahead of time. “In those days, if I wanted to do a story on, say, asparagus, I would have to make it a year in advance because there was no way that I could have got the product early enough.” That’s because, when colour printing became the norm, there was a two-month delay for photos to be printed. “The asparagus season would be finished by then, so it would go into the magazine the following year.”

Tui, now 89, is still held in high regard by her fellow food writers. “I’ve opened the door, I guess, for a lot of people,” she says.

She was flooded with letters and phone calls asking for help. “I had to be aware of what was available to people all over the country – I could get letters saying, ‘Why are you talking about peaches, mine aren’t ready!’ or ‘Why do you have plums in, because mine are all finished!'”

Consideration also had to be paid to kitchen equipment – she couldn’t assume, for instance, that everybody had a refrigerator. But one of the biggest challenges during her time was the conversion to the metric system. “I had to make the readers realise that there was no big problem and carefully go through the adjustments, without scaring them rigid.”

As she also sat on the Metric Advisory Board, she had a detailed understanding of the process and it was a seamless transition at the Weekly. Changes also came when the Auckland Star editor asked her to do more. “He asked me how many recipes I was doing a week, and I said, ‘About 18 to 20.’ He replied, ‘My wife cooks more than that in a week!'” Tui says she “let drive” at him, explaining the scope of her role, and soon she had more staff – eventually swelling to a total of eight helpers.

The second person she hired was a 16-year-old Robyn Martin. “I remember going to the interview worried about the state of my fingernails,” laughs Robyn. Fifty years later, she’s still hiding her fingernails from Tui – stained from recently stoning plums.

First impressions are important to Tui, but regardless of the state of Robyn’s hands, she still hired her. Robyn’s grounding in the test kitchen gave her a great appreciation for the industry – as well as a few laughs. “When Tui visited Russia, we sent her a letter, addressed to ‘2E’ which we thought was clever, but I recall you were cross!” she laughs.

“I don’t think they ever behaved too well while I was away,” says Tui with a chuckle.

“I was a hard boss, but I think I must have been fair, because these girls still keep in touch with me. And I’ve opened the door, I guess, for a lot of people.”

Indeed, the four other Weekly food editors gathered around the table still hold Tui in very high regard – as do many prominent food writers in New Zealand, who got their start in the industry working for Tui. When Tui retired after 19 years, it was Robyn who took over the reins “and I carried on in the way that Tui had worked for the next 22”, says Robyn.

It’s become a different world since the test kitchen’s inception – with a wealth of new appliances and a huge array of ingredients available in our stores. And there have been remarkable changes in the ways Kiwis approach food and cooking.

Another former food editor, Annabelle White (56), explains, “One of the great things about the Weekly is that it has moved with the times,” she exclaims. Annabelle touts one of her successes at the magazine as something that happened outside of its pages. “If you go on YouTube, you’ll see a Weekly video I made – ‘Annabelle White’s perfect scone recipe.’ To this day, I get emails from people around the world about it!”

The Weekly’s much-loved and trusted food editors (from left clockwise): Helen Jackson, Jo Wilcox, Annabelle White, Robyn Hedges (formerly Martin) and Tui Flower.

Annabelle says much of her job at the Weekly was acting as a public face for the magazine. It’s something Tui can’t imagine doing during her time. “I could have walked down the street and no-one would have given me a second glance.”

Developing recipes, while appearing on television and radio is something that comes with the job these days, says Helen Jackson (51). Helen runs popular website, foodlovers.co.nz, as well as wearing several different hats. “I like being busy,” she laughs. “I work with several companies – being the face of their brand and developing recipes for them. I enjoy that side of things and it’s what’s expected of you.”

And Jo Wilcox (44), who departs the Weekly this week, also juggles recipe development duties for several food brands – all while bringing up her young family. “It’s a different world now. All our photos are done digitally, so we have them right away,” she says. “If I heard of something new or suddenly there was a shortage of a certain food in our country, I could make those amendments immediately.”

While the world has changed, Tui says she hopes her values and approach to the Weekly have remained. “It’s the readers who are the important thing,” says Tui. “If you don’t have them, you don’t have a publication. They are the stars, not us.”

‘It was a privilege’

Bringing all our busy food editors around one table is no easy task, but one familiar face was missing from our reunion – Julie Le Clerc. Julie was at the helm as the Weekly celebrated its 75th anniversary – a highlight for the celebrated food writer, who says she was also tasked with modernising the food pages for a new generation of readers. She introduced more contemporary recipes to match the growing trends, such as an interest in lighter options and gluten-free baking. “I always felt it was a privilege to be able to share my culinary advice with thousands of Kiwi women, so receiving feedback from our readers was extremely rewarding. Hearing how my recipes worked for people gave me endless satisfaction.” These days, Julie spends a great deal of her time in India – the reason for her absence from our story – where she recently set up a bakery in The Lodhi, a five-star hotel in New Delhi. “There’s just something about this place that continues to draw me back – I have been here many times over the past 30 years. I feel quite at home. There’s nothing like it for the colour, spectacle, history, culture – and the food is a big drawcard too, of course.”

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