You don't need to be a chef to appreciate the charm of old cookbooks. They have always offered more than mere instruction on ingredients and method.
Sunday roast and boiled pudding
European settlers brought the first published cookbooks to New Zealand in the 19th century. Mrs Beeton's book of household management, which had been published in London, was one of the most popular titles. Recipes included traditional English fare such as pound cake, roast hare and boiled puddings.
Charitable cookbooks and promotional pamphlets
By the turn of the century, slim volumes of recipes and handy hints were in common use throughout New Zealand. First appearing as promotional booklets, local fundraisers and charity publications, they contained some classic recipes. Many were of British origin (adapted for the New Zealand climate), accompanied by recipes from America and Australia that offered guidance on how to cook unfamiliar ingredients such as pumpkin or tropical fruits.
This is how the iconic Edmonds Sure to Rise cookery book began. It was first published in 1908 by Thomas John Edmonds to promote his baking powder through "economical everyday recipes and cooking hints". The second edition, in 1910 when the population was just over a million, had a print run of 150,000.
Through their content and tone, New Zealand cookbooks reveal much about the cultural assumptions and anxieties of their time. Māori culinary traditions, using ingredients like kūmara and kina, are almost absent in cookbooks from the early to mid-20th century.
A nation of bakers and homemakers
Cookbooks provide a unique perspective on the period - they reflect eating habits, record technological change and mark historical events. Through recipes, advertisements and household tips, it is possible to track the impact of world wars on home front cuisine, the impact of the arrival of new culinary technologies and the roll out of the electricity grid throughout New Zealand.
Browsing their pages shows just how limited food choices were a century ago. The home vegetable patch, fruit trees and keeping poultry helped to supplement the diet. Bottling produce was commonplace. Meat and milk quickly went off in the kitchen safe and cooking on cast-iron ranges was unpredictable. Nonetheless, a variety of tasty meals regularly made it to the table.
However, it was recipes for baked goods - biscuits, scones, cakes and desserts - that dominated cookbooks during this period. The availability of ingredients such as eggs, butter and milk meant that baking quickly became a popular past-time. Picnics, dances and community events were catered by "bringing a plate". The iconic Aunt Daisy series of cookbooks included large sections of recipes to fill the tins.
The growing influence of graphic design in the cover art and page layout is apparent. The advertisements included in cookbooks evolve over time - from communicating product and price to persuasive images of identity and desire. Many show women as attractive homemakers within an idealised nuclear family, perpetuating biases on male and female roles, abilities and expectations.
Cookbooks from the 1960s reflect the growing interest in European, Asia and Pacific cuisine.
The exposure to new ingredients and recipes - as a result of war, immigration and later cheaper international travel - prompted New Zealanders to look to their own culinary traditions. There was an interest in Māori and Pasifika cuisine, and for the first time many traditional recipes were published for a mainstream audience.
Recipes for dinner party dishes began to have a bigger presence in cookbooks, especially as practices such as baking and bottling decreased in popularity. Radio and TV cooking shows continued to promote personalities and their cookbooks.
A century after the first compilations of recipes were printed in New Zealand, the cookbook industry was thriving. Like diaries, letters and other domestic artefacts, these cookbooks offer special insight into the prevailing values and cultural forces of the time.
Leach, H. (ed.) (2010). From Kai to Kiwi Kitchen. Dunedin.
Cite this article
Senior, Julie, and Dix, Kelly.
Still simmering: Cookbook time capsules. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 August 2015. Updated: 24 August 2015.