Tui Flower ushers guests into the parlor of her whitewashed Victorian villa as a kind of test. It’s a handsome room, but cold. Guests will either draw their jackets around themselves for a brief visit as they admire the high, high ceilings, or they will find their way to the sunroom off the kitchen, where her canary sings, embroidered cushions line a window seat and a plentiful supply of tea and cookies is close to hand.
The correct answer, of course, is to choose to be next to the kitchen. Wonderful things come from its canisters and cookie jars. The 76-year-old Flower is most simply described as the Julia Child of New Zealand: a redoubtable dame who as food editor of the Auckland Star between 1965 and 1984 picked up the country by the scruff of the neck, stood it before the kitchen counter and taught it to cook. Today, she is a vivid reminder of what home cooks used to do, how far we’ve come and also, perhaps, what we’ve lost.
Angelenos might remember Flower from a visit she made here in 1978 while on a tour of American newspapers and test kitchens. She stopped at The Times and gave a master class in making Pavlovas. Recorded by a richly bemused former food editor, Betsy Balsley, Flower gave us our marching orders as to how to make those fruit- and cream-topped meringues. It’s OK for meringue to crack, she assured us, but silly to “go all fancy” applying cream with pastry bags, instead of swirling it with a spatula, the way our mothers would have done. Her authority, experience and empathy for home cooks shone from the page.
“She’s one of the great characters of the world,” Balsley says today.
Her own colleagues in Auckland were more likely to call her a “dragon lady,” she says: “A lot of people were frightened of me. Not my staff but everybody else. It was a very safe way of not having people bothering you.”
There’s no ignoring a certain chop-chop authority. Flower is tiny, barely 5 feet tall, but her voice is not only low, it’s so gravelly you could rake it. She’s not sure how she acquired it. She never smoked. She wonders whether it came from a determination to sound chipper and capable. “My father never tolerated whiners,” she says.
Whining wouldn’t get you far in New Zealand. The national adage, Flower says, is that a New Zealander must be able to fix anything with a No. 8 Fencing Wire. Her grandparents came from England between 1850 and 1870 and had to survive far away from everything they knew. Her father, Leonard “Jack” Flower, was a postmaster who, as a recorder of all marriages, births and deaths, came to speak Maori. In a gentle moment, he gave his daughter the Maori name for one of the country’s most beloved songbirds, the tui.
But combined with the surname Flower, it was automatically comical. Tui birds are black-and-white nectar-eaters with tufts at their necks like white bow ties. Every spring these tuxedoed dandies gorge on the yellow flowers of kowhai trees. As the nectar eventually ferments, the tuis become more and more gregarious, swooping from tree to tree, singing sloppily, clearly drunk. Over the years, Flower has repeatedly seen her name in print in quotation marks, as if her name was a hippie flight of fancy. Twice, she says, she has answered with prompt corrections in the Auckland press.
If her name has a New Age ring, Flower in person is a picture-perfect home economist, right down to a tightly knotted bun. Her degree at the University of Otaga required “a basic range of science,” she says: “We did physics, chemistry, zoology, applied sciences.” To graduate, she not only had to know how to set up and run a basic science lab, she had to be able to sew her own lab coat.
Teaching jobs awaited most home economists. Flower spent a decade teaching high school kids how to chop, stir and stand up straight. But in 1954, she went to Paris to study at the L’Ecole Hoteliere de Jean Drouant. The time in France awakened her to the sensuousness of cooking. “I can remember going to purchase some asparagus,” she says. “I asked for it. The stallholder just grabbed my hand and put my hand into the box with the asparagus--in other words, telling me to choose what I wanted.”
Back in New Zealand, which was caught up in the exuberant era of dream kitchens and ready meals following World War II, she moved to industry. Gas companies, food processors, millers all needed women to test their ranges and put recipes on the sides of their products. Flower joined Unilever. When she left the company in 1965, appliances had improved, but New Zealand was still in the dark ages about food.
As Flower accepted the job editing the food pages of the Auckland Star, the country had only just legalized serving wine in restaurants. Dinner in most homes would have been meat and two vegetables, one of them long-boiled cabbage. As Flower tried to wean the nation of the habit of boiling everything it ate, she invited it to try a marvelous onion called garlic. “I’d get letters about ‘Why are you using that foreign muck?’” she recalls. But in 1982, her improvement of the country’s table won her a rare honor: a public service medal from the queen of England.
Within her own paper, she says, she was more feared than revered. Stories still circulate about how she kicked the publisher out of her office when he appeared with a cigarette. Flower defends it. She had put up a no-smoking sign, she says. After that, he would not come to her office alone.
The editor of the paper, Keith Aitken, was rather more intrepid. “We had been seen driving when there was petrol rationing,” recalls Flower. “One of his colleagues remarked, ‘That’s a most unlikely alliance.’” Flower and Aitken married in 1980. She finally retired in 1984 to spend time with him, but he died four years later. Flower refuses to be maudlin. “I married very late in life,” she says. “I’m basically an old maid.”
A generation trained by Flower responded by making her the first president of the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers. The women who have succeeded her are as likely to work at a glossy magazine as a high school. They do not call themselves home scientists or home economists, but “food writers” and “culinary professionals.”
Flower is proud of them, but unfazed. Asked what her favorite gizmo is after half a century in the kitchen, she responds, “a good sharp knife.” (Food processors, she admits, make chopping lard an easier task.) Tuscan olive oil, English sea salt and French foie gras are all marvelous luxuries, she says. But the most enjoyable food, she insists, is something you make yourself--something local, something traditional, very possibly something baked.