Pioneering food writer Tui Flower believed a nurturing home was the best response to difficult times. But what would she have said about surviving the cost-of-living crisis?

With food prices at a 13-year high and seven months worth of spiking inflation at the back of us, this year has been a crucible for low-income Kiwi families forced to do some tough maths at the grocery till and make distant ends meet in the kitchen.

It’s the exact kind of challenge that Tui Flower would have had plenty of advice on.

She might have been New Zealand’s first food influencer, segueing a background designing home products for Unilever and teaching home economics into a career as a food writer, managing the test kitchen for New Zealand Woman’s Weekly and publishing a prolific back-catalogue of cookbooks, columns and articles.

It was Flower that laid the groundwork for Kiwi cuisine to move past its dour British roots and embrace a bit of colour. She championed garlic, capsicum and avocado to 1960s and 70s audiences – slowly widening the palate of a nation.

But while the kitchen was the centre of Flower’s life’s work, she was a fond proponent of good home-making as something of a life philosophy. Her words went past recipes, giving advice on reducing waste, healthy family lives and budgeting.

Flower died in 2017 at the age of 91, leaving behind whole generations raised on her work, and with the legacy of a charity focused on giving grants to projects and individuals with similar goals to the self-named ‘self-raising Flower’.

Flower established the Star-Woman’s Weekly School of Cooking in 1982 before receiving the Queen’s Service Medal for Public Service in 1983 and playing an instrumental role in forming the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers in 1988. Photo: Supplied

The Tui Flower Foundation is opening for its second year, with $90,000 worth of grants paid for by the invested estate of Flower. The grants are aimed at giving access to education or paying the way for community projects that stoke good nutrition and well-managed family environments.

Food writer Robyn Martin is an advisory trustee for the foundation, and a former protege of Flower, first having started working for her as a teenager. Now Martin says her mentor sits on her shoulder regularly reminding her of her wishes.

“l Iooked on her as a sort of grandmotherly person in my life,” Martin said. “Then found out she was younger than my mother. Probably for a 16 or 17-year-old, anyone who wore a bun was a grandmother from my perspective.”

She remembers her as a sometimes brusque taskmaster, but with a nurturing soul.

“She wanted to help people do better,” Martin said. “She mentored a lot of people in her life. She was always very willing to share her knowledge and her expertise.”

Martin said the values and tips of the trade that were Flower’s bread and butter are more relevant now than ever.

“She would prefer people would have the skills to nurture themselves out of poverty or desperate times when they can’t make ends meet and put nourishing food on the table,” she said.

But what would Flower have to say if she was around to dispense some advice as the bills come in and the petrol pump sucks up so much of your average Kiwi’s pay packet?

Waste not, want not

“If there was a one-liner that summed Tui up, it would be ‘waste not, want not’,” Martin said. “But it’s not necessarily instinctive for people. You have to be taught to think, does this have another use?”

In the age of planned obsolesce and disposable consumer products, it can pose a challenge, but there has been an uptick of repurposing and up-cycling in community groups in recent years – perhaps in direct response to the ‘use once and throw away’ ethos of the modern world.

“Repurpose is the modern word but many of us have been doing it for a thousand years anyway,” Martin said.

She said Flower had no tolerance of waste, and encouraged people to go into their pantry and dig through whatever was there and find a way to use it.

Buying in season

Making sure to buy food in season is another piece of advice Flower would have offered.

“Tui was always a great stickler for buying in season,” Martin said. “People were moaning about the price of tomatoes or courgettes – but it was the the middle of winter.”

She said Flower’s philosophy was to focus on whatever was growing here and now. Broccoli and cauliflower in the winter, and summer fruits in the summer.

If meat’s expensive, pack out meals with vegetables. If vegetables are expensive, go frozen.

“Buy what’s cheap and make the most of it at the time,” Martin said.

Skills to save money

Other advice she gave included learning to fix clothes or other objects, and not necessarily going for the cheapest option if possible.

“Waste has become one of the eight wonders of the world, especially food waste,” she said. “Tui was a wonderful craftswoman. Now it’s not necessarily more expensive to buy new … but if you buy things cheaply there’s more of a disposable attitude to life.”

One of the last projects of Flower’s working life was a since-closed cooking school in Mt Eden, which Martin took over in her retirement.

“Tui was very concerned that we didn’t have anywhere people could go to learn to cook,” Martin said. “Families were busy and both parents were working, there wasn’t the time.”

Now in 2022, it’s a home truth that is only getting truer.

Nurture is a word that comes up a lot when people talk about Flower. The advice she had to give was practical, time-honoured and earthy – but nurturing was the main objective.

Martin remembers an instance where a young mother took her baby in to Plunket for advice and was told to feed her stewed apples.

“She didn’t know how to stew apple, but she did know it came in a Foodtown pie. If you don’t have the skills, then the odds are against you in terms of getting out of the mire.”

And making sure people have an opportunity to learn those skills remains the goal of her legacy foundation.

Funding the home where the heart is

Kirsten Killian-Taylor is a philanthropy manager at Perpetual Guardian, the company acting as a steward for the Tui Flower Foundation after being nominated in her will. Each year it looks after around $40 million for similar charities.

Killian-Taylor said the Tui Flower Foundation grants came with some pretty specific instructions.

“Her wishes are quite distinct, you could look at it as ‘the home is where the heart is’,” she said. “Tui wanted to empower people, and empower the home: maybe cooking for a family of four and not doing too much UberEats.”

She said it’s more important than ever to be able to look after your home and be clever with money, due to the burgeoning cost-of-living and inflation crisis that doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon.

“It’s a way to save your home and castle while it’s under attack,” she said.

Cost of living is on everyone’s mind, said Perpetual Guardian philanthropy manager Kirsten Killian-Taylor. Photo: Supplied

Grants given out last year included those to the Common Unity Project, a Lower Hutt-based community development project including compost hubs, teaching people to grow vegetables and a cafe that serves nutritious food made from scratch.

Other projects include food rescue and funding to South Auckland’s Middlemore Project, which itself has raised over $40 million to fund health and community initiatives in one of the country’s most at-need areas.

“If we don’t have access or the opportunity to build our skills in family care, budgeting, nutrition and general running of a household, the rest of life can be very difficult,” said Killian-Taylor.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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