Domestic cooking, along with other home-based tasks such as child-rearing, cleaning and sewing, has primarily been done by women. Most women learned to cook as girls by watching and assisting their mothers in the kitchen. In the 19th century, women settlers who were unaccustomed to cooking because of their elevated social position had to learn unless they were lucky enough to secure the services of a cook, something not guaranteed in New Zealand.
The modern housewife
Many overseas cookbooks sold in New Zealand in the 19th and early 20th centuries assumed that readers had servants, including cooks. In her 1926 book The up to date housewife, Melanie Primmer noted that these books did not take account of ‘the average housewife, who has little domestic help’. She sought to remedy this, providing modern recipes and advice on dining etiquette and baby care – but also adding that if servants were employed ‘they should never be reproved before guests. It tends to disturb the harmony of the meal.’1
Cooking was elevated to a ‘home science’ in the late 19th century because of growing interest in the relationship between food, nutrition and health. A School of Domestic Instruction opened in Christchurch in 1895, cookery was added to the curriculum of technical schools in the early 1900s and the first courses in home science at Otago University began in 1911. Domestic science was compulsory for schoolgirls from 1917. Graduates in this discipline were expected to use their skills in the household kitchen rather than forge an independent career.
Women continued to do most of the household cooking throughout the 20th century, though their increasing participation in paid employment meant that time-consuming dishes and cooking methods gradually fell by the wayside. Instant foods – including beef stock, mashed potato, coffee and puddings – were some of the many convenience foods which took hold from the 1960s.
While men have done more household chores in recent times, women continue to spend more time preparing meals than men. A 2009–10 survey found that women spent over twice as long as men doing this.
Though women have traditionally done most of the cooking in the home, men have also cooked, usually in other settings. Single men had to cook for themselves at home, unless they had home-help or ate out.
In 1848 Edward Jerningham Wakefield advised men to acquire basic cookery skills such as bread-making, as well as learning how to slaughter animals for food. This was not so they could help women in the kitchen, but in order to feed themselves while exploring the country and establishing farms in the absence of women.
Edward Jerningham Wakefield employed a male cook, who gave him some trouble when he was stationed in Whanganui in 1840. Wakefield wrote that ‘the lawlessness of [Whanganui] became daily more annoying. I had to lash my cook, who had travelled hither with the Taupo party, and who delighted in the sobriquet of ‘Coffee’, to the big post in the middle of the house, with my dog chains, for theft; intending to send him to Wellington in a schooner, which was to sail the next morning. But he proved to me that I did not understand thief-taking, or at any rate thief-keeping; for he slipped his irons in the night, and started to the northward.’2
Men whose work took them into isolated parts of the country needed cooking skills. As late as 1969, the New Zealand Forest Service published a manual for staff hunters called Camp cookery. Itinerant workers such as shearers sometimes had their own male cooks, though farming women were also expected to feed them. In professions where women were largely absent – gum digging for instance – men did the cooking. Men were chefs in restaurants and hotels, although women did this job too. All the chefs in the armed forces were men until recently.
The advent of outdoor barbecues in the 1950s brought men and cooking closer to home because men typically did the barbecueing. Some outdoor pursuits, such as fishing, also involved men cooking. Noel Holmes’s 1963 book Just cooking, thanks was inspired by his love of fishing, which included cooking his catch. His blokey, relaxed style of writing belied the sophistication of his recipes – they included marinated raw fish, something European New Zealanders were unfamiliar with at the time.
A number of television cooking-show hosts have been men, though, in the early years at least, their audiences were predominantly female. The judges on the popular television show of the early 2000s, MasterChef New Zealand, were all men. Male cookbook authors and food writers were increasingly visible from the 1970s.