Twelve Questions: Tui Flower

For more than two decades Tui Flower ruled the food pages at the New Zealand Woman's Weekly and the Auckland Star, her tiny 1.5m frame eclipsed by her steely personality.

In a world of heat-and-eat meals, former food editor Tui Flower fears we are losing contact with preparation techniques and the subtlety of tastes. Photo / Dean Purcell
In a world of heat-and-eat meals, former food editor Tui Flower fears we are losing contact with preparation techniques and the subtlety of tastes. Photo / Dean Purcell

1. This is an enormous house and garden for you to cope with - how do you stay so active?

I'm a person who has to be doing something. When I wake up in the morning I think 'what am I going to do today' and there's always a list of six or eight things. I may never get to do them all but I like to be organised. I do gardening and needlework, sewing. I keep the tins full. But I might start something and get completely involved in that and never make it to the next thing.

2. Do you think your name helped shape the person you are?

I'm really Lucy Tui Hampton Flower but everyone at home called me Tui. I had those three initials when most people only had two. That must have fussed me to some extent because I decided to tell everyone I was Lily Tulip Hydrangea and at boarding school people would believe me. I would tell them I had poetic parents. When I was young it was not uncommon for Pakeha girls to be given a Maori name.

3. Did a lot of people think it was a made-up name?

Oh yes. On a couple of occasions we had to put a little item in the magazine saying it really was my name because people were sending in letters to "Tui Flower" in inverted commas as if I wasn't real.

4. Did feminism do anything for you?

We were of the generation that weren't brought up in feminism but we lived through it. My father had always believed in equality - "for man, woman and dog" he used to say. He loved his animals. And he believed in education for girls. I had been to boarding school in Auckland but I remember going back to Tauranga and an elderly neighbour questioning me about why I was going to Dunedin to study. "You are wasting your father's money," she said. "You are going to go all the way down there and then you'll just get married."

5. But you didn't marry until you were in your 50s - was that a deliberate choice?

It's polite to wait until you are asked. And I'd never really been fussed about getting married at all. It was never high on my list of priorities and I'm the type of person who would not marry for the sake of it. I always wanted to be a teacher, and I wanted to travel, which I did: to America for 10 months and later when I was awarded a scholarship to study French cooking, in Paris.

6. You had quite the reputation at the Auckland Star and Woman's Weekly: were you a feisty child?

Oh yes, I was feisty. I was the youngest by quite a long way. My mother said I was a street angel and a house devil - I knew how to behave in public. At work I got this reputation for being a dragon. I was once introduced to the incoming managing director as the company dragon. I didn't tell him otherwise - I wasn't going to let an advantage like that go. It was more a protection really. It allowed me to get on with my work.

7. Obviously not everyone thought you were a dragon. You married the editor.

People thought Keith and I were an unlikely alliance - he was a nice guy and I was that difficult woman. No one knew about us. We went away and married and then came back and told some of the senior staff at a dinner. Their mouths just dropped.

8. Keith died just four years later. How difficult an adjustment was that?

He died of cancer. It was one of those things - you can't change life. You have to adjust. I'd lived alone for a very long time before that, but after he died, it was the silence.

9. What do you think of the new generation of celebrity chefs?

Well, I don't watch all of those shows on TV, only the interesting ones who've got something a bit more to say, like Rick Stein. Some of those other shows are ghastly. A lot of what we get now is professional cooking, not domestic cooking.

10. We're watching a lot of food shows, but do you think we're learning anything?

So much of the food now is pre-prepared and you don't have to do much more than tip it out and stir it around. A lot of people are losing the knowledge of why things happen a certain way or how it happens. There's no contact with natural food. I think we need to get back to grating our own cheese and squeezing a lemon, rather than pouring it out of the bottle. We're losing technique and the subtlety of taste.

11. What do you eat now?

Food! I eat pretty much the same sort of thing I always did. I'm a three meals a day person - I only have morning or afternoon tea if someone's come over. Breakfast is toast and tea or maybe a bit of cereal. Lunch will be soup with vegetables from my garden if there's anything around and crackers or a sandwich. Dinner is a protein - fish, meat, egg - and vegetables. I'm still very particular about the way it looks on the plate. That comes from my mother. I eat a lot of fruit. Three, four or five pieces a day. It's very simple food. No one eats those fancy meals all the time.

12. Will you ever leave this house?

Not if I can help it. I had eight years of institutional living at school and university and I have no intention of going into one of those other places. If I get so decrepit for whatever reason, okay I'll have to be put into a cell somewhere. But I think most people go into them far too early. I don't want to worry people though and I can be quite biddable, quite reasonable at times. Write that. No one will believe it.

- NZ Herald

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