She’s New Zealand’s gatekeeper of our gastronomic past, yet the internationally lauded Helen Leach is virtually unknown here, writes Kim Knight.

They are small and unassuming. No glossy pages, no colour illustrations and no celebrity chef endorsements. Some of them smell bad. Butter, spattered on their pages in kitchens past, has gone rancid.

These recipe books will never lend cachet to a coffee table. Their authors did not invent the cronut nor popularise the slider, yet, within these volumes, they are made small-town famous. Immortalised for their A&P Show-stopping sponge, their chocolate cake with the secret ingredient (courgette!), their version of a bouillabaisse first tasted on a balmy Mediterranean night far, far away from Gore and Westport and wherever.

"I imagine this little community," says Helen Leach. "Around, say, a playcentre, and all the young mums thinking, 'ooh, what am I going to contribute to the book?' I think they tell you things. The ones from some parts of New Zealand have game in them, or they'll have a lot of fish, or trout. Occasionally, they used to have pukeko. You get a little sense of the environment of these cooks. You learn what they want to be remembered for."

Leach has collected more than 2000 New Zealand-published cookbooks. Around half of them are community fundraisers - slim A5-sized black-and-white compilations sold to support schools, clubs and women's groups.

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Eventually they will go to the University of Otago library's Hocken Collection. For now, they lie flat in filing cabinets in Leach's Dunedin home. Their contents are entered into a giant computer database that spits out clues to how New Zealand cooked and ate. They have been used to win wars and solve mysteries, but right now, the keeper of the country's culinary soul just wants to know where she should sit.

Helen Leach is a 71-year-old grandmother whose house smells like baking. She is also practical, pragmatic and as straight to the point as a cake skewer.

A University of Otago-trained anthropologist and emeritus professor, Leach has author credits on 22 books (many with her sisters, Mary Browne and Nancy Tichborne) and chapter contributions to a further 42.

Her academic oeuvre began in the 1970s with writings on archaeological digs. Most recently, she has published on lamingtons and preserves. At the heart of her ongoing inquiry: fear the household's contribution to food history is falling out of fashion.

Meet the country's most opinionated domestic goddess. In 2014, at the annual meeting of the New Zealand Society of Gastronomy, Leach delivered a paper railing against the word "gastronomy" and critiquing the over-representation of professional chefs in a compilation cookbook purporting to "capture the essence" of Kiwi cuisine. Surely, said Leach, the hardworking housewife who honed her skills over a lifetime of unpaid kitchen work constituted the essence of New Zealand food?

She may not be a household name a la restaurateurs or reality television competition winners - but it's a reasonable hypothesis her legacy will eclipse that of many given gastronomes.

Some of the historic notebooks from Helen Leach's collection. Photo / Guy Frederick
Some of the historic notebooks from Helen Leach's collection. Photo / Guy Frederick

Leach is settled in now, on a day couch against the windows she's splodged with
paint to detract kamikaze kereru. Her 1970s architecturally designed home is a time capsule of orange floral lampshades and an original 27-inch Shacklock oven. Out back, her quarter acre. In front, piles and piles of books.

Her notes for this interview are collated on a clipboard, and she's dug out her first recipe book: Property of Helen Keedwell, Room 9, Macandrew Intermediate.

Born in Wellington, Leach (nee Keedwell) traces her earliest memories back to Hawera. When she was 8, the family packed the car and drove south to Harvey Keedwell's new job managing the Dunedin branch of Phoenix Assurance. In 1950s suburbia, the family ate butcher's-bought meat and homegrown three vege. There was porridge in winter, puddings most nights, and fish and chips at the beach on Fridays. When KFC came to town, there was an occasional chicken treat.

"New Zealanders didn't know what coleslaw was before that happened," says Leach. "We didn't make coleslaw. We have to thank Colonel Sanders for that."

And that is the joy of a conversation with Leach. She drops food facts like other people drop, well, food. That baking smell? It's research. She's looking at the evolution of the date bar Americans renamed the "Chinese Chew" after the smash Broadway musical, Chu Chin Chow.

"The American version never had butter. Both New Zealand and Australia added butter. Why? I think it was because butter was cheap, and it was subsidised for a long time."

"Supersizing" might be mostly attributed to America's commercial bakers, but Leach has discovered that in this case, it was New Zealand home cooks who first added fat - and kept on adding it. "The rot definitely starts here!"

The original (served alongside tea in a proper teacup) is delicious. Leach defers. "My sister Mary is the better cook."

In 2011, Browne worked on The Twelve Cakes of Christmas turning Leach's research into historic cakes (including one from 1669 that called for a "peck" or 6.5kg of flour) into modern recipes. When their watercolourist sister Nancy turned 60, the pair collaborated on a family dinner at Akaroa's Pavitt Cottage, constructed in the 1850s by early settler ancestors. The menu included "colonial goose" (aka stuffed mutton) and a bakewell tart.

"Helen researched her amazing collection of early cookbooks," says Browne. "We all benefit from this work that she is always doing."

Browne says the youngest Keedwell was destined for academia. "At high school she was always getting the prizes and then she was dux. Nancy and I were so excited about that. I don't think we were ever envious - we just thought she was the most marvellous sister."
According to Leach, the trio are able to work together because they have never competed: "We believe in a division of labour."

Her own special skill? "I think the word would be 'swot'! I loved doing projects and finding out about things. The desire to do research has been with me for a very long time."

She likes mystery novels - Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham ("being a detective is not really served quite as well by modern literature") - and decided on a career in archaeology, aged 11, inspired by images of Middle Eastern digs in the Illustrated London News. How to become an archaeologist in Otago? Leach was a teenager with crooked teeth. Her dentist introduced her to the Dunedin Anthropological Society. Later, she would graduate from Otago University's inaugural anthropology major, led by the charismatic Peter Gathercole, a card-carrying Communist Party member who would periodically leap on tables during lectures to demonstrate knuckle-walking.

"He challenged us all," says Leach. "We loved it. We just thrived."

Gradually, she carved her own area of expertise: "My particular passion in prehistory was what people ate. You're excavating middens and here's all their food refuse ..."

Yes, she can talk pavlova and lamingtons. But she can also discuss early Pacific voyagers so desperate for carbohydrates in a country with no coconuts or breadfruit, they learned to cook deathly poisonous, but highly nutritious karaka berry kernels for two days, before flushing them in running water for weeks to remove lethal toxins.

And she can go even further back, to the joint human/chimpanzee ancestor who ate raw fruit, eggs and small animals, and then got up on two legs and found even more efficient ways to kill animals.

Her house smells like baking. Her coffee table is a gentle collection of food histories and books on trains. But the conversation is about to go decidedly un-grandmotherly.

"There was a lot of interest, probably, in bone marrow," says Leach. "You can smash it open and pick it out. Brain tissue was probably at a premium. It's very nutritious and it's soft and easy to eat."

She is quite matter-of-fact. And, in fact, quite likes to eat brains herself.

"I'm interested in diet. Diet over a very long time, the diet of a species and dietary diversity."

Biological evolution takes millions of years. Cultural evolution can occur within a generation. Recipes, Leach realised, were a perfect medium to study that phenomena.

"Recipes undergo adaptation and selection ... they are subject to evolutionary forces."

In 2008, The Pavlova Story was published. Media seized on Leach's book as definitive proof that New Zealand - not Australia - invented the national dish each country had claimed. But it was much more complicated. Leach discovered the "meringue cake" had been in existence for some time. When the famously "lighter than air" ballerina Anna Pavlova toured, meringue cake was simply renamed by multiple cooks.

The problem with that story is it doesn't make a headline. Humans want an heroic inventor - creationism, not evolution.

Sharpen your knives: Helen Leach's kitchen. Photo / Guy Frederick
Sharpen your knives: Helen Leach's kitchen. Photo / Guy Frederick

Leach: "Unfortunately it's not like that!"

Track the country's true food heroes through that vast collection of community cookbooks. Graham Kerr was television's "galloping gourmet" and Hudson and Halls the consummate entertainers, but Leach has never seen their recipes reproduced in home cooking compilations. Alison Holst, Tui Flower, Joan Bishop and Lois Daish et al, are, however, liberally applied. (Holst's "lazy lasagne" is especially popular).

"I am sure that people like Alison realised that women were busy, they had young children, time constraints and money restraints. So she wanted to help people cook good meals that were within their budget and didn't have a whole string of ingredients you could only buy in one shop in town."

Importantly, says Leach, these early female food writers often stated their sources, as did the amateur cooks who copied their recipes into their fundraising books.

By contrast: "Almost all of the male chefs who were responsible for cookbooks claimed these were unique recipes. They would never acknowledge an earlier source. I had thought to myself 'oh, that's just an historical phenomena'. I'm not so sure now. [With modern] professional chefs or food writers, often male, it's very much a question of ownership. They 'own' the recipe, they want copyright on the recipe and they get resentful if they can't have it. They are claiming its creation."

Leach used to lecture on human evolution. In 1987, she devised a course on the evolution of the human diet. In the years since, the hunger for information on the why, how and when of what we cook and eat, has not abated. Leach says we should continue to care.

"I worry about food security. Two generations from now, they say we're not going to have enough food in the world to feed everyone. We currently don't in many parts of the world.

"If you buy in prepared, or nearly prepared food, you've got no control once you've brought it. You don't really know how it's been prepared, you won't necessarily know all the code numbers on the label. You will eat it and probably enjoy it, otherwise it wouldn't be for sale.

"But what if there was a crisis and the supplies to the supermarket stopped? Or you had to live in a camp somewhere escaping from a natural disaster. Could you live off the land? How many people know how to grow their own food? The secrets of cooking certain things? There are a lot of people who can't even recognise an edible plant when they see it in the garden."

Five things that changed the way we cooked and ate


No more servants:

when domestic kitchen staff found better pay (and conditions) in factories, women from affluent households were forced to learn to cook.

Thermostats: young brides did long apprenticeships in their own kitchens, learning the ticks and tricks of their coal range. When temperature control was introduced, it was possible to cook well from the get-go.

Food wrap: applied across the top of a casserole dish while food was still hot, it literally added an extra layer of kitchen hygiene.

Small appliances: not everybody could afford the first electric ovens, but electric kettles (elegant enough to be positioned in the drawing, dining or breakfast rooms) were early timesavers.

Refrigeration: critical to public health, but it also meant people didn't have to shop every day - goodbye little shops, hello supermarket giants.