For more than a decade, she beamed into our living rooms every night, teaching us how to make good Kiwi tucker in a flash. Twenty-five years on, Allyson Gofton talks to the Herald about her Food in a Minute legacy, the truth about air-fryers and being vilified by fellow foodies.
"Air-fryers are a Hospice Shop donation in the making," Allyson Gofton tells me from her home in Cambridge. Borrowing an "enormous" unit from her builder, she's spent all weekend putting it through its paces: "I've chippied, casseroled, stewed, baked, you name it – I've done it. Don't buy it. Get a wok, bank the change."
Not quite a minute into our conversation and I've got my first hot tip from Gofton, who this month is reflecting on 25 years of the little show that made her a household name.
You may recall only the cacophony of jazzy saxophones that interrupted your episode of The Simpsons, or you may be one of the diehard fans who approached Gofton at a Food in a Minute event, your well-loved recipe leaflets in hand - whatever your level of interest, for 13 years the food writer and chef beamed into our living rooms ahead of Holmes each night to show us what could be whipped up for dinner with a can of Watties and Gofton's genius.
And there was a lot: Tuscan lamb shanks that left butchers around the country sold out of the cut, that legendary Pom Pom Pie, marinaras and macaronis, sausages – curried, devilled, casseroled – stir-fries and soups, all featuring a Watties product. It was advertising but not as we knew it. Conceived by Mike O'Sullivan and pitched as Allyson's Minute, Gofton was approached while she was in a PR role to help shop the idea about: "I said, 'Yeah, we'll see if we can find a million dollars'."
A deal was done with Watties that saw Gofton - who had previously been CEO of the New Zealand Nutritional Foundation - taking one week out in six from her job to write recipes and front the segment. "I worked all night and weekends to write for Next magazine and do the food for Food in a Minute. And on the weekends [Gofton's husband] Warwick would wash the dishes for me as I cooked my way through cans of tomato soup or sauces or whatever."
Looking back, Gofton says she felt a big responsibility for every recipe she created. "I held inside of me, I don't know if it's a great weight, but I felt very responsible when I created a recipe, that it wasn't just a recipe. That it was something that had to be achieved within the home, fit in that budget, used the Watties product wisely. It had to be a very useful idea – something modern with a twist. I felt that very heavily. I couldn't put out recipes that wouldn't be of value. It was information. It was hopefully a little bit of culinary instruction. The first recipe included showing viewers how to take the skin from a chicken, to lower the fat content."
And always at the front of her mind was a woman by the name of Mrs Hastings (the name was inspired by the town where Watties products were made at the time). She was the middle-New Zealand home cook of the 1990s. "We kept her in our minds, all the time. The home cook in those days was the woman," recalls Gofton. "We were all sitting down to have dinner and watch the news and Paul Holmes at six o'clock."
As we ate our way through that decade and entered the new millennium, things were changing, but the need to put nutritious, affordable food on the table remained.
"We were doing more stir-fries, we were able to buy our meat cuts better, we were buying far more ready-to-go sauces, pesto had become part of our world, sundried tomatoes, olives. We got to barbecue pesto chicken, Indian-spiced kumara and bean burgers, beautiful curries. We'd gone an awful long way in those 13 years," Gofton says. "If you look at it today, you'd be doing maybe wasabi something-or-others, edamame-bean stir-fries. We have moved on enormously: appliances, working women, so much has changed. That change is just the way it is. I get upset when people say," – and it sounds like she pinches her nose before she continues - "'It was better before'."
"Actually," sighs Gofton, "it's just different. There was no better. In 20 years' time, today's generation will look back and we'll be doing it differently. I quite liked that about Food in a Minute - it did evolve."
Although Gofton acknowledges all those elements have impacted the way we eat, by the same token, she says there are still some real stalwarts that don't look to be disappearing from Kiwi dinner plates any time soon.
"When you go into your supermarket and you see that half of it is still sausages and mince, that tells you the kind of food that people are cooking in their home. And so, I do think we're still a country that doesn't have a lot of spare money to spend on fancy foods. There might be several suburbs in Auckland [that do], but I still believe for the vast majority of New Zealander's food still has to fit within a budget."
But it was in speaking to this market as a food writer and recipe creator that Gofton found herself vilified by her contemporaries.
"I used to have fun," she recalls. "But I was also very well disliked by other chefs and food writers. Because, when you're a food writer, you want to pass on knowledge and information about new things, practical sides to cooking, inspire people to try something a bit different. And a lot of people in the industry were of the opinion that 'she just does mince and sausages.' They weren't as supportive as one might have hoped," she says, an exaggerated diplomacy in her voice.
"At times I did feel very heavily criticised. I had to get Watties to step up and stand by me in the early days. A lot of my colleagues didn't respect the middle ground in food writing. But if you're writing for New Zealand's middle market, they are a loyal market, they are families, they are operating on a budget, they are looking to me for accurate information and good skills. That's the middle market and I love them."
And they loved her right back. In Gofton's time with Food in a Minute, she wrote eight cookbooks - the first racked up a print run of 100,000 – and toured the country doing cooking demonstrations in town halls to the delight of those recipe card-wielding fans.
"I still do a lot of talking. It's lovely to reminisce with a lot of the women who would come to me with their grandmother's brag book, full of the [Food in a Minute] leaflets from the supermarket, with their notes and adaptations on the side of the recipes. It was unbelievably popular."
Despite all this, she never saw herself as a celebrity.
"I'm a very, I'd like to say I'm a humble person, down to earth. I realised it wasn't just me," she says of the show's success. "There were the Watties people as well. I always thought of myself as part of a team. I was the shop window to the team behind it. I get a little, I don't know if it's reticent, but underneath that person you saw on television was a degree of shyness in other areas. I was quite happy to go out and do wonderful presentations and raise money and then when I got home, I really just wanted to be me. I used to go home to my parents in Tasmania and just have time out. So, I never saw it as being anything more than a wonderful job."
But she acknowledges 25 years on that Food in a Minute has proven its longevity.
"It was a joy to present," she says. "We did family dishes that have stood the test of time. We did family food in the most amazing new ways. It's a nice legacy, for a girl that came from the wrong side of the tracks in Tasmania, it's an amazing legacy to leave behind."
Asked what wisdom Gofton has to impart upon the busy Kiwi families of today trying to put good food on the table, she chuckles before sharing:
"This has been the Allyson Gofton philosophy for 30 years here. I know it's dreary, okay? I know it's a message that people don't want to hear, but food that's cooked at home should be simple and nourishing. If you want to have flash food, you go to a cafe, you go to a restaurant and you appreciate the skill of the chef. When you're at home, you don't have to be a chef. You are a mum. You are a working woman. You are a busy dad. A solo dad, perhaps. All you are required to do is feed your family something nourishing - that nourishes their body and their brain. Don't layer more stress on your life by trying to be a chef. That's not what family life is about.
"So have some basics in your pantry, freezer and fridge. With some frozen vegetables, a can of sauce and a packet of pasta, you've at least got a basic, nourishing meal that you can put together. Good old-fashioned eggs and cheese, you know, these things can make a meal. God bless the day New Zealanders say, 'actually some grilled sausages and vegetables will be okay.' Actually, that is okay.
"If you've got a can of creamed corn, you've got fritters, you've got a frittata, you've got bacon and corn on toast. That instant meal you can get from the cupboard or freezer isn't there as much as when we started Food in a Minute 25 years ago. But keeping a well-stocked pantry is a working person's essential skill. It'll relieve your stress. Instead of buying your air-fryer, just have your pantry well-stocked."
The state of the nation
Intrinsically linked to the challenge to put good food on the table is New Zealand's status as the third most obese nation in the OECD.
"It saddens me. We have this dichotomy," says Gofton. "You know, we've got the air-fryer, then we go out and get McDonald's. It's like, really? Somebody tells me the air-fryer makes great snacks for their kids. I say, 'give them an apple'."
While Gofton agrees with the adage "everything in moderation", she says we have lost the ability to manage this.
"We have lost that skill of moderation. You go to your cafes, you go to buy your takeaways because you're in a hurry, the portion sizes are outrageous."
Even that little sweet treat on the run is not exactly small-scale these days.
"Your average scone from your cafe will be the weight of one and a half cups of flour," says Gofton, recalling baking research for a story. "It blows me away. That's before you put in the butter, the sugar and the dates, or cheese, to make that scone. And you're going to eat it all because you've wasted your money if you don't. If you pick up your coffee from BP or wherever on the side of the road and you take a large, often that's two cups of full-fat milk too.
"And that's before you've even had lunch. We've also become great fans of focaccia, paninis, wraps. You've got a wrap - work out how much flour goes in that - and all the food that goes in it. That's an enormous amount of food at lunchtime. Then you go to the supermarket and our steaks are well in excess of 100g per serve. And that's all you need at night time.
"So our portion sizes, snacking habits - people want the muesli bar, not the apple - our portion control has just blown up. Trying to bring it back, I think that's a lost game. Everybody wants the ultimate answer immediately. We've lost the basics. That's why I say simple foods at home. It often means less cost, fewer calories, more nutritious and it's easy, it's stress-free."