Doyenne of home cookery developed kiwi palate

Tui Flower at her home in Auckland where members of her family have lived for more than 100 years.
Michael Bradley

Tui Flower at her home in Auckland where members of her family have lived for more than 100 years.

Lucy Tui Hampton Aitken (nee Flower) QSM, cook and food writer: b Matamata, November 23, 1925; m Keith Aitken (dec); d Auckland, August 15, 2017, aged 91.

When Tui Flower started out in the food-writing business broccoli was virtually unknown, a kiwi fruit was still a Chinese gooseberry and if you wanted sour cream you had to sour it yourself. Back then, in the mid-1960s, cheese came in mild and tasty and oil was almost a dirty word.

But Flower, known as the doyenne of home cookery, led the charge in developing New Zealand's palate from the doldrums of meat and three veg to the lofty heights of Crêpes Suzette and Cordon Bleu delicacies.

Tui Flower made food more interesting for both the cook and the consumer.

Tui Flower made food more interesting for both the cook and the consumer.

Influenced by her year at a cooking school in Paris, she endeavoured to bring a little bit of Europe to our dinner tables in her role as food editor at the NZ Woman's Weekly and through her own cookbooks.

"Every now and again I'd drop a French word in. But I had to call beef bourguignon stew and red wine. People weren't ready for fancy names," she once recalled.

The third-born and only daughter of Leonard, a postmaster, and Constance, Flower was raised in Matamata.

Tui Flower's magnum opus.

Tui Flower's magnum opus.

The large, warm, fragrant kitchen was the centre of family life and it was here the young Tui learned the skills of homemaking.

The family were producers, growing their own vegetables, making their own soap, preserving nature's surplus for later use, and cooking by instinct and tradition.

She boarded at Epsom Girls' Grammar School,  where she hated having a name with four initials: "I proceeded to tell people my name was Lily Tulip Hydrangea Flower ... I used to just say `my parents were poetic'," she wrote in her 1998 memoir, Self-Raising Flower.

Her mother and grandmother were both good cooks and Flower recalled making gingerbread using a miniature wooden board and rolling pin bought for her by her grandfather. "Very early on, I knew I wanted to be a cooking teacher," she said in a 2007 interview.

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She went on to study at the University of Otago, gaining a Diploma of Home Science.

Hostel and class life in Dunedin started Flower's exacting standards. Here you were always expected to be precise and accurate. These standards would never leave Flower and remain part of her legacy.

After graduating from the university's School of Home Science, she worked as a teacher at Pukekohe High School.

One of the defining choices Flower made in her life was to go to the United States, where she spent the better part of a year with her aunt and uncle.

Here she met Home Economics graduates, experiencing the range of career opportunities their qualifications gave them. She spent time in schools and universities and was exposed to the commercial world which interested her greatly.

She also studied a number of Cordon Bleu courses. 

But perhaps one of the most significant turns she made in her long life was taking up a bursary to study at the École hôtelière de Paris in 1954. 

If she had not fully appreciated the importance of attention to detail before, it was here its importance was reinforced.

She learned to waste nothing, including time, and the importance of flavour.

On her return to New Zealand she was employed by Unilever in Wellington as a home economist. In her nine years at the company she worked initially on laundry and cleaning products and packaging, and later on frozen, dehydrated and canned foods.

Her role evolved and included giving cooking classes to consumers as well as to colleagues. Through this she learned much about people's food habits, cooking skills and food prejudices. This was to prepare her for her future career.

She was fully able to indulge her love of food and the promotion of it in 1965 when she was appointed food editor of the New Zealand Woman's Weekly. The then editor, Jean Wishart, had seen test kitchens at international titles like Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal, and wanted the same set-up here. 

During Flower's 19-year tenure (mostly) women turned to her for advice on everything from making exotic dishes, that included wine as an ingredient, to how to cook mince a dozen ways.

She introduced garlic and olive oil – the latter having been used medicinally and available only from the pharmacy – and got a tirade of perplexed letters from WW readers.

"I received letters asking why I was using that 'foreign muck' in my recipes," she said in a later interview.

Food writer Allyson Gofton met Flower when she was hired to work in the Woman's Weekly test kitchen.

She recalled a woman who ruled with an iron fist who could roar like the embroidered dragon that hung at the entrance to the kitchen.

'When you made a mistake, you knew about it. She was a very tough but very fair boss, with high standards.

"Tui was a teacher, a mentor, a [surrogate] grandmother and a shoulder to cry on," Gofton says.

"When I was stuck in hospital for four weeks she would make me cheese scones and asparagus rolls – the only things I could stomach –  every day."

Flower encouraged New Zealanders to cook recipes she had mastered in Europe while still espousing the culinary virtues of fruit cakes and roasts, Gofton says.

"She was a complete breath of fresh air to home cooks. There is a time and a place for change and Tui led that change."

While Flower was at the helm, the test kitchen morphed from one room, to two, then the whole of the ninth floor in the Auckland Star building and later to Dominion Rd, where she was able to open her much dreamed of cooking school.

She wrote for New Zealand Woman's Weekly, the Auckland Star and New Zealand Home Journal and published numerous cookbooks as well as her autobiography.  

Her magnum opus was the New Zealand Woman's Weekly Cookbook, which offered recipes from the classic to the (now) unpalatable – ham-wrapped bananas in cheese sauce to the swan casserole. 

In 1980, Flower married Keith Thomas Aitken, editor of the Auckland Star newspaper. She was widowed just five years later.

In 1982, she established the Star-Woman's Weekly School of Cooking. 

She was instrumental in the formation of the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers in 1988, serving as its inaugural chairwoman, and was a member of the Association of Food Journalists in America.

Awarded the Queen's Service Medal for public service in 1983, she was a mentor to many New Zealand writers over the years.

Robyn Martin, Tui's prodigy and successor at the test kitchen, said while food had moved to a more interesting place under her mentor's influence, Flower had been saddened by the removal of the anticipation and pleasure seasons brought to the table. The loss of the significance of festival foods long associated with feast days, and their no longer being a treat, was a great disappointment for her.

She mourned the loss of families dining together. To her, this was a civilising activity; a time to talk, treat food with respect and appreciate those who had prepared it.

Flower, once described in an American newspaper as New Zealand's answer to Julia Child, never wanted to have her name in lights and when asked recently by Martin what she would like to be remembered for, the understated cook said it would be that she helped a few people.

Many home cooks would agree.

Sources: Sunday Star Times (Kim Knight), The Dominion Post, Robyn Martin, Allyson Gofton, Lucy Corry. 

Life Story tells of a New Zealander who helped to shape the community. If you know of someone whose Life Story should be told, email


 - Stuff

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