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You are what you don’t eat
On culture wars and kai Māori, the tale of Tuimato sauce, plus, the worst snack in the history of this newsletter.
Nau mai, haere mai. Welcome to The Boil Up, The Spinoff’s weekly food newsletter. Written by me, Charlotte Muru-Lanning. It’s lovely to have you here!
On 14 September 1972 the Māori language petition, asking for more active recognition of te reo Māori, was delivered to parliament by Ngā Tamatoa member Hana Jackson. That stand, by way of more than 30,000 signatures, is often seen as one of the catalysts for the Māori renaissance, which saw a collective reinvigoration and reclamation of language, history, culture, and, in among all that, culinary traditions.
It’s largely a result of the determination of those activists and kaumātua gone before that I get to talk about kai Māori with so much freedom. And that I get to talk to other Māori about their connections to the kai they gather, grow, make, cook, serve and love. That kai Māori has become a recurring theme in this newsletter and what I write outside of it is – because I’m cognisant of the politics of claiming space in the mainstream, where our kai has been absent – partially deliberate, but in practice, often relatively accidental. From my seat at the table, kai Māori is not something only to be brought out on special occasions, at Matariki or on Waitangi Day, it’s central and decidedly everyday.
In the past few months though, I’ve noticed – by way of social media comments, private messages and emails – an intensified outrage in response to mentions of kai Māori. I’m unsure whether it correlates with there simply being more focus on our food, or the changing landscape of social media sites, or the dog whistles disguised as common sense by some politicians ahead of the election. What may seem to most of us like relatively uncontroversial discussions around a cookbook, or rēwena bread, or even the food at my (English!) grandmother’s funeral, are ever more frequently read through a lens of distaste by others.
There is rage when Māori discuss the ways in which colonisation, dispossession of land and poverty have stripped us of sovereignty over our kai and traditional practices. There is rage when we use words like “opulent” or “delicious” to describe our food. There is rage when we weave introduced ingredients like flour or pork or corn or plums into our culinary identities. Perhaps most bafflingly, there is rage at the very mention that we have culinary traditions at all. Kai Māori is more than just unpalatable for those who are confronted by it – it hardly exists.
Unpleasantness of this kind is always a tricky thing to write about because it runs the risk of fanning the flames of toxicity, and giving a platform to ignorance. Especially when this type of response echoes inflamed rhetoric around te reo Māori reinvigoration, co-governance or recognition of Te Tiriti. Most of the time, for my own wellbeing, I tend to scroll right past, but lately I’ve found (admittedly puzzling) comfort in their fury. These riled up responses are an affirmation that food writing is political. And so, that we’re talking about it more is a really good thing.
These attitudes toward kai Māori aren’t anything new, either – they have a long, meandering genealogy that stretches back to the beginnings of colonisation in this country. Many have noted that outside te ao Māori, our food has been absent in restaurants, cookbooks and in the national palate – a culinary treatment that’s gone hand in hand with the repression of other aspects of our culture. Behind this, is a tandem of myths. The first is that “authentic” pre-colonial kai Māori is categorically bad – something you wouldn’t want to eat. The other is that kai incorporating introduced ingredients or techniques is not “authentic”. It's a bit of a culinary quagmire.
One of the themes guaranteed to crop up among these kinds of comments and messages is that Māori adoption of ingredients and techniques brought from overseas is proof that colonisation was actually a good thing. The logic being that the only possible way for a group of people to acquire an ingredient or learn new techniques is to be colonised. For evidence to the contrary, see tempura, which was adopted from the techniques of Portuguese missionaries living in Nagasaki, or ingredients vital to modern-day Thai cuisine like noodles and soy sauce, brought by Chinese immigrants.
This is to say, food writing and understanding the whakapapa of food is vital. For Māori, to eat, cook, share and celebrate our kai unapologetically is a form of resistance and a commitment to continuity. Our plate is an arena. As academic,and founding member of Ngā Tamatoa Linda Tuhiwai Smith wrote in her 1999 book Decolonizing Methodologies, “The past, our stories local and global, the present, our communities, cultures, languages and social practices – all may be spaces of marginalization, but they have also become spaces of resistance and hope.”
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Just over a year after scrapping the beloved Ernest Adams range of cakes and slices, international food conglomerate Goodman Fielder has announced the end of Edmonds frozen pastry. The company, which owns quintessential New Zealand brand Edmonds, along with other local lines like Vogel’s, Meadow Fresh and Tararua, said the pastry sheets were no longer commercially viable and they had stopped production in June. It’s not an especially unusual story – food products come and go – but there’s something particularly troubling about this discontinuation. There are few other makers of ready-to-use pastry, and in my humble opinion, none of them come close to the quality of Edmonds. Perhaps we’ll have to pick up our rolling pins and riot, or, heaven forbid, learn to make our own.
The latest Statistics New Zealand figures show an 8.9% rise in food prices last month compared to August 2022. It’s a relatively big jump, but in good news, it's less of an increase than earlier this year – year-on-year prices had increased by 12% in April. Grocery foods saw the sharpest rise of 10.6%, with yoghurt six packs, fresh eggs and chips showing the sharpest increases in shoppers’ trollies. Dining out has seen an increase too, with an 8.9% price rise in restaurant meals and ready-to-eat food.
Consider the bottle or glass of tap water you’ve been sipping on today. Forgettable, boring and totally essential. Access to clean drinking water should be a right, yet we’re comparatively lucky in this country to have such high quality stuff in our taps. However, as we’ve seen more recently, that’s not always guaranteed. This analysis of where political parties stand on protecting freshwater gives some clarity to the otherwise murky policies.
Spurred by her own passion for the condiment brand, The Spinoff’s Alex Casey ventured into the mysterious beginnings and success behind New Zealand’s third most popular tomato sauce: Tuimato sauce. What role have the infamous and multitalented “Tui girls” had in this saucy saga, you ask? Read here to find out.
I may be an unrepentant meat-eater, but I’ve been eager to get my hands on a copy of the recently published book No Meat Required by American food writer Alicia Kennedy (who writes this wonderful Substack which you should absolutely subscribe to if you haven’t already). Broadly, the book is about the history of plant-based eating in the US, and surveys the diverse movements that have excluded meat. Like in much of her writing, there’s an underlying theme of critique of our industrialised food system. Whether you end up reading the book or not, this review of it on The Atlantic is an especially interesting reflection.
Snack of the week
Warheads Wedgies, $4 (or thereabouts) from Good to Go Supermarket, Auckland CBD: It turns out if you’re looking for groceries in downtown Auckland on a Saturday after 8.30pm, you’d be downright out of luck. I learnt of those shockingly early closing times while searching for snacks to take back to my (birthday staycation!) hotel room over the weekend. The three closest supermarkets might have been closed, but the silver lining to my initial disappointment was in a new discovery: Good to Go Supermarket. Despite the shop’s ominously low Google rating (2.7!), I was in bodega heaven. In fact, the shop even had many of the trappings of an “authentic”, overseas bodega: wine, ready-to-eat food, and an eclectic inventory of canned drinks, instant noodles and sweet things. To the dental profession’s dismay, I’ve been on a real sour-lolly renaissance recently, so these – described as “uncomfortably sour” on the pack – were the first processed delights I selected while scurrying excitedly around the shop’s aisles. They were also the first packet I tore into. I popped one of the rose-coloured wedges into my mouth, chewed and immediately spat it out. I didn’t spit it out because it was sour either – it was just, quite frankly, yuck. Wondering whether the first flavour I'd tried out of the three in the pack was perhaps an outlier, I tried another. Nope, also yuck. The three flavours – watermelon, pink lemonade and cherry limeade – all tasted medicinal with an unfortunate long-lasting aftertaste. The texture: waxy rather than chewy. And the promised uncomfortable sourness: indistinguishable to the point where I wondered whether the Commerce Commission should get involved. I was anticipating discomfort, but instead, I was only left confused. 0/10.
Talk next week!
Hei kōnā mai, Charlotte