The Cookery Book Detective

Monday 16 March 2020

by Dr Joanna Cobley

This summer I've spent my Tuesday afternoons at Canterbury Museum scouring its extensive collection of cookery books for recipes celebrating peace.

My research started in 2018 when, on the centenary of the Armistice that ended World War One, I went on a quest to find a historic recipe that celebrated peace. I didn't find many, but I did discover a vigorous appetite for recipes that commemorated war – for example, the famous ANZAC biscuit. These patriotic recipes were first transmitted in community cookery books in the early decades of the twentieth century.

I'm still on a quest to find recipes for peace cake. I recently came across a thin volume called Recipes My Mother Taught Me. It didn't have any peace recipes, but two things about this book captured my attention: the title and some recipes. Another thing puzzled me: the publication date was missing.

Cookery books: A women’s platform?

Recipes My Mother Taught Me is a compiled community cookery book organised by the Aged People’s Care Committee, Presbyterian Social Service Association (PSSA), Christchurch. The Committee ran an over-60s recipe competition to encourage submissions. Winners of each recipe section were given grocery vouchers. The call attracted over 400 entries.

Recipes My Mother Taught Me - Cover

Most contributors came from Canterbury, with some West Coast and Picton submissions. The title evokes nostalgia – a memory of mother, or a maternal figurehead, with expert cookery knowledge. Women contributed the majority of the recipes. Some contributors’ names do not have titles (eg M Finnie) and a few entries were from “Anonymous”.

Men contributed recipes. Mr Oxley from Lyttelton provided a Steak and Kidney Pudding recipe and Mr H P Crossen based in Tai Tapu sent in instructions for Pickled Onions. Mr G Griffiths, Christchurch, offered this Furniture Polish recipe: mix together 1 pint linseed oil, ½ pint vinegar, ½ pint turpentine, ¼ pint methylated spirits.

To encourage sales, Mrs R Muldoon and Mrs W Rowling were invited to share their "Very Special Recipes". Mrs R Muldoon, the Prime Minister’s wife, selected a dessert called Peach Celestial. Mrs W Rowling, wife of the Leader of the Opposition, shared a Sweet Chicken recipe. Both recipes are easy to follow.

Thea Muldoon and Glen Rowling recipes

Narrowing down the publication date

Faith mixes with politics in this cookery book. Thea Muldoon was raised as Anglican, as was Glen Rowling’s husband, Bill. Thea and Glen were active in community service. Using Muldoon’s and Rowling’s recipes as evidence, we can deduce this cookery book was published c1975–1983. Bill Rowling became Leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister in 1974 following the unexpected death of Norman Kirk.

Glen Rowling, Bill Rowling and children

Glen and Bill Rowling and their children Andrew, Carl and Kim in a photo taken in 1973. Dominion Post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1973/0311/5A-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22882680

Then Robert Muldoon, Leader of the National Party, was voted in as Prime Minister in a landslide election in 1975, making Rowling Leader of the Opposition. Rowling stepped down in 1983 when David Lange took over Leadership of the Labour Party. Lange ousted Muldoon as Prime Minister in 1984.


Muldoons' wedding

Thea and Robert Muldoon on the day of their wedding, 17 March 1951. Archives New Zealand R5253874, CC BY 2.0

Cooking temperature and measurements are another useful method for dating cookery books. In Recipes My Mother Taught Me, the temperature is given in Fahrenheit and ingredients are listed in British Imperial measurements. New Zealand introduced metric measurements in 1974, but imperial measurements appear in community fundraising cookery books many decades afterwards.

Looking with present-day eyes

On Level 2 of the Museum is a space where researchers work with items from the collection. This room overlooks the Botanic Gardens, so a recipe blending together children, animals and nature caught my attention. Young people must spend time with nature. Yet given modern concerns about the damaging effects of UV rays, would you let a child bake in the hot sun? In addition, increased levels of pollutants in the waterways raises questions about safety; I’d be interested to know if you would let a child swim in a Canterbury river this summer.

A Recipe for Preserving Children


Helen Leach and Raelene Inglis. 2006. Cookbook Collections – from Kitchen Drawer to Academic Resource. The New Zealand Library & Information Management Journal Ngā Pūrongo 50.1 (October 2006): 69 – 80.

Emmitt, Delsie. c1970s. Recipes My Mother Taught Me. Canterbury Museum, LIB 30237 180/2000.

Joanna CobleyDr Joanna Cobley is a Visiting Researcher at Canterbury Museum. She is Kaitautoko Kairangahau (Researcher Development Coordinator) and Adjunct Senior Fellow, History at the University of Canterbury.


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