In our gluten-free world it is a naughty delight to watch Dame Alison Holst present a TV segment on bread and cheese for the New Zealand Dairy Board, in 1984. In one take and seven minutes, she whips up toasted sandwiches (“get the cheese nice and oozy”), mouse traps, cheese rolls, croutons and mini pizzas, moving deftly as a dancer from food prop to food prop, before summarising all five recipes without missing a beat.
Dame Alison has been a household face almost since the dawn of television in New Zealand. Since her first appearance in the mid-1960s on the wildly successful Here’s How: Alison Holst Cooks, she has become a television regular, written 99 cookbooks and one memoir, and been a columnist, radio host, food stylist and charity fundraiser.
Holst was born in Opoho, Dunedin in 1938. Her father Arthur lectured at Dunedin Teacher’s College and her mother Margaret was a nurse and wonderful cook. “Cooking to her was a vital part of the house, of life, of love, of everything else.” Margaret passed on her skills to Alison and her equally gifted sisters, who would become a food stylist and an opera singer. “We were never ever made to feel like we couldn’t do things because we weren’t boys.”
Holst wanted to be an architect or a fine artist, but her parents couldn’t afford to send her away to study. So she did a home science degree, after which she was offered a job lecturing at the Foods Department of Otago University's School of Home Science.
She also taught an extension class for mature cooks, which proved the perfect training for a career in television. The students would turn up at 6pm after a hard day’s work. “Poor things – if I wasn’t interesting they went to sleep.” So she was “a bit funny and a bit silly” to hold their attention. “I learnt how to be more interesting.”
Around this time posh English chef Graham Kerr — aka the Galloping Gourmet — was starting to make his mark on New Zealand television. “All of a sudden there was Graham Kerr being wonderfully flamboyant and creative and surprising a lot of NZ cooks.” But viewers complained his style was too fancy, and his ingredients too expensive. So the director of the NZ Broadcasting Corporation went in search of his polar opposite. He discovered Holst and asked her to make a pilot. “I was terrified. My hands shook. I picked up a lettuce and called it a lemon.”
But the powers that be approved and the series went ahead, shot at Dunedin’s Garrison Hall. No one had any idea what they were doing. “We were all young and learning. Sometimes I’d make the whole programme six or seven times because a light would flicker at the wrong time, or someone would tread on a cord. The floor manager would sneak in from left and right and take the dirty dishes, but sometimes they’d take something you hadn’t finished with. You’d have to wing it: ‘I know I had flour somewhere’, and try to keep a straight face."
“Someone decided there should be a man under my bench. He held the microphone cord: he fed it out and pulled it in. It was a peculiar sensation. He sat beside my garbage can. If he thought you were doing something wrong there’d be a tug.”
Inevitably, the man’s head occasionally popped into frame. Once, a fire started on one end of the bench. Alison simply glided to the other side while the floor manager tampered the flames with a tea towel, then glided back again. The only direction she was given was “just keep going”.
Holst stood her ground with her male producer, whose ideas of everyday cooking she did not share. “I decided the content was for me to decide too, because I knew more about what we were making.” The TV station was deluged with thousands of people writing in wanting the recipes, and a star was born.
Holst’s mission was to cook for ordinary people, use uncomplicated ingredients and stick to a budget. The best cookbooks, she has often said, are not the ones that sit pristine on the bookshelf but are splattered and burnt; their words faint, their pages falling out. Gently, she introduced such exotic ingredients as garlic and soy sauce to the Kiwi palate.
After appearing on the Sharon Crosbie Show Holst became life-long friends with Crosbie, her neighbour in Karori Wellington — “a wonderful broadcaster, but my goodness she could be naughty”.
Her children Kirsten and Simon had grown up on set. Eventually they drifted onto the screen as her helpers. In a 1978 Nice One Christmas special, Holst prepares truffles for her segment 'What’s Cooking?'. While little Simon bangs the living daylights out of some wine biscuits with a rolling pin, teenage Kirsten’s in charge of the sherry: “just have the sherry ready dear, because if it gets a bit dry we might need a bit more.“
At her peak, Holst could sell out certain types of fish or meat around the country after featuring them on her programme. So it was only natural that she was recruited by the Fishing Industry Board, then the Dairy and Meat Boards, to travel the world promoting their products.
An enthusiastic proponent of the time-saving inventions such as the food processor and the microwave, Holst can be seen in a 1986 Women’s Weekly with an apron that reads: “More time for misbehaving now I’m microwaving.” Later she embraced vegetarianism, co-writing the best-selling Meals Without Meat with son Simon, and even gluten-free baking.
And while Holst unabashedly targeted her recipes to women, she argued the perception of her as an unliberated housewife was false. “What I’m trying to do is make it easier and quicker for you, so you can get into the kitchen and out again, so you can get on with the rest of your life."
Profile written by Julie Hill
Alison Holst with Barbara Larson, A Home-grown Cook - The Dame Alison Holst Story (Amberley: Hyndman Publishing, 2011)
'A Home-grown Cook: The Dame Alison Holst Story', (Video Interview, Dunedin Public Library, 2011) YouTube
Lucy Corry, 'Alison Holst still cooking - and writing - at 73' (Interview) - The Dominion Post, 28 November 2011
Michael Dickison, 'NZ’s honourable master chef' - The NZ Herald, 31 December 2010
'Pepping Up The Package' - NZ Women’s Weekly, 30 June 1986
'Family Cook' -The Listener, 9 May 1987
Alison Holst interview, Sounds Historical (Radio Programme) - Radio New Zealand, 2010
Alison Holst interview, Morning Glory (Radio Programme) - 95bFM, 2010