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From Chesdale to camembert: how cheese helped shape NZ identity

A new public discussion series explores the link between primary products – dairy, meat, wine and wool – and New Zealand national identity. Victoria University’s Prof Lydia Wevers introduces the series.

Every Kiwi baby-boomer remembers having to drink quarter-pint bottles of warm milk at playtime, which at my school had been left outside on the steps of the hall in the morning sun.

My mother took us to the freezing works once a week to buy meat. The sawdust, the smell, the bright red saveloys and bloodstained gumboots always come back as I drive past the tree-lined drive where the Waingawa works used to be.

The only cheese we ever ate was in large blocks of Tasty or Colby – bright yellow processed Chesdale was exotic, although our mum forbade it on the grounds it wasn’t nutritious.

Childhood memories are linked to food, which is not a new thought, but as a newish nation in the 1950s our food, and even more so our primary industries, spoke to us of who we were.

Scratchy wool jumpers knitted by female relatives were the expression of how we all really still lived on farms. Our idea of art was Peter McIntyre’s red woolsheds or Tourism Department photographs of green hillsides dotted with thousands of white sheep, and men on horseback in clouds of dust mustering the animals giving us the lamb and wool we lived on.

Is New Zealand’s national identity still entangled with our primary products?

John Clarke’s recent sudden death and Murray Ball’s before that have reminded us all of the close connection between our humour and our rural stereotypes.

Farming is still high on our list of most-loved programmes – One’s Country Calendar and RNZ National’s Country Life are among their most popular – and gumboot-throwing competitions (were they actually invented by Fred Dagg?) seem to occur everywhere.

Is the idea of a being a New Zealander inextricably linked to meat, dairy and wool? Remember the Anchor family dairy ads of the 1980s and early 90s? The separated parents and their on-to-it daughter who grew into a teenager as the butter melted on the scones and the cheese was invitingly sliced, making us all feel dairy products were not only essential to the complications of family life, they had the power to heal?

And now that wine has taken over from the six o’clock swill, cheese includes every variety and taste, we have lamb rather than hogget and wool has graduated from lambswool to merino, our primary products show how we have become global citizens, sophisticated, expensive, refined.

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. As we long to have it all—the fast-track globally connected city and the peaceful country town—our schizophrenia about who we are is reflected in a damaged environment, ever-increasing inequity and social problems that can’t be fixed by a batch of hot scones. And yet perhaps it is still important to us to be of the land and connected to its products.

Victoria University of Wellington is running a public discussion series called The Butcher Shop, where clothing label twenty-seven names founders Rachel Easting and Anjali Stewart, DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle, Dry River Wines founder Neil McCallum, former advertising executive Roy Meares, essayist Ashleigh Young and others will explore the role of primary products in our formation of national identity.

The series’ name comes from communist writer Jean Devanny’s 1926 novel describing the sexism and brutality of life on a New Zealand farm.

When it was published, the book was reviled and banned. Have we always had blinkers on when it comes to primary products and their modes of production, ignoring the cost to animal welfare, to our rivers and hill country, to our overworked and debt-laden farming families, in favour of the myths of wholesomeness and natural goodness?

We associate our laconic and humorous rural man with toughness and durability, forgetting the rates of rural suicide and bankruptcy.

Eating chargrilled lamb with a pinot noir followed by local brie while wearing a fine merino jersey is an option available to well-heeled middle-class baby-boomers, but what about other New Zealanders?

Who consumes the bulk of our primary products in the twenty-first century and who feels they are part of our national identity?

There is no clear answer to that question, but our relationship with primary products is as old as New Zealand since colonisation, and by thinking about it we can also think about ourselves and what we want our country to be.

The Butcher Shop Series, 1 May (meat), 8 May (wine), 15 May (dairy) and 22 May (wool), 5.30–7pm, Victoria University of Wellington, Lecture Theatre 4, Government Buildings, 55 Lambton Quay, Wellington. Visit victoria.ac.nz/butcher-shop-series for more details.

Professor Lydia Wevers is director of Victoria University of Wellington’s Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies and co-chair of the University’s Enriching National Culture area of academic focus, which is hosting The Butcher Shop Series.

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