Food in the 20th century

Page 5 – Fruit and vegetables

Fresh, canned, frozen: fruit and vegetables

A house and garden on a patch of land were part of the 'New Zealand dream' for most of the 20th century. In that vision, the garden has been both utilitarian and decorative: vegetables out the back in the fenced-in, private area, and flowers out the front on open, public display. The tasks of maintaining those separate gardens have often been gender-specific. The 'vege garden' belonged to the man of the house, while women tended the prettier flower sections.

In practice, women have maintained both front and back yards, particularly during the 1940s and 1950s when home gardens for functional uses were at their most popular. Gardens have changed since mid century, and the large vegetable garden is no longer such a prominent feature of New Zealand life.

But in its heyday, a vibrant vegetable garden was a sign of a healthy, hard-working family. In popular memory at least, many urban and rural households were self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, or could at least obtain supplies of fresh produce from market gardens and orchards. While market gardens grew a range of vegetables, large-scale orchard production has focused on apples as a major crop for export as well as local consumption.

Housewives were expected to be well-versed in all methods of cooking and preserving fruit and vegetables. Recipe books included extensive sections on bottling and other forms of preserving, in addition to using those products in a range of puddings, cakes or condiments; New Zealanders had an 'obsession with bottling' in the mid-20th century. Aunt Daisy's 1954 recipe for beetroot chutney provides the barest of instructions; good housewives were expected to know how to make chutneys and conserves, and to preserve fruit and vegetables.

Beetroot Chutney

Three pounds beetroot, 1 1/2 lb apples, 2 onions, 1 pint vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, 1 teaspoon salt, juice of 1 lemon, 3/4 lb sugar. Boil the beetroot until tender; cut into cubes when cold. Cut onions and apples small and boil with the vinegar, sugar etc. Add the prepared beetroot and boil another 1/4 hour.

(From Aunt Daisy's Favourite Cookery Book, 3rd edn, Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch, 1954, p.356.)

Despite the emphasis on fresh produce, whether home- or orchard-grown or store-bought, New Zealand also produced processed fruit and vegetables. By the early 1890s, canning plants produced jam and processed other forms of fruit, and canned peas were sold by the beginning of the 20th century. Frozen vegetables came later, including the enduringly popular frozen pea.

Frosted Foodstuffs were operating in Auckland by the mid 1940s; they were followed by Lever Brothers and J. Wattie canneries in the 1950s. Watties has been a major manufacturer of canned goods ranging from baked beans and spaghetti (canned forms of which were all that was available before the 1930s) to fruit salad.

How to cite this page

'Fruit and vegetables', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jul-2020