Wednesday, December 1, 2021

‘We Put Those Pom Poms on Top of That Pie & Never Looked Back’: Here’s a Nostalgia Hit – Food in a Minute is 25!

With the theme music still stuck in her head, Kelly Bertrand chats to the legendary Allyson Gofton about Food in a Minute’s greatest hits. And yes, below you will find just how to recreate that Pom Pom pie.

They called her Mrs Hastings.

You know her – hell, you might be her.

She’s a middle-class New Zealand woman who, by 4pm, has no idea what she’s going to cook for dinner. She’s time poor, she’s on a budget. But she probably has a tin of Wattie’s Crushed Tomatoes somewhere in her pantry.

At 5.59pm every weekday, Kiwis would flick on the telly just before the news to see a cheerful Allyson Gofton glide into a very 90s blue kitchen, clutching something that promised to jazz up a Kiwi classic in order to help and inspire all the Mrs Hastings’ in Aotearoa get dinner on the table.

Welcome to Food in a Minute. It’s a television ad that still, 25 years on, lives rent-free in the hearts and minds of New Zealanders. Well, the theme tune does at least.

“As soon as we put those potato pom poms on top of a cottage pie, we were off to the races,” laughs Allyson from her Cambridge farm.

“Turns out, Kiwis are pom pom people!”

Food in a Minute was the zeitgeist-defining phenomenon that could single-handily cause chaos at supermarkets across the nation as the country’s cooks flocked to replicate whatever Allyson had whipped up in her blue kitchen – so much so the producers eventually had to give them a heads up as to what was coming up, so stock could cope with demand.

And yet, it was a television spot that almost didn’t get made.

Explains Allyson, “It all started with a study that said that out of all women at work at 4.30pm, 63% of them didn’t have a clue as to what they were going to put on the dinner table that night.”

Teaming up with her advertising colleague Mike O’Sullivan, they hashed out what would become Food in a Minute. They knew it had to run at one minute to six, it had to be quick and had to be easy. But it took them six months to get it off the ground, because the pair needed $1m to turn their revolutionary idea into reality.

But eventually Wattie’s came along and underwrote Food in a Minute for six months. “And within that six months we put those pom poms on that pie and we never looked back.”

It was a role that Allyson cherished – helping to bring easy and affordable food to the nation’s dinner tables, well before times of Uber Eats, and during a time where takeaways on any other night than Friday was ridiculous. She used canned food – back then, not the trendy thing to do – and frozen food, she introduced viewers to pesto and ‘exotic’ stir-through sauces that previously weren’t the norm to a New Zealander’s palate.

Serving up Kiwi families classics such as Tuscan lamb shanks – that one made the entire country run out of shanks for the week – and any kind of self-saucing pudding were always sure-fire winners.

“We’d nail it with simplicity,” nods Allyson. “Or anything Tuscan – that was a big trend in the 90s. In fact, our first ever-recipe was Tuscan Chicken. If we put tomatoes and olives in something, we called it Tuscan. In fact I remember we had a big meeting about that first dish and discussed whether or not we should put olive in it, and everyone went, ‘euch’.”

These days, Food in a Minute is simply a website chocked full of recipes. In 2020, the site was looked at by 3.2 million of us at least once, and since this latest lockdown, site traffic has jumped up 35%.

But if you scroll through the most popular recipes we’re clicking on, they’re charmingly classic.

Bacon and egg pie, perfect roast pork, classic beef pot roast, pikelets, scones and cheese sauce – they’re all recipes Mum would whip out during the Food in a Minute heyday, and Allyson says it’s just who we are – pragmatic.

“It’s family food, it’s nourishing food – it’s food on a budget. It’s simple, really,” she tells. “It’s food anyone can achieve. And I still believe a lot of food marketers and writers don’t understand what happens in a New Zealand home. We’re so led by intertationa food people, but we are uniquely New Zealand.

“I remember I went to a dinner; Food in a Minute had won a huge marketing award and I sat at the table with the general manager of Heinz Wattie’s. And I remember the comment made by someone at that table – ‘Oh, New Zealand. You’re just another state of Australia.’

“Now, I’m Australian and I know for a fact that’s not true. We knew they stir fried a lot – but New Zealanders were still cooking in the oven.”

After 13 years, Allyson made her final exit out of the Food in a Minute kitchen, handing over the oven mitts to Lana Garland, who was found via a nationwide competition.

And what if Food in a Minute made a grand return to television in 2021 – frankly, isn’t it just what an exhausted nation needs in between The Chase and the next Covid-19 update on the 6pm news? – then Allyson knows exactly what she’d do.

“Chicken, for sure, Kiwis love chicken,” she says. “A stir fry, I reckon, with Asian flavours; fresh flavours. Simple, easy, gingery, lemony. There you go! 2021’s Tuscan Chicken!”

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