THEGREATFOODINI

Cooking Up a Storm

THEGREATFOODININew Zealand Herald

Canvas Magazine Feature

By Suzanne McFadden Thurs 1 Oct 2009

Wearing grungy green ugg boots she bought in New Zealand many years ago, Penina Petersen stands in the kitchen of her cosy rented house on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria’s little Mediterranean.

Cooking is furthest from her mind. Her dinners are planned out for the next year. By my estimations, tomorrow night will be ginger lime chicken and Asian veggies, Tuesday falafels, and a month on Friday she’ll be dishing up ham and mushroom penne to her husband and 4-year-old son.

Auckland-born Petersen is trying to religiously stick to the 52 weeks of menu plans and shopping lists on her culinary manifesto. She needs to know she is “on track” with her followers, that the meals she espouses are simple, colourful and delicious and, for her personal benefit, keep her saving money.

According to her calculations, if you follow her plan — cooking only three times a week and stretching out your basic grocery shop to once a month — you can save $456,300, around 21 million litres of water and earn 5.4 years of cooking days-off over a lifetime.

During the last couple of years on her Table Tucker regime, the Petersens saved enough to take their first family holiday, five days in Noosa.

Petersen’s story is not one of celebrity chef or Michelin star restaurateur offering up innovative and grandiose recipes. Gordon Ramsay would probably call her a fraud if she tried to sell herself as one. No, hers is a tale of perseverance, commonsense and self-belief; a typical mum wanting to make a difference in her family’s life and who saw a way to share it with other budget-conscious consumers.

These days who isn’t trying to save a few dollars on the supermarket shop? That’s why her publisher believes she’s onto a winner. Her originally self-published cookbook, Table Tucker, grabbed the attention of Australian homemakers last year, quickly selling out the 2500 copies she had made at her town’s local printer and sold on the internet.

When Hachette Publishing saw Petersen promoting her book on the Seven Network’s current affairs show Today Tonight last November, it scooped her up and relaunched the book, on sale in New Zealand and Australia this month under the same title.

“Here was a mum from the country who wanted to beat spiralling grocery prices and solve the eternal dilemma of what to cook for dinner,” says Hachette’s publishing director Fiona Hazard.

“I’ve been trying to hone it down to what it is,” says 37-year-old Petersen, “and it’s a cooking system-slash-inspirational book. They’re basic recipes that you know; all I’ve done is taken them and put them into a menu plan.”

The book gives week-by-week menus, shopping lists and environmentally-friendly suggestions. The creative touch is adding in dashes of her upbeat life philosophy — from tips on fixing dripping taps to her thoughts on passion: “Passion is raw, real, ripe, rough and ready!”

“I feel like I’m pregnant waiting for the launch,” she says the week before the reinvented Table Tucker is released.

“I’ve been nesting all this week, cleaning out cupboards. Now it’s like being in labour.”

Delivery came when her paperback baby was finally on the shelves. That first day, she was off to her local Kmart to see it.

“This is my dream, it’s finally here.”

It’s exhausting trying to digest this book in one sitting. It’s busy and bursting with tips and ideas. But that, it seems, is the nature of the fizzy brunette behind it.

The little, cream brick house, circa 1950s, in a leafy street of Mornington — the boot-shaped peninsula that is Melbourne’s weekend playground — is the latest base for Petersen, her husband Richard and son Saxon.

It’s their sea change, following on from a tree change and, before that, a year in the desert.

She is a nomad; born in Auckland, Penina Guttenbeil spent her childhood moving with her family between Mt Albert and Sydney. Her parents were born in foreign lands: her tradesman father Iven was a German-Samoan who sailed from Tonga to Auckland when he was 15; her mother, Sandra — now a laboratory receptionist at Auckland Hospital — is English.

Petersen went to Auckland Girls’ Grammar before graduating from Auckland University with a degree in political science. She moved to Japan to teach English and travelled the world temping. She finally settled in Melbourne in 2000, after meeting Richard through mutual Kiwi friends. But even in the stability of married life, cooking was completely foreign to her.

Her childhood memories of food, however, were rich and glutinous.

“I remember my grandmother rolling the fish eye in coconut juice around her plate, and my English aunty making pineapple upside-down cake,” she says.

“We’d have corned beef, cabbage and coconut cream one night, bangers and mash the next. We had a real mix of culture at the dinner table.”

Her mother taught her how to cook biscuits and cakes but in her early married life she relied on her husband’s rudimentary culinary skills most nights.

Friends were treated to spaghetti bolognese if they came over for dinner. But when the friend who introduced Penina and Richard returned to live in New Zealand, leaving a box of glossy magazines on the Petersen’s doorstep. She got the hint.

“I was 30, so I thought it’s probably time I learned to cook. I threw myself into creating gourmet meals out of these magazines — I fell in love with the creativity of cooking,” she says.

But mastering cooking didn’t equate to domesticated suburban bliss. Five years ago, the Petersens decided to quit city life. They cancelled their wedding plans, sold all but the few belongings they could fit in Richard’s van and eloped to Adelaide, before crossing the Nullarbor into a new life in the Western Australian outback.

They set up house in Kambalda, a nickel mining town south of Kalgoorlie, where they both got jobs in the mines. She recalls their year there with some mirth: “It was social suicide. On Thursday nights we’d go on a date to the supermarket.”

Once Saxon was born, Petersen realised she needed to be closer to civilisation, so the family packed the van again and moved to Stawell, a gold mining town in western Victoria.

They call it a “tree change” — moving to the country — and, fittingly, Petersen got a job at the local council as a bush fire recovery officer.

It was when she was working to promote the town’s economic development that the Table Tucker book idea was born.

“I really needed the book. I couldn’t find anything like it. Working at the council was full-on and I was sick of writing out grocery lists, trying to think of what to cook for dinner on the way home,” she says.

“I thought about my friends in Melbourne, who worked all day then got stuck in traffic … how did they cook dinner as well? Then I came up with the Table Tuckeridea and I thought, if this is good for me in the country, it’s got to be good for people in the city.”

So this was her idea: a cookbook that changes the way you shop, cook, eat, and live. You cook only three nights a week — Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays — when you whip up two full meals, refrigerating one for the next night. As an example, on a Thursday night in early summer you might cook what she calls a square meal — pepper steak with garlic squash — while you’re preparing the combo meal, chicken noodle salad for Friday. Saturday is leftovers. The savings are in time, money, energy, waste, and “sanity”.

She makes no apologies that the recipes she has chosen are basic, dressed with garnishes.

“The book’s about old-fashioned country cooking meeting city life. I wanted to take traditional batch cooking and put it into a new concept,” she says.

The 52 weeks of menus are divided into seasons to get the benefits of buying seasonal food; each menu comes with a shopping list.

Table Tucker suggests setting up an annual pantry with dried herbs and the like; a seasonal shop at the beginning of each season for things like pasta, stock and sauces; a monthly shop for onions, pastry and mince and so on; and a weekly shop for perishables like vegetables. She prides herself on drawing up the shopping lists so that no grocery bill ever exceeds A$90 ($110) a week.

“I’ve calculated the dollar value to be the same for each week. I like that consistency,” she says.

If you follow Table Tucker’s menus and shopping lists to the letter, Petersen insists you will save money on food and petrol by buying bulk, save time spent shopping and cooking, and cut back on food packaging.

“When I started number-crunching I was constantly open-mouthed about the savings. We had always budgeted on around $170 for groceries, then I brought it down to $120. I’ve never been a rich person — I’ve always shopped at Salvos [Salvation Army stores] because we’ve never had money. But just having an extra $40 a week in your pocket means we can buy luxury items we never had before, and we’ve started a ‘lunch tradition’, going out for lunch every Saturday as a family.”

She added “Earth-happy principles” to the book after living through a typical Victorian drought.

“When I started writing, there was a beautiful dam outside my window where horses would drink. After a year, the dam was empty; the horses were scratching around in the dust. That’s when I started to think about building in the eco core principles.”

Among her suggestions: eating one less meat meal a week, after pointing out over 4000 litres of water goes into producing one steak.

“I thought, if I can be better just by eating dinner, then that’s a really easy way to help,” she says.

After a year’s writing, her first version of the book was universally trashed by family and friends.

“One friend threw it across the table at me and said ‘nah, there’s no Penina in this book. I can go online and get recipes. I want something different’,” Petersen recalls.

Disheartened, she started from scratch — writing during her work lunchbreaks with a sign “writing best-seller, do not disturb” taped to her computer monitor and at night in an uninsulated house, wearing two pairs of trackpants and ugg boots.

She and Richard left their jobs — he ran a sign-writing business — for three months to finish the book. She chose to have it printed locally in Stawell, even though it took two months longer and cost the couple $30,000.

They took out loans and pumped all their savings into it, loaded the finished product on to their ute and began to sell them online.

She contacted Today Tonight, who ran a story on her solo venture — “they love supermarket stories” — and from there the book sold out, and Hachette publishers were straight on the phone.

“As soon as we saw Penina talking about her book on Today Tonight, we loved her revolutionary culinary concept,” Fiona Hazard says.

“Her self-published edition was already flying out the door — she and her husband were spending every waking hour packing and despatching books from home — so we knew that she’d struck a chord with readers.”

Petersen already has her head down in another book, or 10.

There’s a vegetarian version of Table Tucker, dedicated to her vegan mother, a travel story and a novel.

“I have plans for 10 books, but my publisher is trying to rein me in. Apparently I have to focus on one at a time,” she says. With her fervour and all this cooking-free time on her hands, that’s not likely.

Table Tucker (Hachette, $32.99) is out now.