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A childhood in New Zealand and imagination combine for unique food
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Jennifer Lavinder holds a plate with homemade potato chips, artichoke heart dip and a cheeseburger topped with mango salsa. (Bulletin photo by Holly Kozelsky)
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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

By HOLLY KOZELSKY - Bulletin Accent Editor

Jennifer Lavinder of Ridgeway draws from a background that combines both New Zealand and American traditions as she creates her meals.

The 34-year-old spent the first half of her life in New Zealand. Her father, Michael Bender, was a missionary there until the family moved to Martinsville when Lavinder was 17 years old.

In Martinsville, her father was the pastor at Druid Hills Baptist Church for a few years before he moved to Michigan. Her uncle, Dennis Bender, owned a bookstore in Martinsville.

She married Matthew Lavinder less than a year after her father left. The newlyweds moved to the beach, where she worked and her husband studied at Old Dominion University.

When it was time to raise a family, the couple moved back to Martinsville. She stayed home with the children, Grace, now 9, and Logan, 7, until she started classes in 2009. She is slated for May graduation from the nursing program at Patrick Henry Community College. Her husband is a programmer for Data Management Inc. in Stoneville.

Much of the food in New Zealand is similar to American food, Lavinder said: “A standard plate has meat, vegetables and potato.”

New Zealand is part of the British Commonwealth, she added, so the food also is similar to British cooking. Fish and chips are popular there. People eat with a fork and knife in each hand, as opposed to just holding a fork as in America.

Cooks in New Zealand “don’t use a lot of seasonings, sugar or fat,” she said. “A lot is made from scratch.”

She grew up eating casseroles regularly, probably because they were inexpensive and easy for her mother to make for a large family, she said. She has two younger sisters and a younger brother, all of whom live up North now.

Macaroni and cheese is popular in New Zealand, she said. It usually is made from scratch, and it often has other ingredients such as peas, carrots or bacon.

New Zealand families tend to serve slices of loaf bread at every meal, she said. People generally don’t drink until after they have finished the meal.

Desserts are “not overbearingly sweet,” Lavinder said.

A popular dessert in New Zealand is the light and airy pavlova. The cake-shaped sweet has a base of meringue topped with a layer of whipped cream, then fruit. The meringue is soft and chewy on the inside and has a light crunch on the outside.

“New Zealanders make it all the time,” she added. “It can be tricky to make, but the recipe’s really simple.”

Sponge cakes, fruit crumbles and custards also are popular in New Zealand, she said.

Some food of native Maoris, New Zealanders, often is eaten. A common Moari food is fried bread.

Lavinder’s family lived in Aukland, the capital city with a population of 1.36 million.

Aukland has a heavy population of Samoans, she said. A common Samoan food is hungi.

New Zealand is an island with many volcanos, and there are many hot spots in the ground. Hungi is food, including vegetables and potatoes, cooked in the ground. The food is wrapped up, put in basket, put in a hole near a hot spot and covered with dirt. There it sets until the food has cooked.

Their church gatherings often involved hungi as a meal. They would drive out to a hot spot about 20 or 30 minutes away, cook the food, then bring it back to the church to eat.

“Dad burned his arms a couple of times doing that,” she recalled.

Though no particular seasonings characterize hungi, “the food tastes real good. It has a unique taste,” she said.

Cooking at home, Lavinder makes “pretty much everything. I don’t really have something in particular that I cook,” she said.

Her daughter’s favorite food is spaghetti. Lavinder makes her sauce with fresh garlic and basil, red wine vinegar or wine, canned tomatoes and salt and pepper. Though some ingredients may vary, the garlic “is non-negotiable,” she said.

Her son loves meat, particularly chicken, and her homemade potato chips, which the children call “world famous potato chips,” she said. Soaking potato slices in water with a little sugar and salt in it “gets the starch out of them,” she said, and the sugar helps the chips remain crisp.

As she slices them, she leaves them in the water until they are ready to be cooked. She dabs off the water with a paper towel so they won’t spatter oil when cooked.

Her husband enjoys cheeseburgers with mango sauce, country-fried steak and chicken dip. The chicken dip, which she came up with herself, is made with shredded chicken, salsa, black beans, corn, cumin and cream cheese in a slow cooker. It does not look appetizing, she said, but it is delicious when eaten with tortillas.


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