Alison Holst’s children Kirsten and Simon talk about life after their mother’s dementia diagnosis

She was famous for her marvellous muffins and lazy lasagne. But in 2015 Dame Alison Holst’s family revealed the much-loved television cook had dementia. Her children Simon and Kirsten speak in-depth for the first time to Kim Knight.

It was around this time of year. Very late or very early, depending on your point of view. A house in the country with its lights on – 2am, and someone was still up, wrapping Christmas presents.

Dame Alison Holst knocked on the door. The country’s most famous cook was wearing her nightdress and she was bleeding from a cut on her leg. She was able to direct an ambulance back to her house in Manakau, the small settlement south of Levin where she and her husband Peter had bought land in 1976. They had planted an enormous garden, built the garage they camped in when the kids were small, and, eventually, the Lockwood home away from home.

“I guess they’d had friends over for dinner,” says eldest daughter Kirsten. “She was still able to cook at that stage. And then she got up to go to the loo in the night and rather than going back into the bedroom, she walked for several hours, probably over fields. It wasn’t until the ambulance actually brought her home that dad was aware. He was asleep, and she’d got up and gone.”

Three years after that night, Holst’s family would confirm she had been diagnosed with dementia.

Dame Alison Holst was the country’s first female television cooking show host. Her debut, in the mid-1960s, was designed to appease viewers who complained “Galloping Gourmet” Graham Kerr’s recipes were not family-friendly.

Holst became the face of muffins and microwaves, slow cookers and sausage rolls. For a decade from the mid-1970s, she was an international ambassador for beef and lamb, famously defrosting meat on a heated hotel bathroom floor in snowy Ontario, Canada, before cooking it on morning television.

Her 2011 memoir was her 100th published book. She collaborated with Foodstuffs to create the supermarket bulk bin section “Alison’s Pantry”. She starred in television advertisements (washing powder, microwaves and more), appeared on Christmas specials and was frequently phoned at home by strangers who wanted help with dinner. Alison Holst was as sure as eggs. Until she wasn’t.

“She was not just my mum, she was my best friend,” says Kirsten. “We would talk on the phone for half an hour in the morning and half an hour at night . . . and then it became harder for me, being further away from her, because her language skills had deteriorated. I had some things I could ask her about for a while. What does the sea look like? Is it sunny up there?

Eventually, says Kirsten, her mother began to reply: “I’ll pass the phone to your father.”

Holst’s diagnosis became public knowledge in 2015, but this is the first time her children have spoken in-depth. Last year, at the New Zealand Aged Care Association Conference, Holst’s Wellington-based son Simon told delegates: “There is still a social stigma associated with mental illnesses and particularly dementia. I am not sure why. Perhaps it’s because it is hard to watch and it’s hard to know how to react . . . no-one wants to put their loved one into a ‘psychogeriatric’ facility. That’s a pretty confronting term. So, maybe we need to change how we talk about it as part of making it more real.”

Almost 70,000 New Zealanders live with dementia. That number is projected to rise to 170,000 by 2050. Holst, now aged 82, moved into full-time care last year. Prior to that, with assistance from daily respite care workers, she had lived in Ōrewa with her husband Peter – the man she met at a Capping Week dance in a wool store in their first year at Otago University.

Peter was studying medicine and Alison (who initially wanted to be an architect) was studying home science. “We were both a bit shy,” she writes in her memoir, and it was another two years before their paths crossed again and she invited him to her faculty’s ball. They married in 1961. “I met Peter, and ever since, he has been the love of my life,” writes Holst.

This is a love story that tastes like salty tears: “My mum really loves Bluff oysters,” begins Kirsten. “Bluff oysters are stupidly expensive, but towards the end of things, whenever it was the season, dad would buy two dozen. She would sit and eat them on bread and butter and she would say ‘I don’t know when I had my last oyster . . . I can’t remember when I had such a nice Bluff oyster’.”

And the next day, and the day after that, Peter would buy more oysters.

“I think those things gave my mum a lot of quality of life,” says Kirsten. “You know, you can be quite muddled, but you can still get a lot of joy from life.”

Kirsten is a geriatrician. She lives on a block of land near Palmerston North that she calls The Ark (“I have two of a number of animals!”) and right now, she says, she’s looking out the window at the rain and the cows and a garden of tall fragrant white stock flowers grown from the seeds her mother saved.

“I look at them, and I feel happy and I remember that was one of her many skills . . . At the rest home, people have a sign on their door, with their name on it. I wrote her name ‘Alison’ but I also wrote a lot of the things she had been, in the background, in small writing. She was a cook, an author, a mother, a grandmother, a forager, a sewer, a gardener, a seed saver . . . “

Kirsten is a daughter but also a doctor. So she can say, quite calmly, “she’s almost lost her language, She requires assistance to be fed. She often misinterprets what’s happening around her”. Back in March, with the Covid-19 pandemic on our doorstep, Kirsten wondered if she was visiting her mum for the last time.

“Partly because of the world, partly because I was thinking if the hospitals get full of Covid, I’m not going to be able to come up [to Auckland]. Just the unknown basis of everything.

“I became quite emotional, as you do. I was crying and mum . . . who I hadn’t been convinced knew who I was at that stage . . . reached up and put her arms around me as I cried. There couldn’t have been anything better for me to experience at the time.”

How do you remember Dame Alison Holst? In 2015, when the news broke, media called the country’s culinary community for comment. Annabel Langbein said that when her kids were little, she’d sneak broccoli into the Oakhill Potato recipe. Peter Gordon said he blushed when he met her at a barbecue where he was cooking wagyu beef. Ray McVinnie remembered her lemonade scones. The newspapers were full of the kinds of stories you might share at a wake.

“A lot of my colleagues think she has died,” says Kirsten. “I bump into people I haven’t seen for a while, and they say ‘I’m sorry to hear about your mother’ . . . she’s gone from being so visible, to invisible.”

And for her family?

“It’s a quiet acceptance. It’s like you’ve lost somebody but they’re still there. That is a very sad thing about dementia.”

Simon, who now works in food safety, says “it feels disloyal saying it, but it’s almost like you’ve said goodbye. It’s really weird – a strange, strange situation”.

Holst’s memoir includes a double-page spread of headshots from 1966 to 2011. They start with a hairsprayed helmet and progress through fluffy perms and feather cuts. The constant is a broad, open smile. Holst was not shouty like Jamie or sultry like Nigella. She was a tall calm kitchen saint in a neck scarf; her voice as soothing as custard, her mana so great that if she said soy sauce and filo pastry were good, thousands of meat-and-three-veg home cooks were convinced.

“She was a very trusted person,” says Simon. “There was her cohort and generation and then there was the subsequent generation who were raised watching her on TV. People would tell me they used to set themselves up and make a kitchen out of boxes and pretend to be her. More than one person has told me that.”

Mother and son collaborated for decades after the 1990 publication of their first co-write, Meals Without Meat. In hindsight, says Simon, there were signs his mother’s health was in decline.

“I don’t think you want to acknowledge it. So you make allowances. And she didn’t want to acknowledge it for a while. I think she probably did have some inklings. There were probably symptoms eight to 10 years ago. You just put it down to ageing, and she was still working, she was still quite busy.

“If she had dropped dead in the kitchen wearing an apron I would not have been at all surprised. That’s more how I saw things going, rather than a kind of . . . losing interest. She was appearing to lose interest in cooking.”

Simon recalls she started reading recipes out loud to an audience rather than speaking off the cuff. Once, just prior to a cooking demonstration, she declared she wasn’t feeling well, and he went on alone. Out of the blue, she surrendered her driving licence.

“I think that was just her way of coping. She didn’t want to be seen to forget anything, and so she found another way.”

You have to work at being a public figure. Regular media appearances, social media accounts, new books every other year. Holst’s longtime “as recommended” association with frozen supermarket sausage rolls is coming to an end, but her early television career is safely archived. Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision holds 131 records in its database. The earliest footage, from a 1975 meat industry field day, shows Holst making sweet and sour beef in a frying pan. A 1979 Eyewitness investigation into the country’s changing views on pavlova has not been digitised but, according to the TVNZ shot list, “Holst finds pavlova boring”.

Last year, down the back of a Blenheim shop that sold secondhand books and homebrewing equipment, I found a $45 hardback copy of Here’s How, published in 1966. Holst’s very first book, featuring recipes from her first television show.

“None of the recipes take long,” Holst wrote. “Most of them use fairly inexpensive ingredients – both important considerations for busy mothers with hungry families.”

The meatloaf is bolstered with a cup of crushed cornflakes and hard boiled eggs. Four recipes later, and the ring-moulded brawn calls for one salted pig’s head (“discard all bones, hair and flesh close to the ear and eye”). By 1987, Alison Holst’s Family Cookbook was thicker than a novel. I took a copy to my first flat in Timaru. Lick the page with the mocha fudge pudding recipe and you will taste three decades of spilled cocoa. Just this month, she popped into my Twitter feed as home cooks debated who wrote the best pizza dough recipe – Alison Holst or Annabel Langbein.

And, back in April, a strange little tale from Colin Hogg was published: That time that he and the founder of Flying Nun records encountered Alison Holst in a basement bar in Karangahape Rd with a small valise at her feet. They took her home to Grey Lynn and she stayed with them a while, debating the merits of microwave cookery. The story wasn’t real, but the photograph of the author with a lifesize cardboard cut-out of Holst was.

“I inherited it when I was editing some magazine, way back,” says Hogg. “I used to put her in the front room when we were out, just to keep an eye on the place and I was just awfully fond of her . . . one terrible day she just fell in half, folded up. She just went down and never came back.”

He did meet the real Holst once. “She embraced things. Like, not in a groovy modern way exactly . . . she was slightly awkward on television . . . a little stiff on the visuals, but that’s ok, she was real. She was the real deal.”

It’s a cliche, he knows, “but she was like everyone’s aunty . . . people used to talk about Judy Bailey as the mother of the nation. I really think Alison Holst is”.

What’s it like when your mum is also a celebrity? When your family life becomes public property?

“I actually remember the first time I saw her at a public event,” says Simon. “It must have been the Dunedin show, and I was somewhere between 5 and 7 years old. I hated it. It didn’t seem like her. Until then, everything just seemed completely normal. She was just mum.”

Family life revolved around food.

“We sat round a dinner table pretty much every night of the week and not only were we eating food, but food was quite often the topic of conversation. If there was photography needed for a book, it turned everything upside down. Back in the 1980s, in particular, it was a really big deal. Budgets were big, you had props people, stylists, a photographer. It took over half the house. It was a significant event, and then there was always a truckload of food.”

When they lived in San Francisco for his dad’s work, his mum enrolled in Chinese cooking classes. When they travelled to Montreal, she took them to watch an Italian chef twirl pizza. It wasn’t until Simon went flatting that it slowly dawned, “most people – well, a lot of people – just cooked for survival”.

Holst learned her craft in a classroom and then she learned how to teach others. After her Bachelor of Home Science, she spent a year at Auckland Teachers’ College. Simon says she measured and weighed and wrote precisely. People cook from her books because the food tastes good – and the recipes work. In 2013, she was named fourth on a list of most trusted New Zealanders: Sir John Kirwan, Willie Apiata, Richie McCaw and Dame Alison Holst, whose most popularly requested recipe was “lazy lasagne” (no pre-cooking required).

“I remember the lazy lasagne,” says Simon. “She spent quite a long time thinking about that.” On the other hand: “She wasn’t a supremely confident pavlova maker . . . but she had a pavlova roulade that was no-fail.”

Very early in her memoir, Holst writes “I liked knowing what you were supposed to do, then doing it well”. And it’s hard to reconcile that with the woman who, towards the end of her time at home, would no longer use utensils.

The Weekend Herald spoke to the Holst siblings by phone. They were warm, pragmatic people, proud of their mother and in awe of their father and his extended caregiver role.Simon says it was difficult to tell the public about his mother’s declining health. “It’s not like it was a secret, but it was personal . . . one of the amazing things for me is the number of people who say ‘my mother, my father, my aunt, my uncle’ – almost everyone has been touched now by someone with dementia. It’s not a hidden thing, but it’s not a talked-about thing.”

The Holsts are a close family. Poet Paula Harris (who has written beautifully about the Bluff oyster episodes) once spent Christmas Day with them. Her very moving essay on the experience begins as practically and directly as any conversation with a Holst: “The food was amazing, and this is a family that truly enjoys spending time with one another.”

The weekend before the New Zealand Herald spoke to Kirsten, she had attended a day-long course with her church. She made the lamb tagine (and a vegetarian version) from her mother’s slow cooker book. When someone asked if the doctor was a professional caterer, “I was quite chuffed”. And, she says, her mother would have loved that story.

“When I first started working, I would see people in clinic, and I would talk to them and tell them about their condition and I was hoping I was giving them clever advice and then I would say ‘do you have any questions for me?’ and they would say, ‘are you Kirsten of Kirsten’s orange slice?'”

She hoots with laughter. Then she says, more recently, a colleague told her about a patient who said, “well, if Alison Holst can have dementia, so can I”.

“Dementia” is a frightening word, says Kirsten, because when we hear that diagnosis, we immediately focus on what that might look like at the very end of our lives.

“Mum had memory problems and she lived a very full life even with memory problems for quite a long time.”

As her cooking repertoire shrunk, for example, it became more of a team effort, “you could give her a pile of beans and ask her to top and tail them, or pod broad beans or peel apples . . . she had more difficulty remembering what you were doing them for, and you might have that discussion a few times”.

A desire for a “round orange thing” would eventually be translated into a mandarin; when Holst and Kirsten went shopping for seaweed salad, “I remember her drawing pictures of green squiggly stuff and saying ‘this is what I want’.”

She talked to Nigella Lawson on the television and sometimes ate the fruit in her art class rather than paint it. But, says Kirsten, “one of the nice things was that she wasn’t so bothered by it”. When her mother was still at home, Kirsten visited for a four-day weekend most months. Her over-riding memory of that time is laughter.

“We could just get beside ourselves with hysteria over something completely trivial.”

Around the same time Holst moved into full-time care, Kirsten’s husband John died of cancer. She tells me this partly to stress the importance of what the medical profession calls “advanced care planning” – of taking the time to have the “what if” conversations with the people you love.

“Before John died, we had the most amazing time together, accepting that we were coming to the end of his life. We made the most of it, and that was really good.”

Kirsten and John’s house was deliberately built big enough to accommodate ailing parents. Kirsten says she’d reassure her mum she could always live there if anything happened to Peter. One day, her mum told her that if that didn’t work out, she could always stay in a rest home.

“It’s useful to have had the conversation when mum was articulate enough to be able to tell me what she wanted. That made it very, very much easier for me personally, when she went into care. I was deeply impressed with how my father managed at home with her for so long.”

Dame Alison Holst is not gone, and she is definitely not forgotten. Her children hear her voice in the preludes she wrote to her recipes and the introductions to her cookbooks. They are the Simon from Simon’s Special Pudding and Kirsten from Kirsten’s Orange Slice. They knew, very early on, that soy sauce and filo pastry were delicious. Simon once told a schoolfriend not to get too used to a favourite dish, because his mother was already writing the recipe for the next one.

2020 was terrible by anybody’s measure. But Kirsten suspects her mum might have enjoyed parts of this year when we cooked and sewed and planted vegetables in case of the worst.

“She would have loved that everybody wanted to make sourdough and she would have been so pleased that people were sitting having meals together.

“You’re able to be very naive a lot of your life and not be able to necessarily understand how anyone else does things,” says Kirsten.

“But with my work I think so often how lucky I am that I’ve come from a loving family. I’ve been supported and I have been loved and cared for and my parents have made me love animals and the garden.

“I can cook and sew and I love reading – they have been outstanding parents. They are still outstanding parents. They are my parents, who I love unbelievably.”

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