It was at a pie cart in this North Island town in 1957 that New Zealand rock ’n’ roll was born, at the hands of a country singer., Johny Cooper
“It’s about running different lines, sharper angles and reconnecting with the rest of the backs,” explained Jim Western using salt and pepper shakers as players, knives for the angles on the pie cart counter. Sometimes he would use sauce bottles to demonstrate moves near the goal posts. Jim was a rugby guru.
This morning I woke up thinking of pie carts, especially the one in Dunedin that was run by Jim Western, not far from the Exchange in Rattray Street, Dunedin, on the road to the wharf.
Pie carts have served cheap hot food to travellers and locals nationwide since the 1930s, and they've been the repository of countless untold stories and is an indelible part of Kiwi culture,
Ping, Ping the China man Henry Leong serves the long-haired crowd in 1975. Image Daily News. Copy from Puke Ariki Pictorial Collection TS2006_1003.
Jim Western was a master of back play strategies and when it was quiet in the pie cart, he would show us attacking strategies.
Jim Western and his pie cart shaped my life as a teenager and the lives of a few other young rugby players and athletes who gathered there to hear Jim’s wisdom. Jim spoke pure wisdom whether on rugby, athletics, or how to live your life, or politics. Jim had pure mana. Mana of the highest order. He also made the best Pea Pie and Pud in the South Island in the mid to late sixties. He could also serve up a delicious steak, onions, eggs and chips.
I used to visit Jim’ pie cart quite often as my good friend Duncan Robertson worked there in the weekends. Duncan and I played rugby at High Street School, at King Edward Technical College and at Zingari Richmond. Duncan later went to to be an outstanding All Black. I also dined at Jim’s pie cart with another All Black, Keith Murdoch, in 1967 after a match between Eastern (Palmerston and Waikouwai-iti) and Zingari, played at Palmerston. Keith drove me home in his Mini minor that night, and we stopped at the pie cart for a feed, before heading to the Ravensbourne pub. Jim would pass on his knowledge freely to those who wanted to learn, but would be tough on anyone who broke his rules. He was afraid of no one.Jim's pie cart was a house of learning, a storehouse of treasures and food.
At the age of 15, I was curious to know who were these painted women who would come in to the pie cart, usually dragging heavily on a top brand filter tip. When I asked him, Jim said matter of factly, "they make their money working on ships down the road at the wharf."
When Jim dcecided it was time to close the pie cart, he would shout loudly, "Time Gentlemen and let's drop the sides." A woman just fresh off a ship eating a pie and coffee replied, "Not on your life darling, you are not going to get me to drop my strides in here."
It was always fun to be there when Jim dropped the sides, and he'd invite me in for a cup of tea, before driving home. You were the only one that mattered when Jim Western spoke to you. He cared about you, could see your potential, and would try to help you in any way possible.
While searching the web for more information on Pie Carts I came across a new book entitled The Great New Zealand Pie Cart, co-authored by Lindsay Neill, Claudia Bell and Ted Bryant, has gathered the history, characters and anecdotes from the past and present for a nostalgic taste of what the authors call "Cafe de Kerb".
Neill and his co-authors describe the pie carts as an endangered species, disappearing as the range of cheap eats continues to diversify, with a huge range of ethnic eateries and franchised fast-food now part of the mix. Neill reckons nationwide "you could nail them (pie carts) to the fingers of two hands". Although with the book's publication next month, he's cheerfully expecting to stand corrected, and will no doubt be contacted by people saying "why didn't you do our cart?"
Neill says pie carts are a great social leveller, where everyone from "stock brokers to down-and-outs" gets the same service, the same basic value-for-money food, and a face-to-face meeting with their hosts and cooks. Neill's cart-as-common-denominator theory is perfectly expressed in the photograph on the book's back cover of a Mongrel Mob member in full regalia queuing at a cart with a bunch of young women beautifully groomed for a ball.
Johnny Cooper – 'The Maori cowboy'
New Zealand music wouldn’t have been the same without Wanganui. It was at a pie cart in this North Island town in 1957 that New Zealand rock ’n’ roll was born, at the hands of a country singer.
Johnny Cooper grew up on a farm in Wairoa where he played guitar to the shearing gangs. He became known as ‘the Maori cowboy’, crooning country ballads with his band, the Range Riders, which was formed in 1952.
It was Cooper's third rock ’n’ roll recording – ‘Pie cart rock’n’roll’ (1957) – that took him into local music history. Cooper often had a meal at the Wanganui pie cart late at night after a talent quest or dance. The menu was basic: pea, pie and pud, with a choice of takeaway or dining in by perching on the narrow seats in the hot and stuffy carts. It was there one night that Cooper told the pie cart proprietors, Arthur and Geraldine Dalley, that he’d write a song about their cart. ‘Pie cart rock’n’roll’ was born and, with it, New Zealand's first home-grown rock 'n' roll song.
Pie Cart Charlie
When Pie Cart Charlie died in late 2002, the Chrischurch Press paid tribute to him.
Dukes and drifters, mayors and merry- makers -- all in a night's work for Pie Cart Charlie.
From a central city pie cart, Charles Herrett dished up pea, pie, and pud to all and won their lasting affection.
Mr Herrett died last week after a long illness. An era might have ended when the last cart was towed into the rising sun, but as long as Pie Cart Charlie was around, the memory lingered.
He could tell of Old Barney, who helped set up the cart in Cathedral Square each evening in return for four cold pies. He could tell of famous customers -- the Duke of Edinburgh, singers Howard Morrison and Gracie Fields, and actor Sir Ralph Richardson. Former Christchurch Mayor Neville Pickering was a frequent visitor.
On the job in 1975 - the lovely Daisy Lee. Image Daily News. Copy from Puke Ariki Pictorial Collection TS2006_1001
Pie cart on Ariki Street, New Plymouth
For more than 25 years, Ping's Pie Cart stood on a vacant lot next to the Army Stores on Ariki Street and served hot nosh to late night diners. After midnight, Ping became the most popular man in town.
Most of his patrons on Friday or Saturday night would head first to the pictures at the State, the Regent, the Opera House or Mayfair, before heading to the back bar of the Royal for a sly after-hours pint.
Or there would be a dance to rock up to, first at the Trades Hall and later at the War Memorial Hall or the Star Gym. And after all that socialising, there was always the stop at Ping's for pea, pie and pud.
If Ping was world famous in New Plymouth, then Henry Leong, Ping's cousin, and Daisy Lee, Ping's niece, weren't far behind. For years they worked the counter, first with Ping and then without him when Ping retired and Henry took over the business.
Henry was a small man too, but according to Jock Ross, a young constable at the time, he would have made a brilliant policeman. "The man could pour oil on troubled waters as easily as tomato sauce on pies."
Even today, Henry Leong has a fresh, infectious laugh despite the fact he's old enough to have retired many Peking moons ago. "I worked at the pie cart for 14 years, on and off," he says. "From 16 to 30."
If Ping, Henry and Daisy are remembered as "lovely, lovely people," then there's no doubt that Daisy was the loveliest of all.
Rumour has it the young men, who worked directly across the road at the Social Security Department, would wander into the typing pool late in the day, not to chat up the typists but to stand on tip-toe at the window, trying to catch a glimpse of Daisy with her beehive hairdo and her short-short mini skirts.
To Daisy, those days seem a hundred years ago. "I was only young, for God's sake," she giggles." It's not surprising she was such a stand-out babe back then because, in 2006, she still has the figure, the hair, the smile. And she's still in the food industry, serving customers with her customary charm at Aromas Café in Devon St.
Pie carts such as Tokoroa's (between 50-60 years old) have served untold numbers of meals to travellers and locals, and they've been the repository of countless untold stories. (see photo above)
The Tokoroa cart has its own chapter, trawling the memories of the Hoeflich family who owned it for two periods over about 30 years, involving Diana and the late Hans Hoeflich and their daughter Liebling. The cart is described in the book as "the family heirloom", but the family's circumstances have changed and last week the Hoeflichs sold the business to their friend Judith McCloskey.
"Mum's always been the main woman, the driving force, the pie cart's been like one of her children," Liebling Hoeflich says. "But it's made it much easier to move on knowing it was in good hands. I don't think Mum would have sold to someone she didn't know."
The Tokoroa caravan has not been without its ups and downs. A few years ago it narrowly escaped damage from a lightning strike on a nearby oak tree, and during the 1990s there was a local outcry, and a petition of protest, when some town councillors sought the cart's closure. Liebling says there is now "wonderful support" from South Waikato District Council. "They've been very good to us in the past few years."
I am returned to New Zealand in two weeks times and I am looking forward to buying a copy of The Great New Zealand Pie Cart, co-authored by Lindsay Neill, Claudia Bell and Ted Bryant.
If there is anyone out there with a photo of the Dunedin Pie cart, or better still, one of Jim Western, I would love a copy.