Traditional food gathering
When Māori settled in Aotearoa (New Zealand), their Pacific culture and the absence of land mammals encouraged them to look to the sea as an important source of food. Kai moana (food from the sea) was gathered in several ways. Men fished from canoes, and on their return, the women cleaned the catch. Women gathered shellfish – pipi, tuatua and toheroa from the sandy shallows, and mussels, pāua, limpets, kina (sea urchins) and seaweed from the rocks.
Seals and sea lions were slaughtered for food as far north as North Cape. A stranded whale was also a source of both food and bone, and it would be cut up with much ritual and ceremony.
The beach was often the place where kai moana was eaten – judging by the large number of middens (rubbish dumps) to be found on New Zealand beaches. These usually contain shells, ash, burnt stones and fish bones.
Modern food gathering
It is said that while Māori take food from the beach, Pākehā take food to it, and that while Māori wait until the tide is out to search for shellfish, Pākehā wait until the tide is in to swim. These generalisations were never entirely true. In the 19th century, some of the earliest Pākehā visitors and settlers joined Māori on the beach to butcher seals and whales, although this was normally for their oil, skins, and bone, not for food.
But from the mid-19th century, some Pākehā went to the beach to fish, and this has continued – whether it is surfcasting from the sand or dropping a sinker from a jetty. Some have copied Māori and dig for pipi or (before it was prohibited) toheroa. An increasing number of people search for pāua and crayfish, using wetsuits and snorkels. However, Pākehā tend to throw out the hua (stomach) of the pāua, which is a delicacy for Māori, and few have a taste for kina.
More recently the search for food at the beach has attracted people who want to sell pāua in quantity, or those from Pacific or Asian countries for whom shellfish has always been a favourite food.
Picnicking began in the late 19th century when the idea of a meal at the beach became popular, and sandwiches of egg, lettuce and pressed tongue were on the menu along with a brew of tea.
By the 1920s, large office picnics at the beach were in fashion. In the 1950s there were barbecues with sausages, tomato sauce and white bread, and all of the food was carried in a wicker basket. Soon after, insulated containers such as the chilly bin made it possible to keep beer and wine cold, ready for drinking at the beach. When the home-made foods were eaten, people walked along to the beach dairy (general store) for ice cream and soft drinks. Food and the beach are inseparable in New Zealand culture.