As I grew up in the urban confines of Seattle, images of the food I ate formed in my head: chicken comes in breasts and thighs and wings; a steak is entirely separate from a cow; bacon sizzles when it cooks, but what does that have to do with a pig?
A young girl named Ruby, who lives on a farm on New Zealand’s sparsely populated South Island, thinks about her food entirely differently. The eggs she and her brother and sister eat for breakfast and the chicken on her dinner plate come from the henhouse her parents maintain on their small property. And there’s a good chance she gathered the eggs herself, or watched her father lop off the chicken’s head and listened as the headless corpse continued to squawk.
I learned that a chicken’s syrinx, the avian equivalent of our voice box, is near the breast—lower than the point at which the axe meets the neck—during three weeks in rural New Zealand, where my wife and I volunteered as apprentice farmers through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (the farmers call the volunteers “wwoofers”). We spent a week each on three family-run farms, hauling wood or mulch, milking cows, snatching eggs, feeding ducks, and pulling weeds, in exchange for room and board. Instead of the indentured servitude I feared, working for and alongside the three families brought us closer to typical New Zealanders than any other part of our trip.
Angela and Nick live with their three small children just outside Amberley, a small town of about 1,300 in the Waipara Valley, about 45 minutes north of Christchurch. They own what Kiwis call a lifestyle block, the New Zealand version of the American dream: a few acres where a family can grow crops to sustain itself.
The children witness, every day, their food moving from farm to table, whether it’s an onion or a chicken. Their parents are understanding; if the children cannot stomach the idea of eating a specific animal, they are allowed to eat something else. None of the animals that will be killed and eaten are given names. (Well, almost none: two pigs were dubbed Bacon and Breakfast.) And while the city boy in me recoiled at the sight, none of the three children thought twice when Nick showed my wife how to de-feather and gut the chicken he had just decapitated. When it arrived on the table that evening, I couldn’t help but think that these kids had a better appreciation, and respect, for their food than I ever had.
Sally and David live about an hour north of Angela and Nick, on a private walking track they maintain that threads through rolling green hills and black-sand beaches, near a whale-watching mecca called Kaikoura. We helped David stack firewood for the coming winter on the crest of a hill, then strolled past seals relaxing on a beach. A curious, North America–centric thought wandered through my head as I walked the empty roads early one morning: Who ever thought the sun could rise out of the Pacific Ocean?