Recently, for lunch, I made myself a meal that I hadn’t had since the winter of 2007, when I went WWOOFing through New Zealand. WWOOF, which stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms, is an ingenious program which allows volunteers to work on farms in exchange for food and lodging. I had just finished my semester studying abroad in Melbourne, Australia and since New Zealand was so close, decided to drag two of my newfound friends, Emma and Dan, with me to see the country. Since we were broke, we hit on WWOOFing as a brilliant travel method.
Our first farm was a fledgling vineyard outside of Nelson. Alex and Gareth had started the vineyard only a few years before and were raising a young crop of grapes along with fruits and vegetables. Their house, a simple, elegant building entirely made from wood, overlooked the sloping vineyard that ran into soft green hills, dark forests, and in the distance, snow-capped peaks.
Our work in the vineyard was relatively simple, but crucial, especially as the vineyard itself was only five years old, and many of the vines were in their formative growing years. Each row of vines consisted of equidistant wooden poles strung with three horizontal wires on each side. Approximately five stalks were planted between the poles and attached with string to the lowest of the wires. This wire was fixed and provided support for the growing vines. Hypothetically, as the vines grew, they would stay within the two additional wires, growing up of their own accord.
Realistically, vines are wayward things that like growing any direction except up, and preferably grow down. Our job was to pick vines up from the ground and make sure each stalk was contained within the wires. One of us would unhook the wire from its post, stretch it out, pull it towards the ground and sweep it up to catch all the straggling vines. A second person tucked in any loose bits, and a third person did a final sweep.
On our first day, Alex had told us that they paid a woman to do the first twelve rows. We calculated that if one person could do twelve rows in a day, three people could do at least forty. Four hours later, we had only hit the twenty-third row and were exhausted—especially when we thought of the seventy-one remaining rows of vines we were to prune in the next four days. By our last day of work, however, we had become pros, waking up early and finishing our average twenty-five rows before lunch.
Every morning, Alex would make us breakfast—two slices of dark, home made bread slathered with butter and topped with sliced tomato and fried egg. Emma, Dan, and I along with Alex and her three children, Lily, Mia, and Yeshe, would sit on the expansive back porch watching the sun rise over the craggy mountains and eat enough to sustain us through the muggy morning heat.
Alex had learned that I loved to cook, and asked me to make dinner one night. When I asked what she wanted, the only instructions she gave were, “Well, it doesn’t matter really. We like to eat different things, but I don’t really want to go to the grocery store, so if you could make something with what we’ve got around the house, that would be wonderful.”
I looked through some cookbooks, found a recipe for Lebanese lemon chicken, and began the question game with Alex.
“Do you have chicken?”
“We have a neighbor who butchers them—it’s no problem for me to get some.”
“Do you have rosemary and fennel?”
“They’re growing down by the road.”
“Do you have carrot and kumura?”
“We can dig some up from the garden.”
“Do you have pickled lemon?”
“I pickled some last summer.”
“Well, great. I think Lebanese lemon chicken is a go.”
So that’s how I found myself mashing herbs and spices with nine month old Yeshe swaddled to my back. Five year old Lily pulled a chair up across from me and rested her elbows on the counter.
“Can I help?”
“Sure, Lily. Can you go outside and pick me five pieces of rosemary this big?” I asked as I held up a stripped twig.
“Yes,” she said, and shook her head once.
“Can I help too?” Mia, three, came up to me and wrapped her arm around my leg.
“Sure, Mia. Can you mix up this bowl of flour and these spices?”
“Can we help?” Dan and Emma asked as they walked in the door with a handful of fennel.
“Sure, guys. Can you chop up those veggies?”
With the kitchen full of five industrious workers and one baby drooling into my neck, we promptly prepared a dish of chicken fried in flour, cumin, rosemary, fennel, chilies, salt, and pepper, baked on a bed of couscous, red onion, pickled lemon, carrot, and kumura.
After dinner and a desert of apple crumble, Alex’s friend Sarah and her son Harry, who had come for dinner, led us into the living room for a story. We sat ourselves in a circle, Sarah’s soft voice working with the dusk outside and our postprandial somnolence.
“These are grandma’s glasses. This is grandma’s hat. This is the way we fold our hands and place them in our lap.”
The story she told was of a girl who had been sent to look for a house with no windows and no doors but with a star inside. She searches far and wide, eventually coming upon an apple. Here, Alex produced three apples from her lap and rolled them to Sarah, who cut them open through the middle to reveal the star-shaped pattern made by the seeds.
“One house for Mia, one house for Lily, and one house for Harry.”
While the story had inspired us to seek our own sleep-inducing houses, it had awakened in the girls a pressing desire to hear more stories and tell some of their own. So Sarah related one more story, and Lily told a rambling epic, before Alex called attention to the sun’s absence and announced that it was time for bed.
Dan, Emma, and I, tired but happy, wandered to our sleepout behind the house, played a lazy game of cards, and curled ourselves up to sleep.