Whitney Chen's column, "Dont Sweat the Technique," will return next Friday. She needed a vacation! - Ed.
The first time I saw Chris, she was sitting behind the windshield of a white convertible, looking me up and down, frowning, as if I were a chicken she wasn’t sure she wanted to take home for dinner. She’d driven into town to bring me back to her farm, where I was to spend the week working for room and board. Only after what seemed like a very long, very judgmental time, she said hello.
In retrospect, I should have turned and walked away, but instead I nodded mutely, as if in a trance, and climbed in the back seat. During the short ride to the farm, which was perched in the hills above the town, I stared at the back of Chris’s head, watching her bleached blond hair blow stiffly in the wind.
I’d been in New Zealand for a month, working my way around the South Island through a network that linked volunteers with organic farmers and businesses. A few weeks in, I met a Frenchman in the front yard of a hostel, and then we spent the better part of the next 10 days doing unprintable things to one another. Life, in other words, was relentlessly enjoyable.
But then he went back to France and I cried and cried, stopping just long enough to get on a bus to Akaroa, the little harbor village down the hill from Chris’s farm. It was as quaint and tidy as a doily, and so pretty it made my heart hurt. It was a “lifestyle farm,” a description that brought to mind something halfway between a nudist colony and a communist re-education camp. But as we pulled into the drive it revealed itself as a low-slung, 19th-century wooden plantation house surrounded by extensive gardens and rustic, Hobbit-y cottages that were rented primarily by couples eager for a dirty weekend away. The place was a shabby-chic Eden, a fantasia nestled between the gentle curves of green and tan hills. Birds chirped, the air carried the aroma of honeysuckle, and angels circled overhead, plucking harps and weeping at the beauty of it all.
It was a “lifestyle farm,” a description that brought to mind something halfway between a nudist colony and a communist re-education camp.
Chris showed me to my room, watched me put my bag on the bed, and then marched me back outside. She pointed at a dozen bales of hay, stacked liked building blocks next to a narrow stream spanned by a wooden footbridge. “Move those to the other side of the stream,” she barked, and left.
I watched her leave, feeling a bit taken aback. All of the New Zealanders I’d met in my travels thus far had been a friendly, endlessly hospitable lot, generous with both their laughter and their cannabis. Chris didn’t really seem like the smiley sort—her ascetic pucker of a mouth didn’t seem to possess the structure necessary to support anything more than a constipated grimace—much less one to suffer pleasantries along the lines of “hello.”
An hour later, I leaned against a bale of hay, wheezing, sweating, and covered in lush red scratches. Chris appeared to assess my work. “I suppose that’s good enough,” she said. “I may have you move them back tomorrow.” Before I could realize that the hay was there not for agriculture but aesthetics—or possibly garden-variety sadism— she motioned for me to follow her. She led me through a large flower garden to a terraced hill. We climbed a short distance and stopped next to a row of squat trees. “These are olive saplings,” she announced, and handed me some burlap. “Wrap this around the bottom of their trunks, but make it look nice. I want them to look like they’re wearing scarves around their necks.”
To hang themselves with? I thought, watching her go. With her wide-brimmed sunhat and somewhat stocky figure, Chris bore an uncanny resemblance to a mushroom.
After I finished, I wasn’t sure what to do. Was I allowed back in the house? Or did I need to stand here at attention, awaiting further instructions? I looked at the sky, which was beginning to blush around its edges, and down at the farm, which, viewed from this safe remove, looked as benign as a sleeping kitten. The more I looked at it, the more I wanted to cry, out of sudden loneliness and an intense longing for people who didn’t speak solely in commands. I decided to take my chances and go inside.
Chris didn’t really seem to suffer pleasantries along the lines of “hello.”
As I entered the house, the unmistakable, delirious smell of frying butter greeted me at the door, followed shortly by Chris. “Go take a seat at the breakfast table,” she said, and then turned away. I felt a bit wary; given our interactions, it seemed entirely possible that she was frying the severed forearm of a previous volunteer, or a stray cat.
Instead, it was an omelet, which she deposited before me with a hunk of bread. “Wash your dishes when you’re finished,” she said, walking away. “Good night.”
I had never seen such an omelet. Fat, soft, and smooth as a baby’s thigh, it was the color of a daffodil and wept molten cheese when I cut into it with my fork. It was perfect, and it made no sense to me. I had imagined Chris subsisting on a diet of spite and the blood of songbirds, but this omelet was clearly the work of a seasoned voluptuary.
The idea that this woman, with her thin, unsmiling lips and deep-set badger’s eyes could produce such a thing was unnerving and weirdly stressful. Prior to the omelet’s arrival, I had planned to tell Chris I was leaving the next morning, but now, lulled into the dark recesses of satiety, I wasn’t so certain. Surely someone capable of making such food couldn’t be entirely awful – or, perhaps, unskilled in the black art of manipulation. I couldn’t decide, so did my dishes and passed out.
Breakfast the next morning was similarly plush: a heaping bowl of full-fat yogurt crowned with a scattering of homemade granola, hazelnuts picked from the trees that grew on the property, plump blackberries and an edible flower or two from the gardens. It sat alongside a glass of hot berry juice, a concoction, I later learned, that Chris considered one of her trademarks. The spread made Martha Stewart look like that banjo kid in “Deliverance.”
The spread made Martha Stewart look like that banjo kid in “Deliverance.”
After I finished gorging myself, Chris emerged holding a couple of gunnysacks. She regarded me with a look that suggested she’d just found a hairball sitting on the table. I suddenly felt the need to apologize, for both eating and existing.
“You’re going to collect pinecones today,” she said
Ten minutes later we stood in the middle of a small forest overlooking the farm. “Here,” she said, handing me the sacks. “Don’t come back until they’re completely full. And I only want the good ones.”
“What are they used for?” I asked, imagining some sort of medieval exfoliation treatment.
“Kindling for the fireplaces in the guest cottages,” she grunted.
Gathering pinecones from a mossy forest floor is one of the few 21st-century activities that can make you feel as though you’ve wandered into a Grimm’s fairy tale. If a bearded gnome had appeared to promise me a golden egg in exchange for my firstborn, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
As I slowly filled the sacks with what I hoped were “good ones” (Was it circumference? Strength of character? It remained unclear), it occurred to me that Chris was really not radically different from the average despot. She was precise, unsparing, and insatiable in her quest to achieve her vision, which in this case was to mold nature into the shape of what was essentially a bucolic and supremely tasteful love motel. The food she had put on my plate was part of that vision, and, like her treatment of me, wasn’t personal. It was, however, powerful enough to suggest that even if Chris saw me simply as a source of free manual labor, there was some part of her that wanted not only to nourish, but also to please. I tried not to entertain that notion too much, though, as it made it more difficult to freely dislike her.
Birds chirped, the air carried the aroma of honeysuckle, and angels circled overhead, plucking harps and weeping at the beauty of it all.
The rest of the week played out in similar fashion. Chris would feed me dishes redolent of butter, garlic, and New Zealand’s flora, and then dispatch me to dig dirt, weed the gardens, or do things to wood with a pickaxe. There was the day she handed me a pair of shears but no gloves to go prune the rosebushes, and the day she directed me to clear a patch of stinging nettles. There was the day she made good on her threat to have me move the hay back to the other side of the stream, and the day she told me, after I changed the linens in one of the cottages, that I was under no circumstances to talk to the guests. And always there were the pinecones, destined to bear silent witness to myriad sweaty couplings.
In my free time, I went to town and wandered the hills, sucking the cream out of Cadbury Eggs and marinating in memories of the Frenchman. In a way, Chris’s dry-ice brand of hospitality was a relief: it allowed me a certain emotional impunity, the freedom to fully indulge the obscene self-absorption native to the freshly heartbroken. Chris’s food, meanwhile, allowed me to eat my feelings with gusto, even if I worried I was being slowly poisoned. It was, in some respects, an admittedly perfect arrangement.
It was, in some respects, an admittedly perfect arrangement.
On my last night at the farm, Chris told me some friends of hers were coming to dinner. Instead of asking me to confine myself to my room, however, she told me I could join them; one of her guests had canceled. I accepted warily, steeling myself for halting conversation with members of the league of extraordinary malcontents.
So I was surprised when the assembled company turned out to be friendly. They asked me about my travels, talked about their lives, and reminisced with Chris, whom they referred to as “Chrissy.” That she could inspire such a term of endearment suggested that, as with most despot types, she was perfectly fine as long as you weren’t called upon to do her bidding. Or maybe, like me, her friends had been swayed by the butter and the berries. Certainly the meal that Chris had put before us possessed impressive powers of seduction: a fat roast chicken sat surrounded by plates and bowls heaped with pristine specimens from Chris’s gardens embellished with all manner of dressings, nuts, and cheese. It looked like an actual cornucopia, or one of those oil paintings of the first Thanksgiving. I was particularly intrigued by a dish of roasted beets, hazelnuts, and olive oil; up until that point, I thought beets only came sliced in cans from Del Monte.
“If your urine is red in the morning, don’t worry,” Chris offered. “It’s just the beetroot.”
It was the nicest thing she ever said to me. The next day, the guests gone, it was business as usual, the food a surrogate for verbal communication. There was no fond good-bye, no bittersweet sense of having completed some sort of journey together. The best thing I could say is that the experience provided me the freedom to wallow, and enough sensory stimulation to simultaneously distract me from my lovelorn naval gazing. And the realization that if I could emerge unscathed from Chris, I could eventually escape the long, sad shadow cast by the Frenchman.
I took another look at Chris, and thought that a person doesn’t become that sour faced, that brittle, without experiencing a few hardships and disappointments in life. And if food is the only means you have to prevent others from running away from you screaming, well, it’s not the worst thing in the world. But I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there, and practically skipped down the road back to Akaroa.