Letter From - Winter 2019

New Zealand: Beauty and the Beef

Will the nation’s identity continue to be pastoral, or will its urbanites create a hip young image of environmental awareness?

By Gwyneth Kelly | December 3, 2018
The meat pie, a legacy of New Zealand's British roots, has been engineered for easy eating on the go. The average Kiwi eats 15 of them a year. (Doublewhirler)
The meat pie, a legacy of New Zealand's British roots, has been engineered for easy eating on the go. The average Kiwi eats 15 of them a year. (Doublewhirler)

The first meat pie I had in New Zealand was a mince-and-cheese from the Coffeepot Café along State Highway 1 in Kaiwaka, a rest stop on the InterCity bus route from beachy Paihia to Auckland, the largest city in the country. On the way to Paihia, I had not partaken of the pies because I was suspicious of their quality. The Coffeepot Café seemed to exist only to cater to bus passengers: German, Chinese, and Canadian flags fluttered along the edge of the parking lot. Food designed to be eaten in places where people have no other options is never good, and the pies in the Coffeepot Café looked particularly forlorn, sitting in the sort of dully heated case that implies its contents have been languishing there for years.

By the time I was on the way back to Auckland, I was tired of my austere rations of apples and bland sandwiches. Also, I had run out of trail mix. I decided the pies were worth the risk, reasoning that if something is hot enough, and you are hungry enough, it will be tasty enough.

That first pie I had at the Coffeepot Café was fatty, salty, meaty, with a flaky crust and gooey inside where the spiced, savory sauce had soaked into the inner layer of the pastry. It turns out that a rest stop is the absolute best place to buy a meat pie in New Zealand because the meat pie is designed to be eaten in transit: you need only one hand (and one mouth) to eat it, and the pastry holds in all the filling. Sandwiches, in comparison, seem egregiously misdesigned.

The average Kiwi eats 15 meat pies a year. I only had two months, and after Kaiwaka, I spent the rest of my time in New Zealand eating as many pies as possible. Statistically, I am now four average Kiwis.

While I was in New Zealand this past summer, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave birth to a daughter, and the parliament passed legislation granting paid leave to victims of domestic violence. But the very biggest news item was the controversy that erupted over burger meat.

On July 3, Air New Zealand, the country’s national carrier, announced that it would begin offering the Impossible Burger, a meatless hamburger designed by a Silicon Valley startup to mimic the taste, mouthfeel, and bloodiness of meat. I suspect the airline expected to be feted for this decision. “Impossible Burger’s magic ingredient is an iron-containing molecule called heme which comes from the roots of soy plants,” said the breathless press release. “The airline has been watching Impossible Foods for some time and has been impressed with the work it’s doing.”

Many of New Zealand’s farmers, however, were not impressed. Winston Peters, acting prime minister at the time, announced that he was “utterly opposed to fake beef.” Another MP said the decision to offer the Impossible Burger was “an existential threat to New Zealand’s second biggest export earner.” A letter to the editor in The New Zealand Herald decried the burger as “a controversial new synthetic, low-quality food that has not even been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as safe to eat.” Virgin Australia seized the chance to win hearts by soliciting for Kiwi beef in ads on social media, and by giving away 500 real meat burgers in downtown Auckland.

In editorials, on morning television, and on radio call-in shows, the country seemed split between people who thought the Impossible Burger was a good and necessary move into a more environmentally aware future, and those who thought it was a travesty and an unpatriotic betrayal. “Burger Gate” highlighted a central tension in New Zealand—a disagreement between the rural and the urban over whether the country is a pastoral place whose central identity comes from its farmers and exports, or whether it is a hip young nation trying to lead the way on environmental issues.

The first shipment of frozen meat left New Zealand on February 15, 1882, a cargo of about 5,000 carcasses of lamb and mutton aboard the iron sailing ship Dunedin. It took three months for the ship to arrive in England. Today, beef and lamb exports from New Zealand earn the country more than $3.5 billion per year.

New Zealanders themselves eat a lot of meat, but not the most: per capita, they consume more than twice the world average, but even with all those pies, they eat less meat than Australia, the United States, Canada, Brazil, and a few other countries. More than 90 percent of the beef farmed in New Zealand is exported.

Much of the meat New Zealanders themselves eat is essential to a type of Kiwi identity rooted in Englishness. Before European settlement, Maori cuisine consisted mostly of plant-based foods, birds, and seafood. Pies arrived with the English in the 19th century, as did big breakfasts (involving bacon at a minimum, and usually sausage as well) and Sunday roast dinners. And yet, when it comes to trade, New Zealand’s cultural and patriotic alignment with the United Kingdom has changed: since the 1970s, the UK has turned increasingly toward Europe, and New Zealand increasingly toward the rest of the world. Brexit might make New Zealand more attractive to a UK that lacks European Union trading arrangements, but for New Zealand, the UK now pales economically compared with Asia and the Americas. Over the past decade, trade with China has tripled.

At a farm I stayed on outside Duntroon, on the South Island, I saw how inextricable the contemporary meat industry was from the more traditional Kiwi economies. The farmer’s main interest was Merino wool, as had been his father’s before him. But wool, especially Merino, is complicated and expensive to produce, and so he, like many sheep farmers, supported himself with a beef operation.

Underneath the grumblings about the Impossible Burger was a current of cultural sensitivity, a notion that red meat, farmed in New Zealand, represented The Way Things Were. The idea of a New Zealand populated by more sheep than people is a fading myth, and it is only cows and more cows that keep the rural national image from dying completely. Burger Gate struck a nerve not just because the export of meat is integral to New Zealand’s economy, but also because it represents a move away from a nostalgic Kiwi past.

Occasionally, as I traveled through the country, I heard European Kiwis complaining about Asian immigrants. In one instance, on the TranzAlpine train across the South Island, two older couples in the seats in front of me told each other very earnestly about how far the quality of the hotels in Christchurch had fallen now that they’re all “run by Indians.” This racism reminded me so much of the United States, especially the fear of a white country being overrun by hordes of nonwhites who seek to fundamentally change the culture. But also, as in the United States, the fears of some white New Zealanders ignore the historical truths that nonwhites have been immigrating to New Zealand since the very beginning and that European people were themselves an invading horde.

The moment I realized that I would forever be a mince-and-cheese person was an occasion of great self-awareness and acceptance. On Waiheke Island, I tried the pork-and-apple, and in Queenstown I was tempted by the lamb-and-kumara, but these digressions never stuck. Knowing which pie is your pie is comforting. It allows for quality control across bakeries, and confers a sense of belonging—you become part of a flavor tribe. What separates a mince-and-cheese person from a pure-mince person, or a steak-and-cheese person? A taste for cheese indicates a desire for some frisson, but the favoring of mince over steak might imply a certain laziness, an unwillingness to grapple with the effort of chewing. I tried not to take it personally when a friend had the audacity to dislike the texture of the mince in a pie I persuaded her to buy in Rotorua.

There are potato-top pies, butter-chicken pies, smoked-fish pies, bacon-and-eggs pies. In 2018, the Bakels New Zealand Supreme Pie Awards gave commendations to free-range-chicken-porcini, venison-thyme-mushroom, and Moroccan goat pies. The awards devote an entire category to vegetarian pies: the gold winner was a pumpkin-white-sauce-and-spinach-mushroom-corn-and-feta pie.

The paradox of New Zealand’s nostalgic obsession with pies is visible in the names of the Supreme Pie Awards winners: almost all of the winning bakers are of Asian descent, not European.

“Burger Gate” has drawn the ire of farmers whose beef exports are important economically, and has put at risk the nostalgic sense of a rural Kiwi past. (Alamy)

Before my trip turned into an extended pie tour, my reasons for visiting New Zealand had been related to pictures I’d seen of the bright blue alpine lakes, the white sand beaches around Cathedral Cove, the ferny fjords at Milford Sound. I’m not alone: upward of three million people visit the country each year, and its tourism office touts the “stunning fjords,” “wildlife wonders,” and “grand glaciers.”

It would be too easy, too obvious, to say that New Zealand seems like a fantasy land because so many fantasy films have been shot there. It is not just the icy mountains, lush rainforests, and turquoise seas that remind you of Narnia; it is the compactness of it all. Moving across New Zealand is an experience of rapid transition, from alps to plains to forests to beaches, and it is uncannily like moving across a map of Middle Earth. Other places have remarkable mountains and glaciers, and other places have farmland, rolling fields, and moors, but nowhere else has it all together in such a small space.

The country is keen to maintain its beauty and grandeur. Biosecurity officers at the airport clean arriving tourists’ hiking boots so they don’t bring in invasive seeds or fungi. All of the hostels I stayed in had multibucket systems for recycling and compost, toilets were almost all dual-flush, and Countdown, New Zealand’s largest chain of grocery stores, has discontinued the sale of plastic straws. In July, the city of Wellington postponed an annual fireworks display so as not to disturb a southern right whale that was hanging out in the harbor. A third of the country’s land is protected for conservation purposes, and Prime Minister Ardern has implemented a plan for the country to switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.

These environmental goals seem fundamentally at odds with the country’s economic focus on meat and dairy exports. New Zealand is a small country, with a small impact on the world’s larger environmental issues. Farmers pride themselves on being more environmentally aware than their overseas counterparts. But recent research from the University of Oxford suggests that Western countries must reduce their beef consumption by 90 percent to avoid a two-degree C temperature rise by 2050. The question facing New Zealand is the question facing individual citizens in Western countries writ large. The world is in dire straits. Scientists say drastic action is needed to avoid catastrophe. You do things in your home that are bad for the environment,  even though those things are on a small scale, so much smaller than those of other people, other industries, other countries. You feel your misdeeds are a drop in the bucket. But still—those misdeeds are bad. So, do you change?

The very best pie I had in New Zealand was from the Te Aroha Bakehouse & Cafe. Pie quality depends on circumstance as much as ingredients. That morning I had awakened before dawn in an unheated house. I had put on my clothes under the covers, as though I were camping, and then I had ridden in a horse truck to the Matamata Racecourse to stand awkwardly in the freezing cold while the trainer I was staying with exercised her horses. No one ate breakfast. The jockeys and trainers appeared to live exclusively on cigarettes. By the end of the morning, I was ravenous, although the most strenuous thing I had done was debate internally whether I thought horse racing was okay.

The trainer promised we would stop for pies on the way home—not at the very best bakery, outside of which was a long queue of 18-wheelers, but at one that was good enough. The Te Aroha Bakehouse has an electric blue and neon orange color scheme. I have come to suspect that pie quality and aesthetic splendor have an inverse relationship with each other. It was a very good pie.

However, I soon learned that a diet of a pie a day can have dire consequences. In Auckland and Wellington, ads at bus stops and on billboards showed smiling young Kiwis under the words “Bowel Cancer Can Look Like This.” New Zealand has one of the highest rates of colorectal cancer in the world.

The more rural parts of New Zealand’s South Island, where one-street towns are lined with flat-awninged shops, have a Wild West feel. The anxiety over the Impossible Burger reminded me of the moment in a Western when the railroad is coming and it no longer matters how good you are at prospecting because the system is about to overwhelm you, and the world about to turn.

But the world has been turning all along. The first European export from New Zealand was shipped out in 1794: a cargo of 200 kauri trees destined to be turned into spars. Since then the country has traded in flax, gold, wool, fruit, wine, and dairy, moving from one natural commodity to another as the landscape at home changed and the appetites abroad shifted. In the 1980s, there were 70 million sheep in New Zealand, but today there are around 30 million. It has been only in the years since 1840, when the Treaty of Waitangi established British sovereignty over the islands, that New Zealand has been converted into a pastoral country for raising livestock, but the government now wants to help the climate by planting one billion trees by 2027. New Zealand has never not been on the cusp of a dramatic change—it has always been a country in flux. A meatless future would not be as crazy or as unpatriotic as some Kiwis have feared.

The last pie I ate was from the Peter Pan Bakery in Oamaru. It was as disappointing as I had imagined the first one in Kaiwaka would be, perhaps only because I was at the end of my time in New Zealand, perhaps because I was thinking about all the cows and sheep I had seen, and all the water and grass and trees, and how it all fit together or didn’t. I ate that pie in a parking lot, waiting to catch a bus to the airport at Christchurch. It seemed gelatinous, cold, mushy—a dream dying, or reality asserting itself.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus