In 2021 Sophie Merkens went on the road to search out the New Zealand food story, as lived by the women of New Zealand. It was a trip that took her criss-crossing the country, travelling from Stewart Island/Rakiura to Cape Reinga, and well outside her comfort zone. Grow: Wāhine Finding Connection Through Food is the result, a book telling the experiences of 35 women, each very different yet whose stories are intertwined with common themes. These themes – wonder, nourishment, connection, gathering, nurturing, rising, bridging, belonging and leading – become the chapters shaping the book. This is not the usual roll call of famous names (though some such as Fleur Sullivan and Dr Jessica Hutchings may be familiar) but a reflective celebration of hands-on women who go about their lives living their values of connection and involvement with the land and ocean. “I wanted to bring the everyday folk into the conversation.” says Sophie. “The book celebrates the quiet people in society, because that’s the New Zealand food story.”

Accompanied by Sophie’s own photos, the book tells of herbalists, divers, hunters, beekeepers, growers, gardeners, foragers, educators, community facilitators, healers, bakers, rescuers, fishers and more. It tells not just what these women do, but why – revealing vulnerabilities and strengths with remarkable candour. To allow these stories to bloom, Sophie visited each woman in her own place, listening, quietly giving them the time and space to tell their story. While they talked, Sophie went with them into their gardens, walked with them along their beaches and foraging spots and ate at their tables, seeing for herself the places that held meaning for them. “I had the advantage of being with them when they’re doing what they love. It’s important to me that they feel seen and have a space to talk about what’s important to them. I’m honoured that people have been so open with me, and for them it’s nourishing to see elements of themselves written down.” One of the women featured in the book, Renée Taylor of Salt Aotearoa, pays tribute to Sophie’s integrity. “This was the first experience with a tauiwi- led project when there was never one point when I felt unsafe, that I ever thought my words would be used against me, that I ever thought that I didn’t trust what was going to happen.” But it wasn’t all quiet reflection and drinking cups of tea. Sophie went hunting with Enger Pelosi-Fear, diving and spearfishing with Renée Taylor and Hoera Wyllie, collected mussels in surging waters with Sophie Jackson and tended beehives with Jessie Baker and Marara Murray-Haig. “Growth is not always fun, not comfortable,” she admits. “Sometimes I stand in my own way because I’m scared. I feel a bit of fear because I don’t want to screw it up and want to do justice to them. I had this lovely idea of who I’d be after I finish [the book] – an outrageously wild, wonderful woman – but I’m not her.” TRACY WHITMEY