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Hell's Kitchen

The Chef at the End of the World

C Pam Zhang’s novel “Land of Milk and Honey” imagines eating and surviving when climate change has decimated food supplies.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
“The Blue Kitchen,” 1913, by Ludvig Karsten

A smog has blanketed the sky, and the soil’s bounties have begun to dry out. Gone are brilliant neon-orange Indian mangoes, grass-green grapes meant for champagne, Greek lemon trees with their soft perfume. Scarcity has made palates incurious, leading to a nativist turn in national appetites: Think pallid plates of fish and chips in England, a country that once hummed with curry houses sitting along a vibrant Brick Lane.

In this grim moment, a 29-year-old chef from the Los Angeles area is stranded in England, the smog having gridlocked American borders. Her home country’s government has plunked her on a waitlist. She feels, meanwhile, that the ecological crisis has ground her work into obsolescence. All that is ample is a “mung-protein-soy-algal flour” engineered in the artless cloister of a lab. Frugality does not engender creativity so much as it fosters an aesthetic depression. When a line cook at the seafood restaurant where she works asks her to make pesto, she wonders how: She doesn’t have access to parsley, sage, or any viable produce.

Land of Milk and Honey
by C Pam Zhang
Riverhead Books, 240 pp., $28.00

She resigns in frustration before she spots an ad for a private chef job at an “elite research community” perched on a mountaintop between the French and Italian border. Its bioengineered crops are insulated from the ugly cake of gloom that has strangled the planet. She clinches the gig, alert to the fact that perils lie in wait, though she is unaware of their precise nature. The territory is nameless; she calls it the land of milk and honey.

So begins C Pam Zhang’s majestic second novel. Land of Milk and Honey charts the dystopian year our unnamed narrator spends cooking in this settlement, seemingly unsullied by the ecological realities that plague the rest of the world. It is populated by the private investors who have poured funding into it, along with staff, field hands, and scientists; her employer is an officious, sometimes violent man. What appears, at first, as a potential escape from that environmental hell slowly warps into an inhumane game: This community is reproducing the abject cruelties of the outside world, not correcting them.

Zhang began writing Land of Milk and Honey after her first sit-down visit to a restaurant in 2021, in the pandemic’s shadow. She writes, in a reader’s note, of that meal at a Filipino restaurant as a reorientation after a year spent eating in pursuit of sustenance, that it ferried her “to a world beyond my shrunken one.” It would be easy to see how this experience could lead to the kind of book that bathes in easy sensuality, the kind of writing that would make literary gourmands like M.F.K Fisher or A.J. Liebling burst with pride. Or, worse—a book with the sticky film of “pandemic novel” affixed to it. But instead, Zhang uses that moment of rediscovering pleasure in food to imagine, on a broader scale, the future of eating, cooking, and sharing cuisine on an endangered planet where most might have little choice but to eat only to stay alive.

By the time the narrator arrives at her mountaintop destination (the novel’s events take place at some point after 2020, the reader infers), the sweet smack of a strawberry and the wet crisp of lettuce have already become foreign tastes to her. The availability of such ingredients here snaps her back to sentience. But her existence here is also precarious, just as it had been back in England: Her employer initially hires her on a short-term contract, with no guarantee of stability.

The world she arrives in is free of smog, but it is also absent much character or charm and occupied by an audience of rich eccentrics—English sheep heiresses, South African mine owners—whom she must please. The harshest of these critics is Aida, the employer’s daughter, who is desperate for her father’s approval and immediately questions the newcomer’s skill in the kitchen. The ingredients at the narrator’s disposal on this mountain, meanwhile, seem to come from another time, even dimension. She serves the meat of wooly mammoths and ice cream made with fresh blood.

After earning her proverbial keep, she receives an offer of permanent employment from her boss on the condition that she assume the identity of Aida’s long-gone mother, as if she were a paid actor. Her ability to remain in this colony—which she insists is not a cult—is conditional on the strength of her performance. Her relationship with Aida, meanwhile, twists into an uneasy psychosexual dance, despite the fact that she is playing the role of Aida’s mother. She soon becomes privy to the larger scheme behind this project: This colony has organized itself into a hierarchy much like the outside world, with a list dictating who has priority in the event that they must relocate to more hospitable land. Everyone is at the mercy of a broken bureaucracy.

Zhang unspools all that follows carefully, without losing the precision that marks the earlier, engrossing chapters of this book. Land of Milk and Honey is fewer than 250 pages but is paced so deliberately that each turn of the plot sneaks up on the reader without feeling abrupt. What helps sustain this gradual buildup of tension is Zhang’s willingness to linger on images of food. Throughout, Zhang braids this book with painterly descriptions of a roast boar “still thick with gobbets of meat,” of oysters “small and sweet as hummingbird hearts,” of macadamias that are “buttery, fragrant, thumb-sized.”

But one of the many triumphs of this book is Zhang’s refusal to use food as a means of seduction. The narrator’s appetite is always a reflection of her psychological condition, as when she feels her “guts roiling with cream and questions of my future.” Zhang writes of the “voluptuousness of the butter,” the “milk-froth bloom of wild carrots”; meanwhile, she compares the muscular stench of Roquefort or natto to “the mean smell of piss.” Zhang writes about food in a way that could make you feel hunger or, equally, disgust.

The past year alone has brought forth a raft of stories of fine dining that reach beyond sensory pleasure. There is Mark Mylod’s skewering of the industry in The Menu, a film in which elites flock to a tony restaurant on a secluded island for a plush meal orchestrated by a parodically tyrannical chef (Ralph Fiennes); the night turns swiftly into a macabre contest of survival. Meanwhile, Hulu’s The Bear is a portrait of ambition amid the thankless drudgery of restaurant kitchens (a theme that Zhang picks up when her narrator bemoans that she cooks “despite the bad pay and sore backs”). Zhang is wrestling with many ideas in this book—the casual classism embedded in fine dining; the insults that accompany that work because of her race (“It has always been easy to disappear as an Asian woman,” her narrator observes at one point) and sex (“a frank squeeze of the ass”); the one percent’s turn toward hedonism on an atrophying planet. In each of these stories, the restaurant kitchen is a site where class concerns intersect, where the friction between the consumer’s demands for gratification and the needs of the laborer who is appeasing those exigencies comes to a head.

It makes sense that The Menu and The Bear gained popularity after the worst of the pandemic, the same period during which Zhang explains she wrote this book: The early days of that catastrophe three years ago generated public awareness of the hazards woven into the food service industry, demonstrated by restaurant shutdowns and unmoored employees relying upon crowdfunding platforms to stay afloat. Rarefied ingredients, like the beady sturgeon caviar Zhang’s characters feast on here, may have felt like an especially absurd extravagance during that time.

Zhang’s novel projects these inequities into a disastrous future. There is a wealth of illuminating nonfiction writing on how the reality of an imperiled Earth might rupture the food system, as far back as Frances Moore Lappé’s seminal 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet. That manifesto, with recipes, advocated for the adoption of a plant-based diet to buffer against the deleterious environmental effects of meat production. Lappé writes, in the introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of the book, that “our climate crisis nears a tipping point that will drastically hasten destruction”; the spirit of her argument, in other words, has even greater relevance today as the planet continues to warm. Yet Zhang may be one of the first novelists to devote serious attention to the ways that the climate crisis may disrupt the world’s food supply.

What makes Land of Milk and Honey especially compelling is how persuasively she renders a future so stratified that only a few, perched at the very top of the material ladder, will retain the right to eat for pleasure as the planet gasps for air; meanwhile, those beneath will starve or subsist on wan protein dust. Zhang reframes the urgency of this disaster in a way that even the finest journalistic or academic work cannot, evoking the day-by-day human experience of inhabiting a dying planet and attempting to obtain pleasure wherever one can find it.

In Zhang’s imagining, as much as the food supply itself changes, the structure of society—its persistent inequities, its casual disregard for and exploitation of working people—is eerily static. This is a world in which cooks working in the heat and pressure of a restaurant cannot fully immerse themselves in the gustatory joy that they provide others. Land of Milk and Honey’s narrator cooks, Zhang writes, not for herself but “for the numbers ticking up in my bank account and down in the ledger of my debt, for the right to breathe clean air, feel the lick of sun, live in that country.” Some cook, simply, because they have no other way to survive.