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  • Published: 26 September 2023
  • ISBN: 9781529153675
  • Imprint: Hutchinson Heinemann
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 240
  • RRP: $32.99

Land of Milk and Honey


I fled to that country because I would have gone anywhere, done anything, for one last taste of green sharp enough to pierce the caul of my life. I was twenty‑nine, a hungry ghost, adrift. I hadn’t seen California in ten years, hadn’t tasted a strawberry or a leaf of lettuce in three. Hunger was simple, as the rest was not.

Here is the rest: I was an American stranded in England when America’s borders closed; I was a cook as that profession lay dying. Both troubles shared one source, namely the smog that spread from a cornfield in Iowa and soon occluded the sun, smothering as it went fields of wheat in Canada and paddies of hard yellow rice in Peru. No more lemon trees fragrant on the slopes of Greece, no more small sweet Indian mangos. Biodiversity fell. Wildlife and livestock perished for lack of feed. Scientists bickered over the smog’s composition and politicians over whether pollution or lax carbon taxes or China or nuclear testing or America or Russia were to blame, and all the while the darkness, slightly acidic, ate its way through fertile fields. America plunged into famine while my career hung suspended by the sea—the wrong sea, the oily, inhospitable Atlantic. Each morning I walked to the American consulate to hear the answer, Soon. Each afternoon I thawed frozen fish at the restaurant that underwrote my refugee visa. My life was dredge, fry, plate. My life was wait, wait, wait.

The day the letter arrived from California was the day the chef announced pesto cut from the menu for good. No more nuts and seeds in the pantry, and no basil, not even the powdered kind. I barely heard. I slipped my envelope into the walk‑in freezer, as if ice might cool desire.

It was not an American reentry permit but a bill. The attached letter informed me that my dead mother’s apartment in Los Angeles had burned down. Regrettable accident, the lawyer wrote of the riot that caused it, and then, legally liable. Catalogued in exhaustive detail were waste disposal fees and firefighting fees and city emissions fines, but nowhere did the bill mention the color of the apartment walls, which I could no longer recall. No avocados, no strawberries, no almonds. California had become a food desert and I imagined wind howling through broken windows, scouring, dry, unclean.

The door opened as I was doing the math. Chef says break’s over, a line cook told me. He wants you to make a sub for the pesto.

With what?

The cook kicked a bag of flour on his way out. Anything you want, princess, so long as you use this shit.

The flour puffed in a fine gray cloud. No parsley, no sage, no produce of any sort. It was spring. March. But a false spring in which crops would fail for the third year running. Blame the smog’s acidic nature, as some did; blame the same anhydrites that doomed the dinosaurs, or a lack of sun and morality; what it amounted to was skies that were gray and kitchens that were gray, you could taste it, gray. No olives, no quails, no grapes of the tart green kind for Champagne. I took stock of the restaurant’s dwindling supplies: dusty cans, a few icy slabs of years old fish. Mostly it was bag after bag of the mung‑protein‑soy‑algal flour distributed by the government. The stuff was a miracle of nutritional science, engineered from plants that tolerated dark. We were lucky to have it, they said. Lucky the smog had taken a year and a half to reach Europe, lucky to escape the famine that ravaged the Americas and Southeast Asia, lucky that mung‑p rotein flour was calorie for calorie cheaper than the cobbled‑together diets of old. Yet the flour was gritty and gray, and the bread it baked could not be coaxed to rise. I am speaking of an occlusion in my twenty‑ninth year of life, a dimming of how far I could see in front of me; I am speaking not only of the air.

Chef had lost its meaning, like lucky, like fresh, like soon. No saffron, no buffalo meat, no polished short‑grain rice. Dishes winked out from menus like extinguished stars as a conservative, nativist attitude seized the few restaurants that remained open thanks to government subsidies. As they shut borders to refugees, so countries shut their palates to all but those cuisines deemed essential. In England the shrinking supplies of frozen fish were reserved for kippers, or gray renditions of cod and chips—and, of course, a few atrociously expensive French preparations with which a diner might buy, along with sour wine, the illusion that she still lived in luxury. Back to stodgy safety. Back to national dishes unchanged for hundreds of years. The loss of pesto should have come as no surprise in a world with no favas, no milkfish, no Curry Lane in London or Thai Town in LA, no fusion, no specials of the day, no truffles turned out like sheepish lovers from under their blankets of sod. We were lucky, those around me said. We survived.

But in the dimness of that refrigerated room I could no longer see a future for the halibut dish without pesto, as I could not picture the sum of my debt, or the color of California sky. I couldn’t see what it was for which I survived. I felt no kinship to the Brits who spoke of stiff upper lips; if I had a friend in that dank port town, then it was the drunk who haunted the half‑empty supermarket, ringing a bell to proclaim the end of everything.

That day I knew it was time to admit that one world had vanished, and the person I’d been along with it. I was a decade removed from she who’d said farewell to California with a plate of carnitas eaten under insolent sun, the meat crisp, the raw radish a revelation. I waited for grief. I felt, instead, the first stirring of hunger. For arugula, radicchio, the bitter green of endive.

And so I quit that job to pursue recklessly, immorally, desperately, the only one that gave me hope of lettuce. The position was private chef for what advertised itself as an elite research community on a minor mountain at the Italian‑French border. A quick search turned up that controversy. The community’s objective was to bioengineer food crops capable of withstanding smog, all discoveries to be shared with the Italian government—but because funding came from private investors, to strike the deal parliament had ceded one of the rare high‑elevation zones still blessed by occasional sunlight. And so the mountain was populated by investors, scientists, staff, medics, field hands, and so on who enjoyed carte blanche when it came to how they met their lofty research goals. Apart from quarterly check‑ins by the Italian ministry of agriculture, there were no monitors, no police presence, no communications out or in: the mountain governed itself with something like diplomatic immunity. The howling online was thunderous. A beast who is fat may buy his own country!! I read in one of the auto‑translated comments, which confused me until I looked up an alternate translation: Rich monster.

All that mattered to me was the job’s promise of fresh produce, but—here was the catch—no guarantee of a long‑term visa. It was a ten‑week contract‑to‑hire. At‑will employment, at my employer’s will.

Colleagues at the seafood restaurant inquired after my sanity when I resigned. They reminded me of the thousands begging for my work visa.

I wasn’t unaware of the risk. It was for this reason that I supplemented my application with lies. The job called for a formally educated, French‑trained chef capable of working with unusual ingredients and turning out exquisite haute cuisine, and so I hammed up my experience. Education at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, sous chef at a Michelin‑starred restaurant that closed when its owner was found hanged from a string of her own saucissons— no one to refute my claim. If I hesitated at my lies, or at the extreme isolation the community demanded (nondisclosure agreement, no phone, no internet, no contact, no family, no leaving restaurant grounds without permission)—if I hesitated at my younger self’s declaration that everyone would taste my food, that cooking was an art neither frivolous nor selfish—well. I was no longer she who’d left California with scruples and ambition; as I did not know who I was, exactly, I molded myself to the application’s shape.

Only at the end of the form did I concede to honesty. I am your perfect candidate, I wrote in the open text field, because I have nowhere on earth to return to. I will faithfully perform any task within reason, and with dignity.

Possibly this was insane. It’s true that my sole confidant before leaving England was the supermarket drunk. You understand, I whispered, I have to do this. His breath, as he kissed my palm, had the antiseptic coolness of mung‑protein flour. Shoppers gave us wide berth. They lied to themselves, as scientists lied, as politicians lied, as my employer with his opacity and his dubious wealth must have lied, too. I only cared that he provide a head of shriveled lettuce; even iceberg would do. That was my wish. That was my fantasy.

Land of Milk and Honey C Pam Zhang


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