In 2019, C. Pam Zhang enchanted readers with her vision of the American Gold Rush in How Much Of These Hills is Gold, her words rendering that dusty, bleak landscape with the fresh perspective of children. This narrative of children transporting their father’s body recalls Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, but Zhang’s story is wholly her own as she explores themes of gender identity, migration, and loss of innocence. Now, Zhang investigates an even bleaker context, that of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Land of Milk and Honey presents a planet ravaged by climate change and a dwindling food supply, forcing its people to concentrate on survival. A pleasure-seeking chef signs her autonomy away for the chance to work with long-forgotten delicacies, a decision that proves costly for the chef and everyone in her orbit.
Without a doubt, the highlight of Zhang’s sophomore novel is imagery. While How Much of These Hills is Gold is lyrical, Land of Milk and Honey indulges every sense in lush, descriptive paragraphs. The underlying focus on food as pleasure and culture, not just sustenance, is evident from the prose alone. Finding strawberries hidden away, she remembers a pastry chef from the past: “their perfume is complex, not sugar: closer to flesh, the flesh of a loved one, not sanitized, not anodyne, but full of many waters. Strawberries and spring, strawberries and musk, strawberries and sex flooded back as I crushed my tongue to sugar. I’d come to that country hardly daring for bitter green and here, now, this rupturing sweetness.” As the chef recalls the food of her past, from the crunch of escarole to the sweetness of berries, we gain an appreciation for the food around us, even humble produce. I, for one, ate my sad desk salad with renewed glee.
As the narrative becomes more decadent and outlandish, so does the food. The chef takes on strange employment as the French chef for a wealthy research household in Italy. There she meets her mysterious employer and his passionate daughter, Aida. The chef cooks with ingredients both familiar and foreign while seeking pleasure of other kinds, pleasure that distracts her, if only momentarily, from societal collapse. Through the chef’s dinner parties and increasingly complex relationship with her employers, Zhang explores not only class warfare and scarcity, but the role of faith and guilt.
As the chef becomes more enmeshed with her host family, the plot stalls for some time. Subtle internal conflict feels increasingly lost under the weight of the prose, as if we have binged on rich foodstuffs and crave simple fare. We have departed from strawberries and greens to “a vocabulary of beaver fat and dulse, of dormice and powdered duck bone, of a tongue cupped to the tones of vanilla, acacia, green peppercorn.” Delicious at first, then crossing into excess, especially as desiring new tastes leads to forbidden, expensive items that neglect the original intent of food. In any case, this is a book meant for savoring, for consuming in small, intermittent doses, to absorb the full effect.
When catastrophe ultimately strikes, the murkiness of the plot is satisfyingly revealed, and this does justify a somewhat heavy middle. We are left with the legacy of the chef and her employers, how their decisions ultimately shape food and consumption around the world, and the focus becomes those of us in the “real world,” dealing with a not-so-far-off reality. Indeed, to call Zhang’s novel purely speculative fiction ignores that the speculation is not far-fetched. Just as COVID-19 limited the social enjoyment of food, climate change has and will continue to change the content and quantity of what we eat. What Zhang has portrayed is a barren land where people hunger for more than survival, and this lightens otherwise bleak ideas.
In her letter to early readers, Zhang notes that this novel was composed after her first post-lockdown restaurant meal, the experience made holy in its long absence. This reverence is clear in Land of Milk and Honey, and wholly relatable. The novel is, at its best, both a love letter to food and a prescient warning of capitalist catastrophe to come, and the juxtaposition ultimately succeeds.
C. Pam Zhang
Land of Milk and Money
Published September 26, 2023
Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms