Finding Pleasure in Survival: On C Pam Zhang’s “Land of Milk and Honey”
By Michaela CavanaghJanuary 28, 2024
Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang
C Pam Zhang’s new novel Land of Milk and Honey (2023) offers one such vision of the end. The scenario: In a not-so-distant future, smog has descended upon much of the world, obscuring the sun and rendering it impossible to grow food, plunging people into famine. Mung bean protein flour, distributed by governments, is produced from plants that can grow in the dark and hailed as a miracle of nutrition. Zhang’s unnamed narrator, a cook, is stranded in the United Kingdom after the United States shuts its borders. The narrator is living amid a haze, watching the pigments of her once-technicolor kitchen dull to gray as her supplies of real food—strawberries, avocados, herbs, nuts—dwindle.
Then, the possibility: On the day the pesto finally runs out, she chances upon her own unlikely escape hatch. She is hired as a private chef for a mysterious “elite research community” perched at the top of a mountain still bathed in sun in the Italian Alps. The narrator desperately seeks green—even iceberg lettuce will do, she says. And so, against her better judgment—her qualifications are flimsy, the working conditions difficult, and she has moral quandaries about aligning herself with the controversial project—she ascends to the “terra di latte e miele.”
Zhang’s novel is ostensibly a work of speculative fiction, but scenarios like these, of course, are no longer strictly speculative—the slow-moving catastrophe of climate change has brought into sharp relief how close we are to the brink. The conditions that underlie Land of Milk and Honey are uncomfortably close to our own, not so much located somewhere in the future as in a parallel present, one or two lateral moves away from where we are now. In this way, Zhang builds a dystopian world so similar to ours that it does not transport so much as it unnerves, disconcerts.
Up on the mountain, the narrator finds her bearings. “The country,” as she learns to call it, is an isolated utopia, home to a circle of wealthy investors and working scientists who were brought together by a reclusive billionaire and his geneticist daughter, Aida. The hope, we are told, is that these scientists will, for the good of mankind, find a way to bioengineer crops that can withstand the smog. The narrator’s role in the country, meanwhile, is to cook elaborate weekly meals to impress the investors, encouraging them to empty their deep pockets with dishes inspired by rich, old-world delicacies.
Within the four heavily guarded walls of the mountain community, Zhang’s narrator encounters gastronomical riches beyond her wildest dreams, ones she has not seen or touched or tasted in years: fresh strawberries and thick cream, dripping pineapple, a wheel of real Parmigiano. Exotic dead animals that have long been extinct reappear miraculously in the deep freezer. It is here that Zhang’s novel distinguishes itself among a crowded field of climate dystopian fiction. In these pages, I caught myself gravitating toward Zhang’s vivid descriptions of these luxe delicacies, even as a sinister thread is woven through them: questions of where they came from and what her employer had to do to acquire such riches—their true cost—lurk unanswered.
An uneasy sense of foreboding looms—the sun too bright and searching, the kitchen appliances too shiny, the marble countertops too smooth, the sleek restaurant empty. The narrator is left completely alone to test recipes for her new employer. In the face of such bounty, she is unable to locate her appetite. She is not merely disinterested—her body rejects the rich, expensive ingredients she is tasked with cooking, vomiting up the strawberries she had longed for just a few pages earlier—“shapeless and no longer sweet, those little, used, red hearts.” The narrator laments the wastefulness of “money glopped on the plate,” of lost steak tartare, vichyssoise, and lobster thermidor. But all the same, she can’t stomach it. Instead, she prefers the bland and bitter tastes of black coffee, dry bread, radicchio, and boiled rice, and misses the familiar bite of mung protein flour, calling it a natural reaction to years of deprivation.
But even as the narrator herself expresses skepticism toward these indulgences, I found Zhang’s lush, sensuous descriptions of food more transportive than her representation of this so-called future world, plagued by smog, anti-immigration sentiment, and political unrest. The book’s inciting incident—a smog that spreads from a cornfield in Iowa until it sparks food shortages and then famine, geopolitical resentments, and closed borders—does not seem all that far-fetched or fantastical. That could be a testament to Zhang’s hyperrealistic world-building, or it could be an indication of an overfamiliarity with, and perhaps desensitization to, the dystopian elements of our own reality. What, then, are we sensitized to?
Land of Milk and Honey makes it clear that representations of dystopia are becoming less radical, less striking now than depictions of pleasure. We don’t need to use our imagination—everywhere we look, we encounter cruelties small and large, born of desperation or malice. We live through or bear witness to the horrors of war, powerless to stop it; we watch the planet burn as we refuse to change our ways. When I look up the definition of “dystopia”—“an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice”—my eyes at first skate over “imagined,” and I nod in recognition. How else could we describe such a world? The space for imagination, for indulgence, for diving off the deep end of sensory pleasures, shrinks in proportion to the injustices we need to act on, attune to. There is no time to sink into our animal bodies and revel in the pleasure of pineapple or Parmigiano.
As an antidote, Zhang’s portrayal of pleasure—of appetites merged and fulfilled—reads as a radical, unfamiliar balm to readers like me. And as Zhang’s narrator slowly sets aside her skepticism and regains her appetite, this antidote grows only more radical. Aida, her de facto boss—menacing, brilliant, mercurial, driven by intellect but also by appetite—becomes her culinary co-conspirator and lover. As spring turns into summer and the narrator settles into the community, her memory of the lack experienced over the past few years recedes and is replaced by a powerful and diffuse lust—for Aida, and for the fresh foods the narrator’s body had previously rejected. At first, it scares her: “I’d starved for so long I feared my own hunger for a wolf at the door,” the narrator tells us as she lies in bed with Aida. Soon food and sex become intertwined, indistinguishable from one another: the sensual pleasure of those first blood-red strawberries “as yielding as a woman’s inner thigh,” “plums so ripe they split if looked at.” But this is not sanitized, Hollywood sex. It pulses with visceral brutality, bordering on the disgusting. “I looked to Aida for the salt,” the narrator says. “Yes to oysters swollen through butter. Yes to thighs cooled on glass, my hand a hot knife between.”
The narrator chases down her desire and learns to let it guide her. She stops shrinking herself, finally puts on weight—a task her employer had demanded when she first arrived. Rather than continuing to pay homage to the stale dishes of an old order, she craves newness. As the narrator feasts on everything fresh, she begins to pity her employer and the investors she cooks for, menus heavy with “[t]hose ancient sauces, as suffocating and morbid as mausoleums.” As summer nears its end, the narrator makes three batches of panna cotta, eats them all, and still craves more.
Zhang’s narrator follows the path of pleasure to its conclusion. And in the end, it is the stirring of a different kind of appetite, a distinct palate, that drives Zhang’s narrator back into the messiness of the real world. In the country, the narrator is forbidden from leaving the compound. When she is permitted to take a rare trip to Milan with Aida, the narrator finds the outside world just as gray as she left it—but to be in it, among other people, thrills her. Their first stop is the city’s Chinatown, where, at one of the few stalls still open, she reencounters a version of an old favorite from her childhood—jian bing, a Chinese egg pancake. The narrator asks for the recipe of this version—made from mung bean protein, egg substitute, soy meat, and something she can’t put her finger on—and is moved when the vendor shares the last of her hazelnut butter, despite her own clear need. The narrator tells Aida she wants to cook real food—not authentic or organic or local, but of the world; made not out of obligation or for sustenance, but out of love and for pleasure.
Indeed, the only ethics our narrator carries through the book is one of indiscriminate desire. “I only believe that the tongue, dumb beast, is not selfish in its instinctive cant toward pleasure,” she proclaims. Through her, Zhang shows us two things: how the unchecked pursuit of pleasure without any consideration for its consequences got us into this mess, and how following pleasure all the way through might get us out of it. Our impulse for pleasure, Zhang tells us, can be more than the engine of our downfall; it can be the compass we use to chart our course forward, to do more than survive. If we let pleasure guide us, what will we find? And, perhaps more importantly, once we find it, what should we do with it—keep it to ourselves or share it around? A question for the end of the world, but one that could open up new possibilities for our collective survival.
It is a razor-thin line that Zhang straddles: between desire and violence, lust and lack, flourishing and scraping by, them and us. I worry that I am inadvertently making an argument for hedonism—the very same unchecked hedonism that is partly to blame for the climate crisis—or worse, making light of the horrors of this past year. When the narrator leaves behind her tiny mountain world of sated appetites to hunger for something more, for a life lived in the company of others down below, Zhang is telling us that the world we have is the one worth fighting for. Land of Milk and Honey shows us that it doesn’t need to be one or the other, survival or pleasure. What we cannot do is live consequence-free in the pursuit of pleasure. Nor can we build a luxury bunker, move to Mars, or leave anyone behind. If we forsake that which makes us human—and Zhang seems to think a large part of this is our pursuit of pleasure—to ensure we make it out alive, then what, exactly, are we fighting for?
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