In C Pam Zhang’s new novel, Land of Milk and Honey, out September 26 from Riverhead, a mysterious smog starts in Iowa and settles globally, ending the world as we know it. Fruit, vegetables, and crops like wheat and rice die from the lack of sun. Fish, livestock, and wildlife starve, and all of this pushes humans into famine. The little luxuries of pesto, meat, and mangoes are replaced with bags of gray, government-issued mung-protein flour. In this dismal new world, Zhang’s unnamed narrator, a chef, struggles to see the reason for her survival. “Chef had lost its meaning, like lucky, like fresh, like soon,” Zhang writes.
Longing for olives and the ephemeral taste of green, she lies on her resume to gain entry to a secretive facility in the mountains of Italy. In isolation, its community, backed by wealthy investors and government alliances, preserves old crops and engineers others that can handle the harsh new world. As the community’s private chef, she is surrounded by a surplus of eggs, strawberries, vanilla, butter, and beautiful meats. Her directive is to cook pristine food and deliver decadent feasts to the facility’s residents and its visitors. And yet, this land of milk and honey comes with costs, as the chef soon learns.
In all, Zhang offers a sumptuous — and at times, unsettling — exploration of pleasure. Who can access it, who does it serve, and what might our truest desires look like when everything that we take for granted has been stripped away?
Eater: Your first book, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, was set in the American West during the Gold Rush. What drew you to the world of this book by comparison?
C Pam Zhang: With this book, I was deeply interested in something that would allow me to believe in the body as a site of joy. I felt like it was two different people who wrote those two different books. My first book came out of a lifetime of grappling with questions of home and belonging and was, in many ways, a product of 30 years of experience growing up in the West as an immigrant child.
This book was written during the pandemic. I was living in a suburb outside of Seattle and extremely isolated from community and the pleasures of food. I was missing the communal aspects of sharing a meal. I was missing that mundane surprise that comes from experiencing something that you haven’t prepared with your own hands. I was disconnected deeply from my body; I was denying to myself the very ordinary needs of my body.
Would you say that was a period when you were eating primarily in a functional sense, but less in a pleasure sense?
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. Meals were not something I looked forward to. There was a big moment of change when I ate my first meal out. It was in this Filipino restaurant in Seattle where I was meeting a friend of mine who is a doctor, who had obviously gone through a lot working in hospitals during the pandemic. We were talking about hardship and difficulty, and there was this moment when the food hit the table: I saw his face change and I felt us both able to experience joy and be human again. This book, in many ways, is an ode to that: to the necessity of pleasure as a tool for survival.
I see that in the fondness with which you write about food. At the same time, the book is also about how food can be violent, political, and manipulative. What made you want to consider food that way?
There are so many ways to see food cynically, especially when you see it as a sort of hegemonic tool. Growing up Chinese American, I looked at French cuisine as the ultimate experience. As with many immigrant kids, I had periods of being ashamed of what I ate, and saw this portal of Western fine dining as emblematic of this whole cultural experience that I wanted to get into.
I also studied abroad for a period in Cambridge, England, and they have formal dining halls and it looks like a scene out of Harry Potter. Everyone is decked out in black robes. You have, literally, a high table — elevated above the rest — at which the professors and the fellows sit. You ring a gong, and no one can eat until the high table has sat and started to eat. It was this whole cloistered experience that I felt so out of place in — which way are you supposed to turn when the butler comes and serves food over your shoulder?
It felt like my inability to understand this system of eating stood in for my inability to access this whole system of culture — of literary culture, of class, of worthiness, and of taste. For a long time, it was hard for me to separate my internal compass for pleasure from these external signs, and I’m really interested in looking at those two things in the book.
French food is central to the book. To the point of those external signs, have you felt a pressure to like French cuisine?
In my first experiences of French cuisine, I don’t even know that I was focused on whether I liked it or not. I was so fixated on whether I fit into that atmosphere that my own liking and my own experiences were out of the question. My first experiences eating this kind of food, I have no memory of what the food tasted like. In the book, it’s in these ultra-elite spaces where food is wielded as bribery, as cultural capital, as this bludgeoning tool; the diners are not there for the food itself.
You write with some skepticism about rigidity when it comes to cuisine. At the beginning, the main character mentions national dishes as akin to a sense of “stodgy safety.” Toward the end, you write about “authenticity” as something “too brittle” for the changed world. How does the main character’s perspective reflect how you feel about how we think about food today?
I used to be hyperfixated in this quest for authenticity in a way that caused me a lot of anxiety. I find it less and less useful when I navigate my own culinary tastes. When my maternal grandmother in Beijing passed away, I became obsessed with finding this particular Northern Chinese rib recipe — then being inevitably disappointed because it didn’t match up to some very, very specific memory I had. I realized I didn’t even know the accuracy of this memory itself: How much of it was about the actual taste of the dish as I remembered it, and how much of it was about this emotional baggage that I had?
Eventually, I came around to this realization — as the dish fell into this blankness of cooking and eating — that the best way to access the authenticity of that feeling about my grandmother’s food was less through the food itself and more about the act of somebody preparing food for me and someone taking care of me in the form of food. The closest to that experience I can find today might come from a friend coming over to prepare chai, a dish that my grandmother never had in her life. That’s where I start to search for authenticity in food: in the authentic feeling.
How would you describe your relationship to cooking now? Is it something you look to for pleasure?
For me, cooking is only enjoyable when it feels like a pure and creative kind of fucking around, an act of expression. I deeply admire people who cook professionally, but I know I could never do it myself, because the moment there’s an expectation coming out of it, everything in me dies. My favorite way to cook is to open the fridge and make a clean-out-the-fridge soup to truly play with whatever is there at the moment. In those moments when I’m cooking for myself, when I’m cooking purely for creativity, it releases something in me in terms of my own writing. It’s a reminder that you can never truly mess something up so badly that it can’t be fixed.
Would you say your writing process is similar to how you cook?
Yeah, in that I am willing to try anything. I don’t have an imagined end result often. Where it deviates from cooking is that I throw out a lot of my writing, but in a joyful way.
How did writing this book change what you ate or how you ate, if at all?
Writing this book affected my understanding of the need for contrast in my diet and in my eating experiences. I love a fancy four-course meal, but I also realized that my pleasure in those experiences diminishes so drastically if I have too many of them over a period of time. This book reaffirmed my love for both, what we might call the high and the low in cuisine, and how each has their place in my diet. I will sometimes have meals where all I eat is a giant bowl full of cherries, but I enjoy the cherries so much more if two days earlier, I had an elaborate new American dining experience at a white-tablecloth restaurant.
The book made me more at peace with all of my dietary habits. I used to be a little bit sheepish about some of my predilections, like my incredibly sustained love for sour cream and cheddar Ruffles. I thought it said something about my worth — going back to that idea of Western fine dining values — and about my taste and level of refinement. Now I’m much more open about embracing every single thing that my body craves at different times.
How does the main character’s palate reflect your own? Is she also a sour cream and cheddar Ruffles girl?
I feel like she’s a Cool Ranch Doritos girl. I don’t think that she is me exactly, but I do think this general arc toward trusting her internal culinary compass and finding equal delight in mass-produced processed food and street food and fine dining mirrors my own journey. In general, the book is really interested in this question of women, especially, being able to take their own pleasure seriously.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.