The following is from C Pam Zhang’s Land of milk and honey. Chang is the author How much of these hills is gold?Winner of the Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Prize and the Asia Pacific Prize for Literature; Nominated for the Booker Prize. And a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her writing appears in Best American Short Stories, The Cut, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The New Yorker, And New York times. She is a 5 Under 35 award winner.
The day the letter arrived from California was the day the chef announced he was cutting pesto from the menu forever. No more nuts and seeds in the pantry, no basil, not even the powdered kind. I barely heard. I took my envelope to the freezer, as if the ice might chill the desire.
With my back against the cold steel, I produced not a US re-entry permit, but an invoice. The letter informed me that my deceased mother’s apartment in Los Angeles had burned down. An unfortunate accidentThe lawyer wrote about the riots she caused, and afterwards, Legally responsible. Waste disposal fees, fire fees and city emissions fines were cataloged in detail, but nowhere did the bill mention the color of the apartment walls, which I no longer remember. No avocado, strawberries, or almonds. California had become a food desert, and I imagined the wind howling through broken windows, drying out, parched, and unclean.
The door opened while I was doing the math. Chef says break is overThe line cook told me. He wants you to make a substitute for pesto.
The cook kicked a bag of flour on his way out. Anything you want, Princess, as long as you use this shit.
The flour puffs up into a soft gray cloud. No parsley, sage, or produce of any kind. It was spring. He walks. But it is a false spring in which crops will fail for the third year in a row. Blame it on the acidity of the smog, as some did, or anhydrite, or lack of sun and morals – what that meant was the skies were gray and the kitchens were grey. You can taste it: grey. No olives, no quail, no grapes of the pungent green variety of Champagne. I took stock of the restaurant’s dwindling supplies: dusty cans, ice slabs of years-old fish. Mostly it was bag after bag of mung flour, soy protein and algae distributed by the government.
We were lucky to get it! They said. Flour was a miracle of nutritional science, made from dark-tolerant plants. Lucky for us it took a year and a half for the smog to reach Europe, lucky for us to have survived the famine that swept the Americas and Southeast Asia, and lucky for us that mung protein flour was cheaper in calories than the old cobblestone diets. However, the flour was sandy and gray, and the bread he baked could not be raised. I’m talking about a blockage in my 29th year, a dimming of how far I can see in front of me; I’m not just talking about air.
chef has lost its meaning, such as luckyLikes FreshLikes almost. No saffron, no buffalo, no polished short grain rice. Dishes disappeared from menus like extinguished stars, as a conservative and anti-immigrant stance took hold of the few restaurants that remained open thanks to government support. While countries close their borders to refugees, countries close their tastes to everyone except those foods they consider essential. In England, dwindling supplies of frozen fish were reserved for herring, or cod and gray-coloured chips – and, of course, for some of the expensive French preparations with which a diner might buy, along with sour wine, the illusion that they still existed. He lived in luxury. Back to tired safety. Return to national dishes unchanged for centuries. The loss of pesto should come as no surprise in a world where there is no fava, no milkfish, no Curry Lane in London or Thai Town in Los Angeles, no fusion, no specialties of the day, and no truffles that appear like blushing lovers from under their noses. Blankets of sod. We were lucky, those around me said. We are alive.
But in the darkness of that refrigerated room, I could no longer see a future for a halibut dish without pesto, nor could I understand the depth of my religion, or the color of the clear sky. I couldn’t see what I had survived for. I was alien to the British with their stiff upper lips; If I had a friend in that dank seaside town, it was the drunkard who stalked the half-empty market, declaring the end of everything.
That day, I knew. A world is gone. Goodbye to all of that, to the person I used to be, to the one who left a plate of carnitas, half-eaten, in the glare of the California sun. It wasn’t the grease I missed as much as I missed the lime reveal. Waiting for sadness, I met hunger. For radishes, radicchio, the bitter green of India.
And so I left that job to recklessly, unethically, and desperately pursue the only job that gave me hope in lettuce. The position was as a private chef for what advertised itself as a private chef Elite research community On a small mountain on the Italian-French border. A quick search turned up this controversy. The community’s goal was to engineer food crops capable of withstanding smog, and to share all discoveries with the Italian government — but because the funding came from private investors, to seal the deal, Parliament ceded one of the rare highlands still blessed by occasional flooding. Sun light. Thus the mountain was populated by investors and their accompanying scientists, employees, doctors, field workers, etc. who enjoyed carte blanche when it came to how to achieve their lofty research goals. Apart from quarterly inspections by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, there were no observers, no police presence, and no communications outside or inside: the mountain ruled itself with diplomatic immunity. The howl on the Internet was deadly. The beast that is fat may buy town!! I read in one of the machine-translated comments, which confused me until I looked for an alternative translation: Rich monster.
All I cared about was the job’s promise of fresh produce, but — here was the problem — there was no guarantee of a long-term visa. It was a ten week rental. Work at will, based on the employer’s desire. My colleagues at the seafood restaurant inquired about my sanity when
I resigned. They reminded me of the thousands who are begging for my work visa.
I was not aware of the danger. That’s why I completed my application with lies. The job requires a formally educated and trained chef in France who can Working with unusual ingredients And Transforming exquisite haute cuisineAnd so it enhanced my experience. Teaching at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and being a sous chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant that was closed down when the owner was found strangled with a string of her own sauces – no one refutes my claim. If I hesitated in my lies, or in the extreme isolation imposed by society (non-disclosure agreement, no phone, no internet, no contact, no family, no leaving the restaurant without permission) – if I hesitated to declare to my younger self that everyone would taste my food, Because cooking was not a frivolous or selfish art – well. I was no longer the one who left California with drive and ambition; Because I didn’t know exactly who I was, I modeled myself on the app.
Only at the end of the form did I admit my honesty. I am for your everyPerfect filterI wrote in the open text field, Because I don’t have anywhere Earth to return to. I will carry out any task honestly, within reason and with integrity dignity.
Maybe this was crazy. It’s true that the only person I trusted before leaving England was drunk in the supermarket. you understandI whispered, I have to do this. His breath, kissing my palm, carried the cleansing coolness of the mung protein flour. Shoppers gave us a wide berth. They lied to themselves, scientists lied, politicians lied, and their employer lied about his mystery and questionable wealth as well. All I cared about was his offering a wilted head of lettuce; Even an iceberg will do. That was my desire. This was my fantasy.
from Land of milk and honey By C-Pam Chang, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by C Pam Zhang.
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