The day the letter arrived for me 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 took my envelope into the walk-in freezer, as if ice might cool desire.
With my back against chilled steel, I extracted not an American reentry permit but a bill. The 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. Cataloged in 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 no longer recalled. 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.
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 up 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 acidity, as some did, or anhydrites, 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 tins, icy slabs of years-old fish. Mostly it was bag after bag of the mung-protein-soy-algal flour distributed by the government.
We were lucky to have it! they said. The flour was a miracle of nutritional science, engineered from plants that tolerated dark. Lucky that the smog had taken a year and a half to reach Europe, lucky we’d escaped the famine that ravaged the Americas and Southeast Asia, lucky that mung-protein 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, 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, 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 centuries. 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 fathom the depth of my debt, or the tint of cloudless sky. Couldn’t see what it was for which I survived. I was alien to the Brits with their stiff upper lips; if I had a friend in that dank port town, it was the drunk who haunted the half-empty market, proclaiming the end of everything.
That day, I knew. A world was gone. Goodbye to all that, to the person I’d been, to she who’d abandoned, half-eaten, a plate of carnitas under blaze of California sun. It wasn’t grease I missed so much as the revelation of lime. Waiting on grief, I met hunger. For radish, 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 and their attendant scientists, staff, medics, field hands, et cetera 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 diplomatic immunity. The howling online was murderous. 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.
From Land of Milk of Honey by C Pam Zhang, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by C Pam Zhang.