There’s a new book out from acclaimed novelist C Pam Zhang wherein the world of tomorrow is a lot more depressing than fantastical. Her latest book Land of Milk and Honey — released in September 2023 to much fanfare — drops the reader into a world covered in smog, where only the ultra-rich, nested in the Italian mountains, eat familiar delights such as strawberry shortcake and dates from the planet’s last fruit-bearing trees. In the novel, most if not all love is lost between food producers and diners. However, readers would be wrong to assume that reflects Zhang’s feelings about restaurants and food. For proof, all readers need to do is flip to the acknowledgments at the back of the book, where Zhang penned loving notes to a number of San Francisco and Bay Area restaurants, detailing her favorite places for a pork chop on Divisadero Street and toum and pita in the Mission.
Zhang, whose first book How Much of These Hills is Gold earned her a nomination for the Booker Prize in 2020, critiques and warns of a near-future of scarce food and a depressed world. The writer lived in San Francisco as an adult, where she lived through the writing and release of her first book and while writing her second. In an email exchange with Eater SF, the author interrogates the past, present, and future of the Bay’s dining scene – praising the region’s food scene even as acknowledging its flaws. “Now that I live in New York, I mourn, daily, for Bay Area produce,” Zhang says. “San Francisco’s tiny geographical footprint and enormous wealth disparity make it a dizzying place to eat.”
Zhang moved ten times by the time she was 18 years old, but living and dining in San Francisco from the early aughts and on has made an ardent fan of the coastal writer. The author says the city is where she learned food can stop being just something to eat and become an “empty performance of privilege,” a status symbol to signify one’s prestige. Writing the new book, Zhang said her time in California helped her understand how a state of such sheer size with so many natural resources can go unappreciated. This book isn’t Zhang’s first time unpacking food as it relates to the haves and the have-nots: For the New York Times, the writer described how McDonald’s connected her and her father, and for Eater she remembered how uncomfortable she felt as a Mandarin-speaking student at an Ivy League school. But in California, seeing how difficult the restaurant industry is on workers, and how much material is wasted, makes “the real costs — in water, in wastage, in labor — hard to grasp,” Zhang writes.
Her extensive time in the Bay Area’s dining scene certainly influenced the novel, informing her ability to create her latest protagonist; envision the dishes prepared in the novel; and, for better or for worse, typify the types of diners present in those Italian mountains. Atelier Crenn is high on Zhang’s list of San Francisco fine dining institutions; To her, it’s “poetry on a plate.” There are plenty of other Bay Area bakeries and restaurants she adores, though, including Berkeley’s Acme Bread and Mission Chinese, the former of which introduced her to non-industrially produced bread and the latter she adores for its impeccable wok technique and cabbage with pistachio milk. Mau’s bun rieu gets a shout out in the book’s acknowledgments section, as do caneles at La Boulange, prupisceddu in umidu cun tomatiga at La Ciccia, sesame chicken from Ranch 99, toum and pita at Arabian Nights, tuna conserva salad at Pizzeria Delfina, and the tuna nicoise sandwich at Bi-Rite Market.
Her affection for Divisadero Street’s Nopa and its pork chop is perhaps the most intense love story. “I once, during a farewell-to-San-Francisco dinner, returned my pork chop to the Nopa kitchen three times,” Zhang says. “This is not a criticism of Nopa but a testament to my adoration for that medium-rare, double-cut, wood-grilled extravagance; and an embarrassing lesson in how the anticipation of loss can lead me down an exhausting, punitive quest for perfection.”
Though she lives in New York these days, Zhang still has a lot of Bay Area restaurants on her to-hit list. Newcomers Azalina’s in the Tenderloin and Popoca in Oakland are on her radar, alongside Bodega SF, Donaji, Bar Sardine, Mamahuhu, and Sunday Bakeshop. Just as there’s optimism nuzzled in the new book, the author looks forward to whatever meal is next, too. “The restaurant I most want to visit,” Zhang says, “is the one a trusted friend leads me into without any foreknowledge on my part.”