BROCCOLI AND OTHER TALES OF FOOD AND LOVE
By Lara Vapnyar
Pantheon, 148 pages, $20
Lara Vapnyar doesn’t write about particularly naughty food in her latest collection of stories, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love. She’s no stereotype of an Oprah-watching food addict, mooning over pints of Ben & Jerry’s or sleeves of Oreos. Her European immigrants—from a homesick carpenter to two women in an ESL class—are grappling with culture shock in New York City through life-sustaining, almost bland food. Sprigs of broccoli. White asparagus. Purple beets. Boiled potatoes. No artificial colors or flavors. Ms. Vapnyar’s prose is just as authentic; it’s simple, charming, even witty.
For Broccoli, Ms. Vapnyar returns to the short story, the form that garnered her much praise for her 2003 debut, There Are Jews in My House. In 2006, she published a novel, Memoirs of a Muse.
In the first story of the new collection, "A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf," we meet Nina, "a vegetable lover," who seems to be able to relate more easily to food than to the people around her. Ms. Vapnyar insists that the reader touch, feel, smell the vegetable-soup stink as Nina navigates the aisles of Russian and Korean vegetable stores. She runs her fingers over tomatoes that feel "smooth and glossy like polished furniture." There are "hairy egg-shaped kiwis" and "wormlike string beans." But, most of all, Nina loved the "young spring grass" smell of broccoli. Nina’s favorite green rots in her refrigerator as she attends her husband’s parties, cowering by the snack table. When her husband leaves her, Nina’s sister digs through the fridge and notes: "‘You’ve got the whole vegetable graveyard in here.’"
Sexuality, a familiar cohort of food, is also one of Ms. Vapnyar’s curiosities. Note the opening line of "Borscht": "Sergey woke up with an erection and a headache."
Sergey is a carpet installer who is couch-surfing at a friend’s apartment. He lives off cornflakes and pasta and falls asleep every night staring at a picture of his wife at home in Russia. He longs for a woman who would "tend to his needs: warmly, skillfully, quickly," and goes down to Brighton Beach, "the parody of Russia, that made the real Russia seem even farther away and hopelessly unobtainable." A stocky, immigrant prostitute welcomes him into her bedroom, but she can’t seem to give him what he needs. He joins her instead for a plate of borscht and a shot of vodka. The meal warms his chest and throat, filling his belly. He holds a piece of bread under his spoon, sure to catch every last drop.
In "Puffed Rice and Meatballs," Katya indulges her lover in postcoital pillow talk. He asks her for "the horrors of communism," and she recounts her first sexual experience instead: a game of you-show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine with a young boy during her preschool years, and her teacher’s sons eating mounds of meatballs and mashed potatoes in the kitchen. Later, when she’s alone, Katya’s inane story makes her "shiver with disgust." Another memory surfaces: Her aunt gave her a new sweater that miraculously revealed her budding breasts. She ran to show off the goods to her friend Vera, but they were distracted by the local store selling "American puffed rice in crunchy bags!" The girls waited with hundreds of others, their numbers scrawled in blue ink on their palms. The other people in line "looked shabby and crumpled, but the bags shone winningly in the orange rays of the sun." Katya lost her enthusiasm for "the subjects of clothes, boys, and beauty" because they "lost their importance somehow, or maybe it was just hard to think of such nonsense while guarding your marked hand."
Ms. Vapnyar ends the collection with a handful of recipes accompanied by bloggy descriptions. Her recipe for lethally fatty meatballs comes with a warning: "[I]f you need to kill yourself or another person and don’t mind that the process will be slow and painful, here is the recipe."
Broccoli’s title vegetable appears on the book’s cover, two broccoli sprigs locked in a heart-shaped embrace, fastened with a rubber band. The Russian love affair with food is relatively new after 70 years of communism stifled Eastern European food culture and cuisine, but here in these stories Ms. Vapnyar opens up to us its seduction and mystery. Though lightly peppered with tedium and a few too-precious moments, the stories come alive, inviting the reader to explore the kitchen tables and anxious stomachs of the characters. We can all relate to their loneliness in the big city, an emptiness food somehow fills.
Gillian Reagan is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.