Lara Vapnyar, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love (Pantheon Books, 2008, $20)
The comingled complexities of love and food are familiar ingredients in modern fiction, but in Lara Vapnyar’s new collection of short stories it is largely the absence of love that is assuaged or intensified by cooking and eating. Like Vapnyar herself, the protaganists of Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love are émigres from Eastern Europe, cast dazedly adrift in the United States, suspended between assimilation and homesickness. Varying in age, gender and preoccupations, the characters nonetheless share an air of stunned dismay, a somnambulant passivity akin to depression. In each of these six elegantly crafted stories, it is the experience, memory or consequences of a meal that in some way bring them back to life.
Vapynar left her native Russia in 1994 and became fluent in English only after settling in New York. She drew on the immigrant experience in her first collection of short stories, the critically acclaimed There Are Jews in My House, and her subsequent novel, The Memoirs of a Muse. Here she continues to address displacement, loneliness and loss of status with wry humour and lightness of touch, sidestepping sentimentality and inviting genuine sympathy for her disenfranchised characters; isolated individuals slaving to send money to their aspirational families back home; scientists, artists and intellectuals turned into computer programmers in the heat of the melting pot.
In the opening story, ‘A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf’, Nina is one such computer programmer. But unlike her new circle of bohemian fellow-immigrants, Nina was a computer programmer in Russia too. She feels dull among these aquaintances, to whom her husband introduces her simply as ‘a lover of vegetables’. Since her arrival in the United States, buying vegetable has been Nina’s passion. She revels sensuously in the delights of the markets and lingers over receipe books in bed, meanwhile neglecting to cook what she has bought and allowing it to rot in the ‘vegetable graveyard’ of her fridge. When her husband leaves her, Nina can only stare numbly at the index in her cookbooks: ‘broccoli:gratin, 17; macaroni with, 7…’, lacking the heart to turn the pages. But it is thanks to her love of vegetables, specifically the eponymous broccoli, that Nina is coaxed tentatively towards new hope when a fellow-émigre invites himself over for a ‘cooking date’.
It is with food that Vapnyar’s love-starved protagonists share their real moments of romance. Food warms and tenderises them, returns them to an almost childlike state of trust, enables them to be vulnerable and honest. In ‘Borscht’, lonely carpet-fitter Sergey seeks out a prostitute from the small ads in a Russian newspaper but finds himself miserably unaroused, even repelled by the ministrations of the woman he visits in Brighton Beach (‘the parody of Russia, that made the real Russia seem even further away and hopelessly unattainable’). It is only when she persuades him to stay for a bowl of soup and he watches her ‘light, fast hands’ preparing the dazzlingly colourful borscht that he begins to see the beauty in this ordinary woman, and the similarity in their shared exile.
In not all of the stories does food have such a positive effect. Perhaps the most memorable tale in the collection is ‘Luda and Milena’, in which two aging women in an English-language class vie for the attentions of an elderly widower by cooking him traditional Russian fare, with catastrophic results.
Vapnyar is gleefully comic here, describing Milena’s face as ‘a battlefield for anti-aging creams’ and the sound made by Luda’s armchair when she sinks into it as ‘the groan of someone who was profoundly annoyed with Luda but still loved her very much’. Alongside the humour come sharp, painful insights: Luda notes that her presence disturbs married women of her age, ‘not because they saw her as a threat but rather because her widowhood and loneliness reminded them that they could soon end up like that too’.
My favourite story in the collection is ‘Slicing Sauteed Spinach’, in which Prague-born Ruzena, fearful of the unfamiliar words in restaurant menus, allows her lover to order for them both. Consequently she eats nothing but various forms of spinach, her lover’s favourite food. When he attempts to end their affair on the grounds that Ruzena is becoming too dependent, she invents an imaginary boyfriend in Strasbourg, whose existence reignites her lover’s interest. Over many lunches the fictitious Pavel grows in character and conviction until Ruzena finds herself expressing Pavel’s loathing for spinach, and realising that it is in fact her own.
The collection ends with a round-up of the receipes featured in the stories. Chattily informal and full of infectious enthusiasm for good food, it is a delightful conclusion to a highly enjoyable read, which whets the appetite for hot borscht and more work from Lara Vapnyar.