Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, whose nameless protagonist proclaims, “I yam what I yam,” and Amy Tan’s choreography of labored meals in pointed contrast to American fast food, Lara Vapnyar’s new story collection, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, employs food—the buying, cooking, storing, eating, and ordering of it—to examine fractured identities.
In this slim volume, Vapnyar returns to the story form—her debut collection, There Are Jews in My House (2003), was followed by the novel Memoirs of a Muse (2006)—exploring food as metaphor for the immigrant experience. In these brief, precisely rendered stories, each character’s relationship to food—a lovelorn woman obsessed with vegetables, a man estranged from his wife and in need of all kinds of nourishment, two older women preparing Russian dishes to compete for the only single man in their adult-education classestablishes his or her degree of assimilation into American culture.
“Borscht” begins when the Russian Sergey, who works as a carpet installer while subletting a friend’s living room in New York, wakes up with a hangover and an erection. He eats cornflakes out of the box, downs aspirin without water, and aches for his wife back home, who is becoming more emotionally distant. He decides to spend his fastidiously saved cash on an “affordable” prostitute and heads to Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, a place of “well-fed people . . . the fake Russia, the parody of Russia, that made the real Russia seem even farther away and hopelessly unobtainable.” While “Borscht” veers into hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold territory, a metaphoric complexity lies beneath the smooth surface of Vapnyar’s unadorned prose and simple structure. When Sergey slurps the borscht proffered by the prostitute, he feels the need to hold a piece of bread under the spoon, an act that speaks volumes about a history of deprivation—by his wife, by Russia, and now by America.
“Puffed Rice and Meatballs” is also configured by sexuality and starkly contrasts life in the two countries. When Katya’s American lover asks her to talk about the “horrors of communism,” she tells a titillating tale of looking at a boy’s peesya during nap time and children eating from plates piled high with meatballs, countering the notion of food scarcity. Later, at home, drinking dark tea and dipping into a jar of walnut jam, Katya finds the jam “too sugary—wrong—just like her story,” and she remembers instead an altogether different tale: her aunt giving her Western clothes, including a new sweater that makes her look like she has breasts. Commanding in her “sudden beauty,” she meets a friend who is thrilled a local store is selling “American puffed rice in crunchy bags!” The two wait in a long line, and when the doors shut before everyone has purchased their cereal, Katya is at the center of a riot, her body held up by a shop worker and used as a “battering ram” to keep the crowd at bay. In this more truthful story, Vapnyar converts a standard coming-of-age tale into a nuanced account of becoming a woman under the grim rule of communism.
The two women in “Luda and Milena” came to the States before these younger characters, but they, too, are in search of love, vying for the attention of Aron Skolnik, the only single man in their ESL class at Brooklyn College. The teacher declares Friday the International Feast, and each week, the diverse students bring dishes that speak to their cultural identity. (One couple bring McDonald’s to show that their new country is America.) Neither Luda nor Milena is much of a cook, but they attempt to outdo each other. Luda adapts a recipe for spinach pie she sees on the Food Network, while Milena dusts off her grandmother’s Russian cookbook and stuns the group with cheese puffs. The competition builds, culminating with meatballs and an unexpected conclusion. The rivalry between these two women lends this story the timelessness of a fairy tale.
As precise as these stories are, Vapnyar’s predilection for the literary device occasionally overwhelms their fragile power, most obviously in the final piece, “Slicing Sautéed Spinach.” Ru¸ena, from Prague, panics at all the choices on wordy American menus, and so her married lover orders what he likes for her, always spinach. When he asks Ru¸ena for stories about Prague—over spinach gnocchi—she speaks about longing for home and then about finally returning to Prague for a visit. She says, “I went back to New York, hoping my homesickness would return. . . . I went home every night and slumped in my chair with nothing to long for.” When he grows remote in response to this very personal revelation, she moves to protect herself by inventing a boyfriend. Her chest pounding with the lie, she thinks, “The heart wasn’t anything that people could see.” It is a charming line, but it highlights the clumsy plotting.
These stories are less like a hearty dinner than an elegant lunch. The book ends with a “Roundup of Recipes,” which, in addition to recipes for the dishes in the stories, offers insight into Vapnyar’s own cooking. Apparently, the author is more assimilated than her characters: Her version of cold borscht starts with a jar of Manischewitz, and her favorite meatball recipe uses turkey instead of the traditional ingredients, lamb and beef. But for Salad Olivier, “the Russian’s Thanksgiving turkey,” Vapnyar gives three variations: the Plebeian Version, the Aristocratic Version, and the last: the Something-Americans-Might-Eat Version. Surely it goes without saying that this is the least interesting version of all.
Jennifer Gilmore is the author of the novel Golden Country (Scribner, 2006.)