Kitchen-table fiction, wherein a cozy author tells the story of a culture through its food, is as easy to find as a packet of Splenda. But Lara Vapnyar's second short-story collection, the follow-up to her debut, There Are Jews in My House, is a stunning petit four (it's a slender 160 pages) in a world of saccharin.
In Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, we again encounter the Russian immigrants who populated Vapnyar's first story collection. Unlike their compatriots in the first book, however, these Russians are not happy in their ersatz enclaves like New York's Brighton Beach, which one character calls "fake Russia, the parody of Russia that made the real Russia seem even further away and more unattainable."
Instead, they are stranded in a dyspeptic limbo, attempting to make a proper meal out of a life in which familiar ingredients are hard to come by.
In the title story, the newly arrived Nina, stuck in a loveless marriage, satisfies herself by buying lush, shiny vegetables that she has no intention of cooking (read the story). In "Borscht," Sergey, spurned by his faraway girlfriend, finds more solace in a hooker's soup than in her bed.
The narrator of "Puffed Rice and Meatballs" discovers that her budding sexuality is of far less interest to men than a rare shipment of junk food. And in "Luda and Milena," two older women battle, with disastrous results, for the affection of an available gentleman by learning to cook Russian favorites — something they never bothered to do in Russia.
Vapnyar's collection isn't literary comfort food, nor does it rhapsodize about the power of pilmeny. (Nonetheless, readers excited by the mention of this Russian favorite will be relieved to find a full index of recipes in the back of the book.)
Sergey, walking the streets of Brighton Beach, glares at his countrymen languishing in cheap, edible nostalgia: "Smug, well-fed people smoking by the shining doors of restaurants, picking through piles of fruit, loading heavy bags of food into the trunks of their cars." Vapnyar understands food's true power isn't to make us remember our past. It's to inspire dreams of a better future, even if it never arrives exactly as we might like it.
After all, who hasn't picked up a head of broccoli, dreaming of the meal that, often as not, winds up in the trash?
Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love
By Lara Vapnyar
Hardcover, 160 pages
List Price: $20
Read the title story.