Conventional wisdom dictates that you should never shop for groceries while hungry. I would further advise that you not pick up a copy of Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love (Pantheon, $20) by Lara Vapnyar on an empty stomach — it is impossible not to crave a steaming bowl of borscht after dipping into Vapnyar’s latest literary offering. Conveniently, then, this collection of six short stories is followed by an appendix of as many recipes.
The story that gives rise to the collection’s title, “A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf,” tells of Nina, a young woman who, like Vapnyar herself, emigrated to the United States from Russia. For Nina, the sight of a floret of broccoli conjures up another world — part imaginary and part nostalgic. She pores obsessively over cookbooks, but never manages to cook the produce she buys each week from the local Korean markets. The vegetables expire in the refrigerator drawer, their decay a shriveled and malodorous testament to her unrealized desires.
Throughout the stories, food carries a variety of meanings — a sensual indulgence, a means of fashioning identity, a cultural touchstone or a portal into another world, be it the vegetable gardens of Nina’s childhood or the exotic prize of American puffed rice in Katya’s Soviet girlhood (“Puffed Rice and Meatballs”). Vapnyar’s descriptions, simple and deft, are so ripe you can practically taste them, and while the specific flavors are distinctively Russian American, her writing has a universal appeal.
Homecoming, recognition and connection criss-cross unnervingly accurate depictions of loneliness and alienation. The stories are as much about the complexity of nostalgia (for a lost homeland, for lost desire, and for lost youth) as they are about love. In “Slicing Sautéed Spinach,” after a disappointing return to the Prague she had pined for after coming to America, Ružena tells her lover “I went back to New York, hoping my homesickness would return — you know, we always wish for something that we can’t have. But it didn’t. I went home every night and slumped in my chair with nothing to long for.”
Vapnyar wields a kind of understated humor and draws her characters — with their vulnerabilities, idiosyncrasies and foibles — with tender strokes. Later, Ružena tells that lover a lie. Vapnyar writes: “It was easier than she’d imagined. Her heart pounded, but that didn’t worry her. The heart wasn’t anything that people could see.”
Vapnyar is also the author of the critically acclaimed collection There Are Jews In My House (2004) and of a novel, Memoirs of a Muse (2006). For old fans and for those who have not yet sampled what Vapnyar has to offer, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love is a delectable read and a fine, if brief, cookbook. Try the borscht — it’s delicious.
Spencer Merolla lives and works in New York.