Numerous are the books in which a character yearns longingly for a food item. The hunger being felt, however, is generally something more than a growling stomach. In literature (as in life itself) food has much to do with other forms of emptiness.
So to the list of books that conflate hunger with deeper quests we can now add Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love by Lara Vapnyar. This slim collection of six short stories (plus recipes) focuses on Russian and Eastern European immigrants to the US. They are lonely, they are disoriented, and they hope dinner will assuage their longings. Food is the slender thread that connects their pasts to their presents.
Vapynar’s characters are funny, vulnerable, somewhat deluded, but also courageous. They may dream of pirogies but they are now in the land of the extra-value meal. Somehow they must cope.
In the first story, “A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf,” Nina, a Russian immigrant newly settled in Brooklyn and insecure in both her marriage and her adopted country, develops a fascination with vegetables. It begins one day on Avenue M when, in the midst of an unfamiliar cluster of narrow stores and dirty sidewalks, she sees a carton of tomatoes labeled “SUNRIPE.”
Her beginning knowledge of English endows the word with magic, bringing to mind her girlhood and “a vegetable patch on a summer afternoon, the smell of the rich soil heated by the sun, pale-green branches sagging under heavy tomatoes bursting with juice.”
Suddenly Nina is up early every Saturday shopping for vegetables while her husband sleeps. She also discovers Barnes & Noble where she can buy cookbooks at a discount. These she pores over in bed at night, marvelling at the glossy photos of grilled zucchini and stewed okra, and thrilling to phrases like “brush with olive oil.”
The only trouble is that Nina doesn’t know how to cook vegetables. She settles instead for stroking them, enjoying “the light, feathery bunches of dill and parsley” and the way it feels to squeeze artichokes, “like pine cones, but soft ones.”
Broccoli, however, is her particular favorite and the day finally arrives when Nina must connect more deeply both with broccoli and the world around her. When that day comes, it is vegetables that draw her into the future.
Like Nina, Luda and Milena are lonely Russian women living in Brooklyn. In “Luda and Milena” (perhaps the gem of the collection), they begin to compete for the attentions of Aron, elderly Russian widower in their English as a second language class.
Quickly they discover that the path to his heart runs through his stomach and soon they are baking, chopping, and puréeing wildly, each hoping to outcook the other. Their rivalry also highlights what each has lost: Milena was once a beauty (“Men used to look at her, and then they didn’t”) while Luda had her day as a Soviet scientist, with a prestige that evaporated along with her country.
In “Borscht,” a lonely Russian man visits a prostitute although what he really wants is a homemade meal. In “Puffed Rice and Meatballs,” a Russian woman is reminded by her American lover of a time in her childhood when she was humiliated by her longing for a Western cereal.
In “Salad Olivier,” a family of Russian émigrés use the comforting ritual of making their favorite salad to help them cope with life in the US. In “Slicing Sautéed Spinach,” a Czech immigrant dines out with her lover all over New York but must always eat spinach because her limited English won’t allow her to order anything else.
Vapnyar learned first-hand about the outerborough, immigrant world of which she writes. She emigrated to the US from Russia in 1994. Today, she lives on Staten Island and is the author of the novel “Memoirs of a Muse” and a previous collection of short stories called “There are Jews in My House.”
The characters in these stories drift wistfully through landscapes they have not yet learned how to embrace. Yet Vapnyar’s sly humor keeps her narratives light along with their poignance. A couple, in fact, are a bit too light, and a few have endings that arrive too abruptly.
But these nits do not detract from the essential charm of this collection. This is a book that’s apt to make you hungry. And then it will make you yearn to feed a group of hungry Russians.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.