Immigrant appetites

If you don’t like fiction, skip to the back of Lara Vapnyar’s new collection of fiction to find six recipes and a cooking commentary. In the book’s final section, the author, who admits to minimal culinary expertise, recounts her struggles preparing Russian fare in the rented trailer in which she, her husband, and their two children spend the summer. Among recipes for spinach, meatballs, cold borscht, hot borscht, and broccoli, Salad Olivier, which Vapnyar calls “the Russian’s Thanksgiving turkey,” is the pièce de résistance.

Yet I resist. “I can’t think of any other holiday dish that would come close to Salad Olivier in popularity,” Vapnyar, who departed her native Russia in 1994, explains. But the dish, whose authentic ingredients include bologna, pickles, and canned peas smothered in enough mayonnaise to produce “a wet slurping sound while you make it,” is not likely to cause an American to salivate on any holiday, even Halloween. I would rather slurp a frozen daiquiri made of kumiss (fermented mare’s milk, a Slavic “delicacy”) than Vapnyar’s unsavory macédoine. However, she assures skeptical readers, “I know this doesn’t sound too appetizing, but it is, it is; just trust me!”

I don’t. A willing suspension of disbelief should not induce gastritis. Nevertheless, though I cannot swallow this literary chef’s house special, Vapnyar earns my trust in her fictions, delicate evocations of desolate immigrant lives. “Life is life,” says a newcomer who supplements her salary as nanny with a side of prostitution, “and the only way to live it is to take all the shit that comes with it.” Now that’s a recipe worth the price of a book.

Vapnyar’s first book, There Are Jews in My House (2003), was a triumph of translingual virtuosity, remarkably poised stories by an author who nine years before had arrived in New York from Moscow with just a few English words to spend. Memoirs of a Muse, a novel about a Russian émigrée who, emulating Apollinaria Suslova’s relationship to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, aspires to inspire a great American novelist, appeared in 2006. Like There Are Jews in My House, Vapnyar’s latest book, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, consists of six short stories, and it, too, opens with a vegetable — the image of “pulling a bunch of wilted broccoli from the refrigerator shelf.” (The first book began: “Galina carried an aluminum pot of boiled potatoes, holding it by the handles with a kitchen towel.”) Vapnyar is a subtle analyst of the appetites that men and women import with them from Eastern Europe — for food and love. To her lonely computer programmers and carpet installers inhabiting shabby New York apartments, food serves as an aphrodisiac, or else as a consolation for, and memorial to, love.

It also can be lethal. In “Luda and Milena,” two stubborn old women meet in an ESL class and compete for the attention of 79-year-old Aron Skolnick. In an escalating battle of pot-luck dishes, they court him with spinach pies, eggplant caviar, and cheese puffs. But the killer meatballs that each prepares prove potent enough to take his breath away. In “Slicing Sautéed Spinach,” Ruz?ena dines on spinach during weekly postcoital lunches with her secret lover, until the relationship takes a dramatic turn and she switches to brightly colored carrots, peppers, zucchini, and asparagus.

In “A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf,” Nina shops for exotic produce — kiwis, gooseberries, white asparagus — to distract her from a dreary job and an empty marriage. In “Borscht,” hot beet soup provides Sergei bitter consolation for sexual impotence and the anguish of being torn between Russia and America, at home in neither. Some of Vapnyar’s characters have settled in Brighton Beach, a Slavic enclave in Brooklyn, but its ersatz Russian flavor only reminds them of what they left behind: “This was the fake Russia, the parody of Russia, that made the real Russia seem even farther away and hopelessly unobtainable.”

Unlike other younger Jewish authors such as Gary Shteyngart and David Bezmozgis who left Eastern Europe as children, Vapnyar came to America in her 20s, with a sensibility fed by the Russian masters. “I do not like broccoli,” declared President George H. W. Bush. He is not on record as liking Chekhov, either. Readers with other appetites will relish Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love.


Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love
By Lara Vapnyar
$20, 160 pages

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