It took me awhile to hunt down Lara Vapynar’s short stories Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love. It is a short collection and one I never felt I was able to sink my teeth into, despite the subjects.
Vapynar is a Russian immigrant and the tales she tells are those of other immigrants. Food has obvious cultural significance and in each story the characters are trying to connect with or rediscover some part of themselves through the dishes they create and consume. The familiarity of a dish or the taste of a specific ingredient has the ability to transport people into the past and back to whence they came. This is certainly one of the fascinating attributes of food; it has the remarkable ability to link a person with other moments in time and with the people who shared the meal.
I appreciate Vapynar’s acknowledgment of the power of what we fill our bodies with. But unfortunately the power instilled in the dishes she honors does not manifest in many of her characters.
The immigrant’s dream of America is often an unfulfilled or poorly sketched one. Anything put on a pedestal is bound to fall short of the heights expected of it and America’s superior virtues have been questionable for almost as long as they’ve been praised. For most of Vapynar’s characters the prevalent sentiments are loneliness and disappointment. These emotions rarely incapacitate but certainly affect the young woman who loses her husband to the novelties of America and the rug layer whose wife in Russia is content to stay apart as long as he continues to send money.
Solace is sought or appears in unlikely places. A nanny who doubles as a prostitute to make more money for her family in Russia soothes a man whose resolve has faltered with her borscht; two elderly women slave over meatballs to win the heart and stomach of a Russian widower in their English language class. There is humor amidst the adjustments necessarily made for a new life and the author has an eye for the ironic twist.
Most of the dishes described by Vapynar were unfamiliar to me. To my delight, the author included the recipes for the meals her characters consume and cherish at the conclusion of the book. It was in these post-scripted moments of the collection that Vapanyr came alive as a writer. Her relationship to these foods evoked far more than the supposed predilections of the characters she created. The reality of the food and its familiar and nourishing comforts twinkled with their real worth from these final pages.
Within the boundaries of the stories themselves everything has a much more abstract form. The background for these stories, New York of course, never emits any energy of its own. It remains a two-dimensional backdrop of hardly any consequence, a strange lens through which to view that bustling city. As a result, the characters who play against this static setting are flat themselves. Vapnyar’s are portraits of hypotheticals, not of people. Thus the appearance of the animated recipes at the book’s finish is particularly heartening. Unfortunately the taste of her expertise came too late and I was left with the sweetness of the final course could not disguise the blandness of those that preceded it.