Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Taking off on the old vaudeville advice to “always leave them laughing,” Lara Vapnyar’s lovely new volume of stories is structured so that readers finish hungry. Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love is great, poignant fun, but the recipes included at the end push the delight-o-meter into the red. The book’s only failing is its brevity; doubling the five stories and recipes would have been welcome.

Though various in age, sex and thickness of ankle, these stories’ former-USSR émigré cast shares displacements, disappointments and hungers. Food and sex may be familiar metaphorical vehicles, but Vapnyar’s precision transcends cliché—and her humor balances the characters’ stereotypically unrelenting gloom (the author uses a similar approach in her novel Memoirs of a Muse). Luda, an elderly Muscovite, refers to her ESL-class rival Milena’s face as “a battlefield for antiaging creams.” Sexy young Katya tells her imagined lover a story about the “two things she craved as a child: imported clothes and imported junk food in crunchy bags.” Overly responsible Tanya recalls an aunt back in Russia admonishing her that making Salad Olivier with bologna rather than “real” meat is “plebian” (if you’ve never eaten this concoction of mayonnaise, peas, egg and potato, hie thee to Brighton Beach immediately).

The aforementioned recipes match the key dish in each story, and Vapnyar details her “testing” process in a mouse-riddled trailer she’s rented with her husband and two children for the summer. The recipes for Olivier (given in three appropriately class-based variations) and borscht are worth their weight in sour cream.

By Lara Vapnyar. Pantheon, $20.