Russian émigré Vapnyar follows her story collection There Are Jews In My House (2003) with this second small collection: six stories about immigrants in Brooklyn.
With one exception, the immigrants are Russian, coming to terms with America. Though food does indeed figure in all these stories, and an amusing, free-wheeling afterword includes recipes, food is not always essential to their development. Take “A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf.” Did Nina’s husband marry her in Russia because she was “his ticket to America”? She doesn’t think so; she has had ample evidence of his love; nonetheless, he leaves her. The story ends inconclusively with a cooking date with another guy, leaving the reader hungry for more insight into Nina’s failed marriage; to hell with the broccoli. In “Slicing Sautéed Spinach,” Ružena, a Czech immigrant, has weekly trysts with an American lover already committed to another woman, followed by restaurant meals at which she always eats spinach. That seems whimsical; the point of the story is the way Ružena outsmarts the American in their love game. “Salad Olivier” shows recent immigrant Tanya finding a boyfriend who bonds with her parents as they create Russia’s most popular holiday dish; it’s charming but slight. “Borscht” is more robust. Here carpet installer Sergey visits a part-time Russian prostitute. Alla turns him off sexually, but the famous soup creates a rapport; it’s the star of the show. Food is even more integral in “Luda and Milena.” Two elderly Russian women are competing for an even older Russian man; they are students in an ESL class, asked to bring dishes to an International Feast. To impress old Aron, they learn to cook overnight in this well-shaped tragic-comedy about loneliness and desire. In “Puffed Rice and Meatballs,” food is really the whole point as Katya recalls her Russian childhood, a time of deprivation underscored by the mad rush for rarely imported American junk food.
Flavorful amuse-bouches from a talented chef.