Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love

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9780307279880: Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love

Each of Lara Vapnyar's six stories invites us into a world where food and love intersect, along with the overlapping pleasures and frustrations of Vapnyar's uniquely captivating characters. Meet Nina, a recent arrival from Russia, for whom colorful vegetables represent her own fresh hopes and dreams . . . Luda and Milena, who battle over a widower in their English class with competing recipes for cheese puffs, spinach pies, and meatballs . . . and Sergey, who finds more comfort in the borscht made by a paid female companion than in her sexual ministrations. They all crave the taste and smell of home, wherever—and with whomever—that may turn out to be. A roundup of recipes are the final taste of this delicious collection.

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About the Author:

Lara Vapnyar emigrated from Russia in 1994. She is also the author of of the novel Memoirs of a Muse. There are Jews in My House was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and won the Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Open City. She lives on Staten Island.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Hot Borscht

Today, it's a different picture. It's been raining nonstop, and it's suddenly cold outside. I'm wearing jeans and a sweater and my husband's thick socks—I can't believe I was sweating in a tank top and shorts just a few days ago. The gas heater in our trailer has been broken for years, and the owners won't bother fixing it. They never live here themselves, and summer renters apparently don't need heat. "It's a rundown trailer," my husband says. "What do you expect?" We rent it for seven weeks for the price of what you'd typically pay for two, and I'm usually happy with the bargain. Not on a day like today, though. We tried an electric heater, but it was expensive and seemed to warm only the ten-inch area around it. What we do is this: We turn all four stove burners on and put four large pots of water on to boil. (We could try baking pies, but there are mice living in the oven, and I really don't want to go there.) While the water is boiling on the stove, we cuddle with the kids under a huge blanket and watch Young Frankenstein on my computer. (We never get tired of watching Young Frankenstein.) Well, I think, since we need to keep four large pots on the stove, why not cook borscht in one of them? I can cook and still keep an eye on Young Frankenstein.

Ingredients

3 or 4 fresh beets
3 or 4 potatoes
1 medium carrot
1 medium onion
3 stalks of celery
Olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato sauce
2 quarts beef broth
Salt and pepper
1 or 2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Sour cream
Chopped parsley and garlic (optional)
   1. Chop vegetables and sauté them right in the soup pot, in a little olive oil and the tomato sauce, for 15 to 20 minutes.

   2. Pour the store-brought beef broth over the mixture. When it starts to boil, add salt, pepper, a bay leaf or two, and vinegar, and let the soup simmer until everything is tender, which sometimes takes so long that Young Frankenstein ends before my borscht is ready.

   3. Hot borscht is served with sour cream just like cold borscht. I like to chop some parsley and garlic, smash the two together with a pinch of salt, and sprinkle this over a little island of sour cream in the bowls.

For some reason, it always seems warmer in the trailer when you make borscht than when you simply boil water. And there is another advantage. We don't have enough space at the table, so we eat balancing our hot bowls in our laps. And the laps get warm too.
A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf

 

Another one, seduced and abandoned," Nina's husband said, pulling a bunch of wilted broccoli from the refrigerator shelf. He held it with two fingers as if it stank, his handsome face scrunched in a grimace of disgust.

 

It doesn't stink, Nina thought. She blushed and hurried to take the broccoli--to throw it into the garbage. It isn't fresh, but you can't say that it stinks. She didn't say these thoughts aloud. She said she was sorry, she was busy all week and didn't have time for cooking. Nina worked in Manhattan. By the time she came home to Brooklyn, it was already seven thirty, sometimes eight, and she felt too tired to cook. The most she could do was fix a sandwich for her husband and herself or boil some meat dumplings from a Russian food store.

 

"Yes, I know," her husband said. "But why buy all these vegetables if you know you won't have time to cook them?" Nina shrugged. She liked shopping for vegetables.

 

Nina couldn't say when she'd first begun the habit of shopping for vegetables. Probably two years earlier, on her second day in America, when she and her husband left her sister's Brooklyn apartment to explore the nearest shopping street. Her sister, who'd lived in America for fourteen years, called herself an American. She thought Nina would be impatient to see everything. "Go, go," her sister said. "But don't buy anything. To survive in America, there are two rules you have to remember. First: Never buy anything in expensive stores unless they have a fifty-percent-off sale. Second: Never ever buy anything in cheap stores."

 

On the street with the unimaginative name Avenue M, they walked through narrow stores that all looked alike to Nina, no matter what they sold: food, electronics, clothes, or hardware. After a while, it seemed that they were walking in and out of the same store over and over, just to hear the chime of its bell. The February morning was cold, and the sunlight was pale. Nina hid her reddened nose in the fur collar of her Russian coat. She clutched her husband's elbow and carefully stepped over piles of garbage, reluctant to look up or sideways at the ashen sky or the motley signs of the shops. She felt dizzy and a little nauseated from the flight and the all-night talk with her sister. Only one place attracted her attention: a small Korean grocery with fruits and vegetables set outside on plywood stands--colorful piles of oranges, tomatoes, and cucumbers, almost unnaturally clean and bright. Nina read the sign on the box of tomatoes: SUNRIPE. She was still learning English, and every new expression seemed exciting and full of great meaning. SUNRIPE brought to mind 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. SUNRIPE reminded her of her family's tiny vegetable garden when she was little. Nina wanted to touch the tomatoes in the box, hoping that their surface would still be a little warm from all the sun that shined on them while they ripened. She was reaching for one when her husband dragged her away to another store.

 

Now Nina shopped alone for vegetables every Saturday morning while her husband slept late. Nina drove to 86th Street to visit the Korean and Russian vegetables stores between 22nd and 23rd avenues. The assortment in the stores was generally the same, but Nina liked to explore each of them, hoping to find something surprising, such as the occasional white asparagus, or plastic baskets of gooseberries, or tiny nutlike new potatoes. On days when there weren't any new or exciting items, it was still interesting to compare the stores. In one store the onions could be large and shiny, but the bunches of lettuce wilted and colorless. Another store could boast of the freshest, brightest lettuce, while the squashy gray onions hid timidly in string bags.

 

Nina felt a thrill as soon as she climbed out of the car by a store entrance, her feet touching a sidewalk littered with bits of lettuce, onion peel, and broken tomatoes. Inside, she walked between the produce shelves, touching the fruit and vegetables and marveling at how different their surfaces felt. She ran her fingers over the tomatoes; they felt smooth and glossy like polished furniture. She cupped oranges, feeling their lumpy skins in her palms. Sometimes she would hook an orange peel with her nail so it would sputter a little of its pungent, spicy juice on her finger. She avoided the hairy egg-shaped kiwis and wormlike string beans. She liked to stroke the light, feathery bunches of dill and parsley, and to squeeze artichokes, which felt like pine cones, but soft ones. She liked to pat cantaloupes and tap watermelons with her index finger to hear the hollow sound they made. Most of all, Nina loved broccoli. It smelled of young spring grass, and it looked like a spring tree with its solid stem and luxuriant crown of tight grainy florets that resembled recently blossomed leaves.

 

Regardless of the other vegetables she bought, Nina took home a bunch of broccoli every week. She carried the heavy brown bags proudly to the car with the firm belief that this weekend she would find time to cook. There was the rest of Saturday afternoon ahead, and all of Sunday. She would wash the vegetables as soon as she got home and then cook something on Sunday, maybe spinach gnocchi, or grilled zucchini, or broccoli topped with a three-cheese sauce.

 

Somehow, Nina invariably managed to forget both the errands she had to run on Sundays and the Saturday-night parties at her husband's friend's. As soon as she came home, Nina immediately found herself in a whirl of things to do. She had to shower in a hurry, hot-curl her hair, brush it down if it turned out too frizzy, try on and reject various sweaters and pants, put on her makeup, find her husband's socks, iron his shirt, tell him where his other sock was, check if the gas was off, and lock the door.

 

In what seemed like only a minute, Nina found herself back in the car on the way to the party. She alternately glanced at her husband in the driver's seat and at her reflection in the mirror. Her husband seemed distant and deep in his thoughts, which was natural, she told herself, because he was driving. And her own reflection seemed unsatisfying. Her hair was still too frizzy, her soft-featured round face required a different type of makeup, and her blue angora pullover cut into her armpits. The thing about clothes bought at fifty-percent-off sales was that they were either the wrong size or the wrong design. In the car, Nina didn't think about vegetables. They lay abandoned on the refrigerator shelves, where Nina had shoved them in a hurry: tomatoes squashed under zucchini, lettuce leaves jammed against the edge of the vegetable basket, a bunch of broccoli that didn't fit anywhere else placed all by itself on the third shelf.

 

The parties were held at Pavlik's place, Nina's husband's friend from work, whose wife had divorced him a few years earlier. Pavlik was a heavy man with an uneven ginger-colored beard. He wore ill-fitting trousers and unclean shirts. He loved to laugh heartily and smack his friends on the back. "Don't mind the mess!" he yelled, as his guests wandered through the dusty labyrinth of his house, stumbling on mismatched furniture, broken electronic equipment, heavy volumes of Russian books, and slippery magazines. It seemed to Nina that Pavlik's function as a host was limited to yelling, "Don't mind the mess!" He didn't feed or entertain his guests. People came to him with their own food and wine, their own plastic dinnerware, their own guitars, and sometimes their own poems written in notebooks.

 

Not one of Pavlik's guests was a professional poet or musician, though. Most of them worked as computer programmers, the occupation they took up in America, finding it easier and more profitable than trying to prove the value of their Russian degrees in science or the arts. Some of them, Nina's husband included, adopted a condescending, slightly snobbish attitude to their new profession, as something easy and boring, something beneath them. "A computer programmer, like everybody else," they answered reluctantly, when asked about their present profession. "But that's not what I used to be in my previous life." They preferred to talk about art or music or their exciting hobbies, such as mountain climbing, rafting, or photographing Alaskan sunsets.

 

Nina was a computer programmer too, but unlike everybody else she'd also been a computer programmer in her "previous life." What was worse, she didn't know much about poetry or music, and she didn't have any exciting talents or hobbies.

 

"My wife is a vegetable lover," Nina's husband said, introducing her to Pavlik's circle.

 

Nina didn't like Pavlik's guests. The men were untidy and unattractive. They piled up their paper plates with cold cuts, smoked too much, and laughed with their mouths full. They repeated the same things over and over, and it seemed to Nina that there was always a piece of ham or salami hanging from their mouths while they talked.

 

The women, on the other hand, with the exception of one or two, were attractive but in a wrong, unpleasant way. They were thin and sophisticated, with straight hair and strong hands with long powerful fingers, toughened by playing either the piano or the guitar. They had soulful eyes, sad from all the poetry they read, and wore expressions of eternal fatigue. They had everything that Nina lacked.

 

Nina usually sat through the whole evening in the corner of Pavlik's stiff sofa, away from the other guests, who sat on the floor by the cold fireplace, and away from her husband. The sounds of their laughter, their singing, and their reading floated around the room but didn't seem to reach her. The food and wine on a rickety folding table by the window were more accessible from the sofa. Nina made frequent trips to that table, where cold cuts lay on paper plates, loaves of bread stood on cutting boards, and pickles swam in glass jars with a fork invariably stuck into one of them. There were usually a few unopened bottles of vodka, and a five-liter box of Burgundy or Chablis. The wine often dripped from the plastic spigot right onto the beige carpet, making intricate patterns, so that by the end of the party Pavlik's modest carpet looked like a fancy Turkish rug.

 

When they first started going to Pavlik's parties, Nina sat by the fireplace with the others. She loved to sit across from her husband and watch his face while he played. His neck was bent down, the bangs of his dark hair fallen over his half-closed eyes. From time to time he glanced at her, and then his eyes flickered through the forest of his hair like two tiny lightning bugs. At those moments Nina felt he was playing for her, and then the music touched her, making her skin prickle and her throat hurt.

 

With time, Nina noticed that she wasn't the only one staring at her husband while he played. Nina saw how the faces of other women lit up just like hers under his fleeting gaze. Each of them must have felt that he was playing for her. Sometimes Nina thought those women had more right to be looked at by her husband. Sometimes those women threw quick looks at Nina, and then Nina felt that she was changing in size; she was growing, bloating up, turning into an enormous exhibit: a dull, untalented woman wearing the wrong clothes and the wrong makeup. She thought that all of them must have wondered why this interesting, talented man had married her.

 

Her sister didn't wonder. "You were his ticket to America," she often reminded Nina, having first said it on Nina's arrival in New York. "Can you disprove that?"

 

Nina couldn't.

 

It was true that Nina's husband had always wanted to emigrate but couldn't obtain a visa. He didn't have close relatives in the United States. It was true that, having married Nina, he had gotten his visa. And it was true that Nina hadn't wanted to emigrate but yielded to her husband's wishes. But it wasn't true that he had married Nina just for that, and it wasn't true that he didn't love her. Nina's sister didn't know what Nina knew. She didn't know that when Nina was in the hospital after appendix surgery, her husband wouldn't leave her room even for a minute. She begged him to go and have some coffee or to take a breath of fresh air, but he refused. He held Nina's hand an...

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