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Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Sunday Supper

The New York Times reports:

CANNED peas and boiled bologna, Lara Vapnyar says, is a dish she has missed since arriving in Brooklyn from Moscow in 1994. “We also ate a lot of black caviar,” she said last week. “But I don’t feel nostalgic for that.”

Along with immigration, food and love, nostalgia for the lost world of Soviet Russia has informed Ms. Vapnyar’s fiction — two collections of stories and a novel — since her first short story was published, in 2003. “It is a little like being from Atlantis,” she said.

Ms. Vapnyar’s work is structured and elegant, despite the fact that she spoke little English when she emigrated. But she does not yet have the mastery over spinach that she does over syntax.

“I don’t seem to be able to cook fresh vegetables well,” she said, a broad and breathtaking admission for a writer whose new collection of short stories is called “Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love” (Pantheon Books). In these stories, food has the power to define characters, propel plots, cause riots and even commit manslaughter.

In “Luda and Milena,” two Russian-born women in their 70s compete for a man in their English language class, each elbowing the other aside with platters of spinach pie and cheese puffs. The man finally chokes to death on the day that both women make Russian meatballs: juicy patties enriched with cream-soaked bread, onion and garlic, and fried until crusty and brown. It is, however, impossible to know from the story which woman’s meatball was the fatal instrument.

“I couldn’t do that to either of the characters,” she said. “The point is that no one wins, and they both win, because, after all, they don’t really like to cook, and now they won’t have to.”

In Ms. Vapnyar’s work, the chores of cooking are often presented alongside the satisfactions of the finished dish: Sergey, an impotent carpet installer, is seduced by watching a prostitute make borscht — mincing garlic and parsley together, carefully crushing boiled potatoes — in her tiny, steamed-up kitchen. A young woman, trapped in Brighton Beach by her immigrant parents’ expectations, finds her place at the family table by sitting down with a knife to make Salad Olivier. It is the Russian party dish par excellence: a mound of hard-boiled eggs, canned peas, pickles, potatoes and meat, diced and bound with a tangy mayonnaise. For particularly swanky occasions, the salad is covered with aspic.

“There are high versions and low versions,” Ms. Vapnyar said. “I like them all.”

Through her work, American food is seductive — often to the point of nausea. In her novel, “Memoirs of a Muse,” Tanya’s immigration application is fueled by fantasies about the coffee she will be able to drink in Brooklyn. “Turkish coffee, Swedish coffee, Arabic coffee! ... Cappuccino, espresso, iced coffee,” her uncle shouts down the phone line.

Arriving in Brighton Beach, Tanya gorges on cream cheese, smoked salmon, cherry-flavored wine and chocolate cake, and spends her first night in America on the bathroom floor.

Ms. Vapnyar’s transition to the United States was often rocky in its own way. Brooklyn, and its Russian enclaves, did not live up to her expectations of the New World. Her husband, “like all the educated Russians,” got a job as a computer programmer, but she could not find work.

While taking care of their two children, now 13 and 10, she worked on her English first by reading, then by writing.

“I was so lonely and starved for conversation that I began to invent characters,” she said.

She has never written in Russian, only in English. She has taught writing at the City College of New York, where her students often turned in work filled with sex and gore. One assignment she gave them was to write about food and how characters responded to it, to teach them how preferences, memories and quirks could make up a personality on the page.

“Beginning writers often don’t give their characters enough particulars,” she said. “Food is something that readers can understand.”

In the short story “A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf,” the character Nina is defined by her infatuation with American vegetables. (Her husband — who, clearly, will soon leave her — introduces her to his poetry-reading, guitar-playing friends as “a vegetable lover.”) Nina buries herself in a lavishly illustrated Italian cookbook, with pictures of a woman’s smooth, capable hands working in the kitchen: “Nina fantasized that ... It was she who pushed the hard, stubborn stuffing into the bell peppers, or rinsed grit off lettuce leaves, or chopped broccoli florets, scattering tiny green crumbs all over the table.”

In fact, like many home cooks, Nina never manages to cook the vegetables she buys. When her husband leaves her, it is with a crisper drawer full of rot.

Like Nina, Ms. Vapnyar says that her intentions often exceed her abilities in the kitchen. “I like to cook, but it wasn’t considered a prestigious or entertaining activity when I was young, the way it is here.”

When she was growing up in Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s, her family — like most other Soviet-era Russian families — had one cookbook: “It was a big book full of canned food, published by the government,” she said. That book, “The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food,” was first published in 1939, a move by Stalin’s regime to replace what had been Russia’s classic cookbook from 1861 until 1917, when it was banned: the aristocratic tome “A Gift to Young Housewives.”

“You couldn’t make a case that that book was anything but bourgeois,” said Darra Goldstein, a professor of Russian at Williams College and editor of the food journal Gastronomica. “It was for the upper classes and their servants.”

By contrast, the recipes in “The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food” were accessible to ordinary Soviet citizens.

“It was the 1952 edition that took off, just as the Soviet food industry was really getting going,” Professor Goldstein said. Alongside photographs of cans of fish and recipes using dried soup were vistas of wheat fields and orchards. “It was a powerful piece of nationalistic propaganda, but also very useful as a cookbook,” she said.

Ms. Vapnyar was born in 1971 and grew up during what is sometimes termed the stagnation period of Soviet history, presided over by a top-heavy, aging Communist party bureaucracy. Some of the regimentation and repression remained — at Ms. Vapnyar’s preschool all the children had to nap lying on their right sides — but by the time she was 18, the first McDonald’s in Moscow had opened.

“One of the first signs of perestroika that I remember is commercials for American candy bars,” she said. She remembers watching a construction worker eating a Snickers bar, and the slogan for another candy bar, Bounty: Paradise on Earth.

“I believed every word,” she said. When she was small, she said, there were vegetables and fruit at weekly farmers’ markets in Moscow, but fresh food became less and less available. The daily work of shopping and cooking was grim and unpredictable.

“I remember waiting hours, standing on the street, to buy frozen meat that someone had bought from the Belgian military,” said Ninel Vapnyar, Lara’s mother, who lives with her daughter on Staten Island. “It had expired, and all that was left was the bad bits. I couldn’t stand the smell and went in the bedroom, but Lara cooked it slowly, with garlic and salt and oil.”

Lara Vapnyar’s food memories, filtered through a childhood lens, are more fond. It is, it turns out, possible to be nostalgic even for a cuisine so repetitive and denatured as Soviet-era institutional cooking.

“I am sure the meatballs at my school were inedible, but I would give all of these cakes and things to have some right now, with a pile of real mashed potatoes,” she said, dismissing the plush layer cakes and perky cupcakes at Kitchenette in TriBeCa. “Even just the potatoes, with a small piece of pickled herring.”

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