Pushcart 2013: Karen Russell, “A FAMILY RESTAURANT” from Conjunctions #57, Fall 2011

"Trellis" wallpaper design by William Morris, 1862

“Trellis” wallpaper design by William Morris, 1862

This morning, my father approached me waving the new menu from RAY’S ITALIAN FEATS, our rival across the street, and demanded that I type this up for you.
“Write the story. It’s a menu, Leni, it’s supposed to have the story.”
“Which one?”
“Jesus, I don’t know, the story, our story! The family story!”

This is all-in-one fiction: a tragicomic family saga/mystery. As I read, I could see Leni writing, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner of A FAMILY RESTAURANT; I could hear her voice. It’s a terrific read. I’m left with some questions as the end, but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.

The Bakopoulos clan meandered from Greece to an island somewhere in the vicinity of Florida a few generations back. A FAMILY RESTAURANT has been their anchor since the 70s, always in competition with Ray’s Italian Feats (Ray – “a known defroster” – meant “Feasts” but let it stand). Leni approaches her task of keeping up with the Feats dutifully, perhaps unaware of how sadly hilarious it all is. And perhaps not. Perhaps she’s telling her father something. Or maybe she’s just telling it to anyone who will read.

I’m sure there’s a folklore structure (this seems to be folk tale week) for most of the characters in this story. For instance, there’s the family matriarch, Mama; the son under her spell, Frank; and Irene, the wife he brings home from his brief stay at college when Mama’s health takes a turn for the worse and the restaurant is failing: “They were flying back in time to Frank’s childhood, the zone in which he hadn’t made her the offer, where she did not yet exist.”

Frank and Irene will become Leni’s parents, but not before Mama makes Irene miserable from Day One.

Days 2 through 182 were very much the same. In dreams Irene wiped the dishes and watched her own face shriveling, the young and vibrant layers of her life falling away like flower petals, all of the color and particularity draining out of her as she merged with the bleak, blank face of Mama.
No one lives forever. Irene gave herself this pep talk on Saturday nights, bunning sea dogs near the window with the big fan, straining to see the actual sea. Black waves tugged away from her, as if the world were on a wire, and the night would jump, retreat, jump again. Her eyes could only see so far into the twinkling mist that separated the island from the peninsula, but she had faith that it was there. Twenty minutes by boat. They could get back to it.

What gives me pause here is that this happened before Leni was born; how does she know about it? Either it’s part of the story that’s been told to her (by her father? Her mother? Unlikely, either way, as we’ll see) or she’s made it up out of her own life. These issues didn’t occur to me until after I’d read the story, by the way; it was engrossing and I didn’t get all meta about it until afterwards.

Mama does eventually die, on the same day Irene finds out she’s pregnant with Leni. But that day is remembered for another legacy: a recipe Mama discloses to Frank with her dying breath, in Greek. It’s tape-recorded and translated, then implemented complete with a secret ingredient known only to Mama and Frank. Mama’s buried in Greece, the SPECIAL OF THE DAY #6: MAMA’S DEATHBED SHERBET is added to the menu, and the restaurant business takes off as everyone – customers, celebrities, corporations – offer huge sums for the recipe. Frank keeps his secret; he makes the sherbet in a special kitchen he has built, off the main kitchen, a locked kitchen with no windows. He visits Greece once a year to obtain more of the secret ingredient, which, whatever it is, fits in his duffel bag.

Irene never tastes the sherbet during her pregnancy until the last night, at which point, overtaken by one of those pregnancy cravings, she consumes bowls of the stuff. Then Leni was born:

There was my face, which was also the puckered, miniaturized face of Mama Bakopoulos. … My first days were black ones for my mother. At times she was certain that I was an anchor, flung overboard by Mama from beyond the grave, intended to secure her permanent mooring at A FAMILY RESTAURANT.… Irene watched me like a mirror, waited for her blue eyes to open in my face, for her face to surface in my flesh. But I failed, I couldn’t repeat any part of her.… every night, to please my mother, I was praying for a different face.

As I’m pulling these quotes, I’m wondering how I could call this piece humorous. This goes beyond providing ballast; this is heavy stuff. I recall reading “The Ballad of Mushie Momzer” last year, a similar family saga/folk tale, and hating it, recognizing the voice as humor but finding the content to be depressing (as well as ridiculously bawdy in a sixth-grade way). Maybe I’ve developed the sense required to appreciate this combination of pathos and goofiness. I should read that story again.

The secret ingredient of the sherbet, Irene’s attempts to deal with what life has handed her, and the aftermath of her failure to do so, provide the structure and momentum for the rest of the story. I won’t spoil it; it’s intricate, and worth reading. Things change, of course. Irene leaves; Frank “runs out” of the Secret Ingredient, and still won’t tell Leni what it was:

“Leni,” he said, touching my cheek gingerly. “I’m sorry. Really, it won’t grow anymore. It got, ah” – he frowned, rummaging for the word he’d found in the dictionary to explain what had happened to it after Irene divorced him – “extirpated.”

For years I burned with an anger that I found easiest to direct at my father, the paterfamilias who had cursed me with this face, the secret hoarder, who wouldn’t even try to ease the beating pain in me by drawing me closer, telling me the whole recipe. For years, the ingredient remained a permanent blank in Our Story. Gradually I came to accept that Frank was telling the truth on one count: Whatever glue had held the three of us together, the bloodred epoxy that makes a family, was gone.

I wrote something a few weeks ago about parents and children being in different universes, and how that sometimes accounts for what seems like a lack of empathy as one doesn’t recognize what’s important to the other. Here, it’s more of Frank’s deliberate choice to keep himself separate from Leni, to hoard a secret beyond the ingredient for the sherbet. A fundamental secret: loneliness and heartbreak. Because, he may think, what good would it do to share it with Leni? Is it perhaps more loving, more generous, to serve as the target for her anger?

He does eventually reveal the end of the story, the secret ingredient, during a scary bout of pneumonia. And that’s how we leave this family, with him telling Leni to match the story now on the menu at Ray’s Italian Feats. Leni still wonders about the dessert, which hasn’t been served for nearly 40 years now, as she writes:

Today I have some new theories about the popularity of our dessert at A FAMILY RESTAURANT. What we gave them was only disguised as food, I think. It seemed to nourish some hidden mouth, some universally parched place. Just writing about it here, I can feel that spot in me beginning to salivate. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s what I spent my early lifetime catering to at A FAMILY RESTAURANT.

I’ve often said I like stories that let me project into the future. That isn’t quite the case with this one, but I’m left wondering about Leni. Her story includes her past, but not her dreams or any plans for the future. Has she ever been off the island? Has she ever wanted to leave? Or was her destiny sealed on the night she was born, with her mother gorging on the sherbet, assuring Leni would put down roots in the restaurant that would never weaken? Is she happy? Is she blooming? Or is she stunted and shriveled like her mother before her? Extirpated in situ?

Late addition: The Millions just today (I’ve added this just before this is scheduled for posting) published an essay, “On The Stories Recipes Remember.” Cooking shows have long talked about the stories our food tells about us. So I suppose I do have a projection to make from this story. The capitalization of A FAMILY RESTAURANT – of Ray’s restaurant, for that matter – manifests what seems clear: the restaurant shouts the loudest. And I’m betting someone over at Ray’s went through a similar family saga before coming up with 800 words suitable for the back of a menu. Frank will look at Leni’s version of the Bakopoulos family story and perhaps learn something about his daughter before he shrinks it down to acceptable proportions, acceptable content, and insert it into the menu – which carries in secret this family’s story.

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