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Notes on Kafka’s Microwave Gourmet Healthstyle Cookbook

11.10.2012

The following is a preview of a groundbreaking paper I’m writing for Yale University Press, entitled “Kafka in the Kitchen”

 

It was said that Kafka never wanted to be a cookbook writer. His talents lay elsewhere. As his steady employment (from 1908-1918) at the Accidental Institute for Worker’s Insurance proved, the young bachelor was both emotionally involved in and rather content with his position in life. There were brief flings, of course, desultory passions, but nothing that would point the Kafka scholar in the direction of a radical new take on the great artist’s early development.

But things have changed. New truths have come to light. Old truths have sunk back into darkness. New research has been directed into both the author’s personal life and the cultural state in which he existed. Over the past 15 years, increasingly voluminous stores of papers, electronic files, crude photographs, phonograph recordings, and appliance blueprints have been released by the Czech and (posthumously) Austro-Hungarian governments.

The earliest evidence we’ve found of this most profound of Kafka’s pursuits comes from his father’s diary, in an entry dated March 15th (no stipulated year, presumably 1910 or ‘11), it reads:

Boyo has just come to me to declare his passion for…cookbook writing! Oh, my. I had a great laugh. Right in his face. Such a cute little face but those deep, dark eyes of his…they frighten me! Anyway, pressed upon him again the importance of gainful employment at the insurance company. Put all this bread-baking nonsense behind you. PS. Get a wife!

In Kafka’s own secret notebooks, however, we discover a vastly different picture:

Showed dad the recipe for apricot soufflé today—he spit on it. I was crushed. What a terrible gesture, and if he only knew how much his opinions meant to me! Oh, why do they mean so much?!

In 1912, Kafka won his first county-wide pastry competition, with the gold-medal entry entitled Chokecherry Puff-Pastry, Broken and Hollowed, with Cheshire Cream. His next win came later that same year, at the Moravia Regional, where he dazzled crowds and judges alike (and demonstrated his rapidly-increasing talent) with his Ironic Double-Triffle with Bathetic Satire Pudding.

For the next six years Kafka divided his time (and, according to at least one pseudo-historian, his very soul) between the office desk and the kitchen. Primarily a pastry chef until around 1916, Kafka received very little recognition of his great talents during those years. What few champions he did have promoted him ceaselessly, driving him to competitions, selling his products and recipes at farmer’s markets, and begging the young genius to commit the time to write a full-length cookbook.

Only a scant nine or ten published recipes survive in newspaper clippings and culinary magazines, and these are, in general, terse, enigmatic, mundane descriptions of deceptively-simple concoctions, rife with ingredient omissions and carelessly rounded measurements, and only the most subtle hint of the absolute mastery of the culinary craft that Kafka embodied.

Kafka’s time in the kitchen began to take a great toll on his health. Eventually, he found himself safe within that great early-twentieth-century incubator of brilliant artistic talent: the Swiss sanitarium. There, first at Lugano, later outside Zurich, he became a favorite among inpatients for his egg-white moral scrambles with bacon and terror, absolute terror, topped with utterly terrified terror.

It was during his final years in Prague that Kafka began to work on his magnum opus. The Czech was far ahead of his time not only in envisioning the commercial microwave (not sold en mass until the late 1940s) but also acutely predicting the public’s absolute obsession with the modern instrument, far into the future. It was this incredible foresight that endures, this culinary prescience that endears us to his writing and vision still today.

The Microwave Gourmet Healthstyle Cookbook was his final great work, and was left unfinished at his death in 1924. A note on the cover of the final manuscript relayed for his long-time editor, Martha Stewart the Elder, to burn (via microwave sous-vide) all of its contents. Luckily for us, and all future epicures, Ol’ Stewart happened to be in prison at the time (for Austrian copyright violations) and the manuscripts fell into the hands of a Nostre Piliandipoapolis, the famous publisher at Random House, who promptly came out with the first edition of 10,000 copies.

What would Kafka think of his successful role as a Gourmet Microwave pioneer? We’ll never know. But it’s clear that he believed wholeheartedly in the ability of this newfangled machine to usurp traditional cooking, and in a way both aesthetically and technically pure. If Kafka had been alive for the cultural scrappings in the late 50s between the traditional culinary establishment and the New (Micro)Wave movement, you can be sure he would’ve been on the front lines, holding up placards saying “Gourmet for the People!”, articulating the profound beauty of food cooked via artificially-generated electromagnetic radiation as only he could.

In one of the last entries in Kafka’s diary (the “Yellow Books” as they’ve come to be known), he writes (in a shaky hand): Here is my recipe for ephemeral panna cotta… one part cream, milk, .5 parts sugar, .25 parts gelatin, serve w/ 45% cocoa melted chocolate, mix ingredients, cook over gas flame at 175 degrees, stir, stir, stir, stir, stir, stir, stir, stir, stir, stir, stir, st-

 

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One Comment
  1. Grant permalink

    “Chokecherry Puff-Pastry, Broken and Hollowed, with Cheshire Cream.” Too good.

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