In veteran food author Barbara Kafka’s apartment, cookbooks are stacked in the kitchen. They fill the shelves of the living room, and the basement is reminiscent of library stacks: rows and rows of cookbooks, stretching to all corners of the room. “I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel,” she says. “There are cultures that are not mine. And in order to learn about them, I read.”
The statement is perhaps a little too modest: For the last 30 years Kafka has been, if not reinventing the wheel, at least drastically redesigning it. For the most part she’s tackled single subjects—soup, vegetables, roasting, microwave cooking—and in the process has changed the way we think about the way we cook. The proof? She has yet to write a cookbook that hasn’t been an award winner or bestseller, and in 2007 she received the coveted James Beard Foundation lifetime achievement award. Her next cookbook is called The Intolerant Gourmet—a reflection of both her dietary choices made necessary by celiac disease and her strong personality.
“When I sell a book, which is what I do, not only does it have to work because people are putting out money for ingredients and they’re putting out their time, but they’re buying my palate.”
Hungry Beast caught up with Barbara to talk about her past, her friendship with James Beard, garbanzo flour, and what makes a great recipe.
How did you get into cookbooks?
Well, I didn’t start out in cookbooks, nor was it ever my intention. I needed a job, so I went to work for Farrar Straus right out of college, and then I got married and moved to St. Louis, where my husband was in medical school. I started taking a doctorate—I wanted to be a poet—but it was the worst doctoral program I’d been near in my life. So I got a job copy editing medical journals—nothing to do with anything I wanted to do. But it was wonderful! I was a copy editor, which is work women were allowed to do. It was wonderful training for being a cookbook person, because you have to be very exact or somebody’s going to die! Then we came back to New York and I got a job working at Mademoiselle.
As a copy editor?
Yes, and Leo Lerman was a contributing editor. One day he called me into his office and said, “Sit down, darling.” It was the era of “dear” and “darling” and hats and white gloves. And so I sat down and he said to me, “You want to write, don’t you?” And I said, “Yes, yes, yes!” “All right, I’ll send you to see Talmey at Vogue, she’s the features editor at Vogue.” I said, “OK, when do I go?” He said, “Slow down. What are you going to tell her you write about?” “Mr. Lerman, I’ll write about whatever she wants me to write about, that’s what I do.” “No dear, that’s not what you do. You have to tell her you write about something. Write about cooking, you cook divinely.” I thought I wanted to write about art. It was the most exciting thing happening in New York. “No, dear,” he said. “You are not going to write about art.” “Why, Mr. Lerman?” “Because, darling,” he said, “ she writes about art for Vogue!
So I had an appointment with Ms. Talmey, who said, “So tell me, dear, if I let you”—operative word—“ let you write for Vogue, what would you write about?” “I would write about food, Ms. Talmey.” I gave her two ideas and she said, “I’ll see them both.” I got up to go, and the voice behind me said, “I find it often helps to start with a quotation.” I had never written about food, but I sure as shit know how to do research! I went to Fourth Avenue and I bought books of quotations. And I read quotations and about two months later I get a call that said, “My dear, this is Ms. Talmey, when am I going to get those articles I commissioned?” There’s nothing that concentrates the mind so much as a deadline. I went in, I wrote two articles, I submitted them, and she printed them without changing a word. I was in business!
And then I was called by Harper’s Bazaar. Naïve, dumb little me: I didn’t know you couldn’t write for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar at the same time. They said, “Oh, we’d love to have you write for us.” Gee, I’m in demand! That was the end. I didn’t write again for Vogue for 20 years.
What did you do in the meantime?
I quit to have children, and then I began doing freelance stuff. This guy, Burt Wolf, was doing a book called The Cooks’ Catalogue, along with Milton Glaser and James Beard. I asked for $500 a week and he said yes.
Had you met James Beard before? Did you know him?
I’d read Beard. I didn’t know who he was, except I’d read The Fireside Cookbook, which I did think was a work of genius. Burt Wolf took me down to 12th Street to meet Mr. Beard. I came in, I sat down. He was huge! He made Julia look like a pygmy! Not really, but they got along well because they were both oversized people. He was oversized in that his feet were tugboats, his hands were huge. We were getting along swimmingly. He said, “What did you cook last night?” and I said I’d made a pâté. And he said, “How did you line the pan?” and I said I’d lined it with kidney fat. And he said, “You can’t line the pan with kidney fat!” And I said, “Mr. Beard, I cut it very thin, I put it between layers of waxed paper, I roll it out very thin, and then I lined the pan with it.” He stormed to his feet in a very loud voice and looked at Burt and said, “I can’t work with this woman, she’s impossible! I can’t work with her!” And he pounds out of the hall, halfway up the steps. I’m trembling, frightened to death, putting on my coat. Then the footsteps stop and he comes down the stairs and he says, “You’ll have to forgive me, I’ve been in a foul mood all day.” It was the only time I ever heard Jim apologize to anybody.
The beginning of a beautiful friendship…?
I think that because I did stand up to him, incidentally, we developed a relationship that was unlike any relationship he had. Of course he had his enormous gay world, he had very bright people, he had these English women who tended to be alcoholics… He had enormous charisma. People were always saying, “You must have been such close friends.” We were not close friends; we were good associates. He asked me to come out to San Francisco and teach with him and I did. I don’t know why it worked so well for us, but it did. I’m very glad it did.
And after that?
By this time I’d met some people, I’d done an article on Joe Baum’s wine cellar in the Revue de Vin de France, I’d written about California wines. So I called Mr. Baum and he was willing to hire me. This was before Windows on the World was built. I bought wine and I made a wine list and it was the first wine list of its kind: vertical, horizontal, and diagonal. And it came to the point at which Joe said, “Write me a menu.” I’d write a menu and he’d say, “It sounds good, but it’s not a menu item.” And I’d say, “What do you mean?” And he’d say, “It’s an item, it’s a food thing, but it doesn’t make a plate, a presentation.” So I learned how to write a menu, and I’d go into the kitchen and give the recipes to the chef and show the sous chef how to make the recipes. There were no other women there.
The men in the kitchen respected you, though?
I learned the finer points of using language. Someone would come over with a wonderful French or Italian smile: “Let me carry that for you, dear.” “I can fucking carry it myself!” And I believe that that’s how I got my authority. Because I could do it, and I knew more about the food than they did.
So how did you get to cookbooks from there?
A woman named Irena Chalmers lived in my building. Irena had just started publishing cookbooks. She said, “Barbara, write me a cookbook.” And I said, “There are so many cookbooks in the world, why would you want another one?” So I wrote a book called American Food and California Wine. And I was scared to death that the first review would say, “What the hell makes this woman think this is American food?”
And is that what they said?
Yep. Because this was just before the American food explosion, before people were comfortable with the concept of American food. But the book got awards and it got reprinted in hardcover.
Your second book was Microwave Gourmet. How did you decide to write a book on the microwave?
Somebody had sent Jim a microwave oven. And he said—and he was getting old—“If you send me one, you have to send one to her [me], because she’s the one who’s going to do the recipe book.” Neither Jim nor I could make heads or tails of this thing. Mine was sitting on the floor and he did nothing with his. And I’m in the kitchen one day getting ready to make artichokes with this big pot and all of this. My daughter comes in and says, “I make one of those in six minutes in the microwave oven.” The only reason she had a microwave oven was because I’d given it to her because I thought I’d never use it! So I thought, “I cannot be so old and so stupid that I can’t do this.” So the next day I went out and I bought a microwave oven and I made an artichoke in the microwave. And it was the best artichoke I ever had! So, after playing around a little I called my editor Ann Bramson and I said, “Ann, I think there might be a little book”—notice the word little and look at the size of that book—“on the microwave oven.” It took me a long time. Every book takes me at least three years.
You’ve known you’ve had celiac disease, an allergy to gluten, since you were a kid.
I didn’t have overt symptoms, I wasn’t sick all the time. And my mother was an incorrigible liar—a brilliant woman, a marvelous citizen, and an incorrigible liar—so she never told me I had the disease. But I figured it out. And then I was greedy and so I wrote the books. It’s ironic. But that’s the way it happened. I was very careful, though, and didn’t eat wheat and so forth. Then it turned out I was also lactose intolerant.
And this is the subject of your next book.
I wasn’t going to write another book. I was too old, too tired, too much else. Then my husband nudged me, Corby Kummer nudged me, everybody nudged me. And then I got a title! The Intolerant Gourmet—I couldn’t resist! So that’s what happened. It was my character, and it was also my diet. And so that’s what I’m doing.
How are you going about developing recipes for this book?
I don’t want to do ersatz. Most of the things that are on the market are breads that taste a good deal like glue. The pasta isn’t bad. I will use the pasta and I will discuss using the pasta. But you know, you have to rethink everything; you have to learn.
I’m looking at a bunch of gluten-free flours here: garbanzo flour, chestnut flour, fava bean flour. What are you going to do with these?
I don’t know! I really cannot tell you. I needed something to make the outside of some kidneys crisp. And I couldn’t think of what to do. But I used quinoa, and it worked. This is an example of a recipe that worked wonderfully; 99 percent are awful. When I sell a book, which is what I do, not only does it have to work because people are putting out money for ingredients and they’re putting out their time, but they’re buying my palate. And all I can tell you is my palate is the difference.
Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor at Cookstr.com. She lives in New York City.