National News

Barbara Kafka, Rule-Breaking Cookbook Author and Food Writer, Dies at 84

Posted June 5, 2018 10:23 p.m. EDT
Updated June 5, 2018 10:24 p.m. EDT

Barbara Kafka, a food columnist and cookbook author who horrified American epicures by publishing recipes that placed her imprimatur on the microwave oven and the food processor as respectable tools for home cooking, died Friday at her home in New York. She was 84.

Her husband, Dr. Ernest Kafka, said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Barbara Kafka would crown her career with two Lifetime Achievement Awards and the Cookbook Hall of Fame Award from the James Beard Foundation. But she was hardly destined to develop into a culinary virtuoso.

Yes, as a child of well-to-do parents, she was exposed to haute cuisine when she dined at fancy restaurants, or when the family cook replicated her favorite recipes by famous chefs. But when Kafka graduated from college, she wanted to be a poet, or to write about art. She was allergic to gluten and was lactose intolerant. She could not boil an egg.

She was determined, though. Her mother, an accomplished labor lawyer, had by all accounts been an even worse cook, and Kafka developed a competitive drive to excel as a culinarian because, she said, “it was the one thing my mother couldn’t do well.”

Kafka eventually became a columnist for Gourmet, Family Circle and Vogue magazines, where she recommended techniques for the microwave or gas and electric ovens that were unpretentious and often unconventional.

Beginning in 1987 and continuing into the ‘90s, she wrote a column called Microwave Cooking for The New York Times and, in The Times Magazine, a food column.

Her recipes for the microwave and the food processor helped persuade a new generation of parents working outside the home that, as they hurried to make dinner at the end of the day, they would be foolish not to take advantage of these innovative appliances.

Kafka acknowledged that she had been afraid of microwave ovens until 1984, when her daughter, Nicole Kafka, by then in medical school, introduced her to one. She tried it, cooked what she called “the best artichoke I ever made,” and was converted.

In addition to being a writer, Barbara Kafka was a teaching colleague of James Beard, the dean of American cuisine, and a consultant who helped conceive menus for Windows on the World (at the World Trade Center), the Four Seasons, Gotham Bar and Grill and other restaurants in New York and elsewhere.

Her books included “Microwave Gourmet” (1987), “The Opinionated Palate: Passions and Peeves on Eating and Food” (1992), “Food for Friends” (1984), “Roasting: A Simple Art” (1995), “Vegetable Love” (2005) and “The Intolerant Gourmet: Glorious Food Without Gluten & Lactose” (2011).

Corby Kummer, the food journalist, wrote in an email that Kafka’s writing displayed “the relentless intellectualism of the voracious reader that she became as the only child of two very successful parents (‘two self-made men,’ she called them) who weren’t there much and left her in the care of a helper and cook she adored.”

He added: “The food world was and is full of people who never really fit in anywhere until they discovered the kitchen, and could come together with the common vocabulary of cooking. She was one of them.”

Kafka could be disputatious, picking a fight just for the intellectual challenge, but she was not afraid to be wrong.

“Tell Barbara Kafka that a recipe wouldn’t work or a combination was against the rules,” Kummer said, “and when you looked up she wouldn’t be there — she’d be in the kitchen.”

She courted controversy by recommending cooking techniques that some culinarians criticized but which she stood by, although with caveats: that conventional ovens be heated as high as 500 degrees to roast meat, poultry and vegetables (open the windows in case of smoke); that microwave ovens, despite manufacturers’ warnings, could be used for deep-fat frying (but only for small portions); and that plastic wrap covering microwave dishes need not be vented (she explained how to release steam after cooking without burning your fingers).

“How could you not love a woman who liberates us from the tyranny of conventional wisdom?” her longtime editor, Ann Bramson, said in a telephone interview.

“I remember balking at a verb choice in one of her books — she had us ‘slick’ the vegetable with oil,” Bramson added. “I pictured the Exxon Valdez. But she was right. Slick — it’s so vivid and visual and immediate. Who wouldn’t love such precision and decisiveness in word choice?”

An only child, Barbara Joan Poses was born in Manhattan on Aug. 2, 1933. Her mother, Lillian (Shapiro) Poses, among the first women to graduate from New York University Law School, worked for several New Deal agencies in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Her father, Jack I. Poses, was founder and president of the fragrance manufacturer Parfums D’Orsay, a founder of Brandeis University and a vice chairman of the New York City Board of Higher Education. Both parents were also philanthropists.

Because her mother was often out of town doing legal work, Barbara was frequently her father’s date for dinner at Manhattan restaurants. When she was a little girl, she recalled in 1991 in The Times, “a sophisticated older woman” took her to lunch at the Ritz-Carlton.

“Too awed to order by myself, I accepted suggestions of foods of which I had never heard,” she said. The first to arrive was a two-handled cup of cold, ivory-colored liquid velvet, topped with specks of jade green. It was vichyssoise, and I fell in love.” After graduating from the Dalton School in Manhattan, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Radcliffe, harboring ambitions of being a poet. She married Ernest Kafka, whom she had met as a college student. When he went to medical school in St. Louis, she edited medical journals there. (“It was wonderful training for being a cookbook person, because you have to be very exact or somebody’s going to die,” she told The Daily Beast in 2010.)

In addition to her husband, she is survived by her daughter; a son, Michael; and two grandchildren.

Returning to New York, Kafka became an editor at Mademoiselle, whose top editor, Leo Lerman, suggested that she apply for a writing job by contacting Allene Talmey at Vogue.

As Kafka recounted, he told her to “write about cooking — you cook divinely.”

She told him she wanted to write about art. “It was the most exciting thing happening in New York,” she wrote.

“No, dear,” he said. “You are not going to write about art.”

“Why, Lerman?”

“Because, darling, she” — Talmey — “writes about art for Vogue!”

Which was how Kafka became a food writer. Her evolution as a cook was nearly as spontaneous. One night, fresh out of college, she carefully followed a recipe to produce a perfect chocolate soufflé as the pièce de résistance for dinner.

“I took it out of the oven and stumbled over the chair,” she told The Times in 1985. “The whole thing went flat as a pancake on the kitchen table.”

Anyone else would have been exasperated. Kafka was inspired. Instead of discarding the residue, she recalled, she scooped up the remains, spread it with ice cream and folded it into a newly created chocolate roll.

“I don’t recommend it as an approach to cooking,” she said, “but that was when I decided cooking was not so difficult.”