Just Radiating Confidence, Microwave Queen Barbara Kafka Cooks Up a Cookbook Hit

updated 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Barbara Kafka was cooking artichokes the old-fashioned way—the way artichokes have always been cooked. There was the big pot of boiling water, the flour and lemon rinds to keep the artichokes green while they boiled, the plate to keep them submerged and the lemon to give them zip. That's when her 22-year-old daughter, Nicole, a student at Cornell Medical School, walked in. "I make one of those in my microwave in only seven minutes," daughter said to mother. Out of the mouths of babes...

For Kafka, that was the moment of surrender. "The next day," she reports, "I went out, bought a new microwave oven and made an artichoke. And it was the best artichoke I ever made."

After that 1984 conversion, the longtime food writer became a microwave zealot who spent the next three years experimenting with 13 ovens and hundreds of new recipes. "You begin to think differently," says Kafka, now 56. One thing she learned was that she would never again write the words Bring a pot of water to a boil. And she discovered something else: Beginning microwave chefs should not try to improvise or extrapolate—recipes have to be followed exactly. "You just can't double the ingredients," she says.

The result of Kafka's experiments in the cluttered kitchen of her Manhattan brownstone (where she has five microwaves) was The Microwave Gourmet. Published in 1987, MG has sold 225,000 copies in hardcover (a paperback edition is coming out next spring) and made microwave cooking respectable. Her second book, Microwave Gourmet Healthstyle Cookbook, published last fall, has already sold more than 100,000 copies. Each of its 400 recipes comes with an accounting of calories, cholesterol, fat and salt as well as vitamin and mineral content.

Besides her books, Kafka writes microwave cooking columns that appear monthly in the New York Times and in every other issue of Family Circle. She also writes a monthly food page for Gourmet magazine. "Oh, it's ironic, isn't it?" she says. "I've been writing about food for 30 years. If you asked any of my food friends, 'Can you imagine Barbara Kafka as the microwave queen?' they would have said, 'You're out of your gourd.' "

Indeed, at the time The Microwave Gourmet appeared on the scene, such cooking was something that serious cooks just didn't do. "I got these really weird reactions from food people," says the microwave maven. "That book was the most uncultivated food thing I could do. It was like tearing up your library card."

The daughter of a perfume manufacturer and a labor lawyer, Kafka was one little girl who never had to learn to cook, but she did learn to love food at an early age. Her mother, Lillian Poses, also preferred to leave the kitchen to the family cook, whom Kafka remembers as being "brilliant." Her father, Jack, though, was an aficionado of good restaurants and liked to take Barbara along. Kafka, whose ambition was to be a poet, met her psychoanalyst husband, Ernest, when she was at Radcliffe, and she held a succession of entry-level publishing jobs before the births of Nicole and her son, Michael, now 25. While she was a copy editor at Mademoiselle, contributing editor Leo Lerman encouraged her to write. "What should I write?" Kafka asked him. "Write about food," he told her. "You cook divinely."

Kafka's first food pieces, about such then-trendy dishes as coq au vin, appeared in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. In the 30 years that followed, she became a power in the world of food. She wrote or edited several influential books, including the encyclopedic Cooks' Catalogue, was a founder of Cooking magazine—and was a close friend of James Beard's, the dean of American cuisine. "It is very hard to rise in the food world unless you are in one group," food writer Paula Wolfert said in the early 1980s. "Barbara, though, has a finger in everything. She's very smart. She's someone to reckon with."

After her first microwave book hit the stands, some critics were still unconvinced by Kafka's dishes, but her faster-food recipes became a big hit with the public. "I just happened to tumble into the right subject at the right time," says Kafka. "The way people cook was changing. Single parents, working parents and older people all needed speed and convenience in the kitchen. I found that the public did much better with the microwave than the cooking experts because the experts came in with preconceptions of how things should be done."

Now, even in the eat-or-be-eaten world of food writers, where raw ego is a main ingredient, Kafka is acknowledged as a major force. "She is a hard worker and very intelligent," says Julia Child, "and I think because she is well-known, her work has put microwave cooking on the front burner." Food critic Mimi Sheraton, however, derides her white sauce as "ridiculous," and some of her techniques—including deep-fat frying—have been criticized by other microwave experts. "I know there are people who dislike me," says Kafka. "I have a very big mouth. I can be impatient when teaching, and I can be quite cranky."

A four-burner gas stove dominates the kitchen where Kafka has worked for 28 years. But these days, it is used less and less. Now, sitting on a counter, she braces her feet against the stove top and ponders the results of about an hour's microwaving. She has made a risotto with shrimp and vegetables. She has steamed a red snapper, with head and tail. And she has prepared a favorite vegetable dish—artichokes. Kafka plays with an artichoke, excavates the heart and douses it with balsamic vinegar. Then she begins to nibble. "You could never get this taste," she beams, "without a microwave."

—Michael Neill, Peggy Brawley in New York City

From Our Partners