Another year, another fad diet. Every January, we’re told to go Paleo, go South Beach, go Atkins. It’s a culinary labyrinth that has existed for centuries—and Franz Kafka was an early captive.
Kafka famously followed a strict vegetarian regime; in an anecdote from friend and biographer Max Brod, Kafka proudly discussed his diet choices with a fish in the Berlin aquarium, saying, “Now at least I can look at you in peace. I don’t eat you anymore.” But if you think Kafka eschewed meat for moral reasons, think again. It was all a fad.
“Franz’s attitude toward the ‘natural health methods’ … was one of intense interest,” wrote Brod, and vegetarianism was only one of the trends that held Kafka in thrall. He was also a convert to “fletcherizing,” a British craze from the turn of the 20th century that advocated chewing each bite of food 32 times before swallowing. I saw the same thing on an episode of Sex and the City 100 years later, proving that some diets really never die.
Plus, meat is just so embarrassing when it gets stuck in your teeth, am I right? “Meat is the one thing that is so stringy that it can be removed only with great difficulty,” Kafka wrote disgustedly, “and even then not at once and not completely.” It’s a comment that could just as well have come from the title character in “A Hunger Artist,” who fasts because he can’t find food that he likes.
But Kafka relished his meals, particularly strawberries and cherries (which he would take several minutes just to smell before eating). “How he took such pleasure in eating a banana!” sighed his lover Dora Diamant. Brod agreed: “Although he was a teetotaler and a vegetarian, he knew how to appreciate the pleasures of beer, wine and meat.” Kafka would “take a sniff of drinks sometimes and praise their wonderful aroma.”
Kafka and Diamant dreamed of traveling to Israel together and opening a restaurant: she in the kitchen, he in the front. They never specified in their letters what type of restaurant it might be. But I wouldn’t go there for the steak.
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After World War I, Kafka considered becoming a potato farmer. Food ran in the family; his grandfather had been a butcher, but clearly Kafka wasn’t going to go that route. He wound up producing prose rather than potatoes, but his works are still infused with the cuisine of his native Prague.
Soup, in particular, flows throughout Kafka’s stories and diaries: pea soup, goulash, even “fruit soup.” The most arresting image comes from Kafka’s diaries, where Max Brod sits on the ground, “eating a thick potato soup out of which potatoes peeped like large balls.” Leave it to Kafka to make something as warm and curative as soup sound downright creepy.
Brod was likely eating bramboracka, a traditional Czech dish loaded with underground treasures: mushrooms, carrots and the omnipresent potatoes. This version has a buttery, rich taste thanks to the roasted garlic—pure satisfaction, no meat required.
(Adapted from Czech in the Kitchen)
2 garlic heads, outer layers of skin removed
2 tablespoons butter (or olive oil, to make it vegan)
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 tablespoon flour
2 cups mushrooms (I used cremini, but button or shitake would be good too)
6 cups vegetable broth
3 to 4 carrots, chopped
2 leeks (white and light green parts), chopped
1 1/2 cups baby potatoes
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Slice off the top of each garlic head and drizzle with oil. Wrap both heads in foil and bake 45 minutes. Let cool, then squeeze or scoop roasted cloves into a small bowl. Set aside.
2. Warm butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and sauté 2 minutes, then add flour and stir until lightly browned, another 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until tender.
3. Add broth, carrots, leeks, potatoes, caraway seeds, oregano and salt. Add roasted garlic paste. Stir, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer 30 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.