"Hunger is good discipline." -Ernest Hemingway
Hey err’body. We’re about to pump up the jams and get this party started! How big of a nerd am I if a good book and some quality time in the kitchen really are the only constituents necessary for my idea of a good party? Heh. So as I mentioned in my last post, the main focus of my blog is going to shift to creating recipes based on books that I read. First up in my Halloween series for the month of October is going to be The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. The Metamorphosis tells the story of Gregor Samsa, who becomes a travelling salesman in order to support his family after his father becomes too ill to repay his debts. One morning, Samsa wakes up to find that he has turned into a large insect overnight, and the rest of the novella goes on to detail the alienation he endures from his family due to their failure to realize that Gregor maintains his humanity despite his grotesque physical metamorphosis.
I am embarrassingly unacquainted with Kafka’s canon, and I was excited to begin remedying this situation with the undertaking of this post. I’ve seen multiple respected authors opine that Kafka is one of the greatest writers of all time, and a man named Mauro Nervi apparently likes Kafka so much that he started a website called The Kafka Project, which is treasure trove of information for anyone interested in all things Kafka. My favorite thing on The Kafka Project is the transcript of a lecture on The Metamorphosis delivered by Vladimir Nabokov, who was a professor at Cornell in addition to being another renowned writer. (Lolita will be the focus of a later post.) While at Cornell, Nabokov delivered a lecture on The Metamorphosis, and in 1989, Peter Medak directed a tv short in which Christopher Plummer portrays Nabokov and delivers the lecture. The full episode is below, for your viewing pleasure.
Nabokov happens to provide an answer to a question that some people might have regarding why I’m launching this project: Why am I doing this? I know as well as Nabokov that,
“Of course, no matter how keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain unkindled… [A] poor fellow is turned into a beetle—so what? There is no rational answer to “so what.” We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art.”
This bit of Nabokov’s lecture struck a chord with me, and my hope is that something in my blog will strike a chord with you. The beauty in crafting a perfect sentence, choosing the right word with the right connotation and using the right word order to achieve your desired effect is every bit as beautiful to me as choosing the right ingredients and the right meal for the right occasion. I thought it’d be fun to merge the two, and maybe inspire food lovers to read a little more, inspire bookworms to cook a little more, or (hopefully) both.
Speaking of effectual word order, a problem for English-speaking readers of Kafka is the difficulty of capturing and translating the essence and effect of Kafka’s original German prose constructions. The German language allows the main verb to be placed at the end of a page-long sentence, which packs a punch in a way English can’t quite match. This becomes vexing to those of us who stress out over nuances of the author’s original intent that are lost in translation. Nabokov appears to have belonged to this special group of literary worrywarts, and several of his corrections to a translation of The Metamorphosis can be seen below.
The late, great David Foster Wallace also delivered a speech on the difficulties of teaching Kafka to American students at a 1998 symposium in New York City called “Metamorphosis: A New Kafka.” More than just the technical nuances of the language that don’t translate well, Wallace argues in “Laughing with Kafka” that a cultural (and temporal, I’m sure) divide fails in translating Kafka’s humor to young American readers. The symposium (ironically enough) celebrated the translation of The Castle, a novel which was actually left unfinished at the time of Kafka’s death.
A depressing, yet beautifully-worded excerpt from Wallace’s essay explains the essence of the gallows humor found in Kafka’s works and helps define the term “Kafkaesque,” which describes the inescapability of some of the most plaguing aspects of the human condition:
” No wonder [American students] cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke — that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home… You can ask them to imagine his art as a kind of door. To envision us readers coming up and pounding on this door, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens…and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along.”
Wallace also asserts that “Kafka’s evocations are unconscious and almost sub-archetypal, the little-kid stuff from which myths derive; this is why we tend to call even his weirdest stories nightmarish rather than surreal.” Indeed, Kafka’s works do leave you feeling like the main character should have woken up at any time in the story to realize they’d just had a bad dream. Where his stories excel though, is in conjuring the feeling that the main character is having one of those monumental nightvisions that impact the dreamer’s reactions to and interactions with the world from that point forward. This sort of intangible permanent internal change is the precise effect that Kafka’s stories have on his readers. Or… me, at least.
Perhaps the “little-kid stuff” qualities of Kafka’s evocations are why New York writer Matthue Roth found that his own children enjoyed Kafka’s stories so much, inspiring him to write My First Kafka, an illustrated re-telling of three Kafka stories.
Completing my round-up of famous authors who include Kafka in their own lectures is Kurt Vonnegut. Below is an excerpt from a lecture in which Vonnegut explains stories as graphical visualizations which could theoretically be entered into computers as data figures. His diagram of the shape of The Metamorphosis is not shown in the video, but it is included below.
“Now there’s a Franz Kafka story [begins line D toward bottom of G-I axis]. A young man is rather unattractive and not very personable. He has disagreeable relatives and has had a lot of jobs with no chance of promotion. He doesn’t get paid enough to take his girl dancing or to go to the beer hall to have a beer with a friend. One morning he wakes up, it’s time to go to work again, and he has turned into a cockroach [draws line downward and then infinity symbol]. It’s a pessimistic story.”
Ironically enough, this lecture was delivered at the campus of the University of South Carolina in Aiken, my home town. Vonnegut’s free lecture went down in 1998, when I was old enough to know how much I loved reading, but too young to know who Kurt Vonnegut was, and unfortunately missed out on a wonderful opportunity to see him speak. I didn’t even learn that the late author delivered this lecture in Aiken until earlier this year. Next time I’m in Aiken though, I’m going to drive over to the campus to view the chalkboard that he drew on. The full transcript of the lecture can be found here, and I promise it’s worth a read.
Now, without further ado, here are the two quotes from The Metamorphosis that inspired my first recipe:
The first depicts the first meal Gregor’s sister provides him after his transformation.
“There stood a bowl filled with fresh milk in which small slices of white bread were floating. He could have almost laughed for joy, as he was even hungrier than in the morning, and immediately plunged his head, almost up to the eyes, into the milk.”
“Suddenly something that had been lightly tossed almost hit him, but landed next to him and rolled in front of him. It was an apple, and a second instantly flew in his direction. Gregor froze in terror; further running was useless, for the father was determined to bombard him. He had filled his pockets from the bowl on the sideboard and was now throwing apple after apple, taking no more than general momentary aim. These small red apples rolled around the floor as if electrified and collided with each other. One weakly lobbed apple grazed Gregor’s back and harmlessly slid off. But another, pitched directly after it, actually lodged itself in Gregor’s back; Gregor tried to drag himself away, as if this shockingly unbelievable pain would ease with a change in position, but he felt nailed to the spot and stretched out, all his senses in complete confusion.”
This quote comes from one of the most famous scenes in The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor’s father neglects to treat Gregor as if he has any human sentimentality at all and pelts Gregor with apples until he finally retreats to his room that he stays locked inside of from the time that he awakens as a beetle until he dies, with the apple still rotting in his back. This scene is also illustrated below, borrowed from My First Kafka.
My heart breaks for Gregor in this scene, who spends the entire novella trying to prove to his family that he’s inside of that chitin shell: he’s still the son who gave up his own life to save the family from financial ruin. The potent image of the fruit which has historically represented humanity’s fall from grace fermenting within the flesh of the main character makes my skin crawl. I’ve started making my own apple cider vinegar, inspired by the rotting apple that ultimately contributes to Gregor’s death. I’ll devote a future post to this, since the fermentation process will take some time to complete. The instructions I’m using can be found here.
The recipe you’re getting today was adapted from a Ruth Reichl recipe. When I read the bit about the milk and the bread that Gregor’s sister feeds him, bread pudding was my immediate thought, and I decided to bake a savory bread pudding inside of a pumpkin to celebrate the Fall season. I envision Gregor’s bowl of milk and bread looking about as unappealing as the inside of my pumpkin once I removed the lid. (Don’t let the appearance fool you though. I wouldn’t be posting it here if it didn’t taste delicious.)
Similar to Gregor, what’s on the inside of this pumpkin is entirely indiscernible from the its exterior. I incorporated apples in my recipe, because the apple-pelting scene tugged so strongly at my heartstrings. The recipe looks complicated and daunting, and I actually devoted an entire afternoon to the preparation, but aside from the long cooking time, assembling the pumpkin actually doesn’t take that much time. The filled pumpkin can also kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 hours before baking.
When I read the original Reichl recipe, I found myself wondering where the acidity was to balance out the richness of the cheesy pumpkin filling. To solve this problem, I made an apple cider vinegar reduction, which paired perfectly with the rich fall flavors. After you bring the whole pumpkin to the table and enjoy the “Oohs” and “Aahs,” take a moment to appreciate the time you’re sharing with people you care about. Moments like these, food that he enjoys and the love of his family, are really all Gregor desires after his metamorphosis.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Cut or tear bread into 1/2 inch cubes and arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Toast in oven for 8-10 minutes, until dry. Set aside to cool.
Begin caramelizing onion in olive oil or butter. In a separate pan, cook sausage. Remove from pan when done, leaving most of the drippings. Add minced garlic and apples to the pan drippings and cook over med-low heat until soft, 7-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, wash the outside of the pumpkin, cut a circle around the stem, at least 3 inches in diameter and scrape out and discard the seeds and stringy fibers. In a bowl, whisk together milk, chicken stock, eggs, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir in garlic, apples, caramelized onion, sage, and crumbled sausage. Combine shredded cheeses in a separate bowl.
Put a layer of toasted bread in bottom of pumpkin, then cover with about 1 cup cheese and about 1/2 cup cream mixture. Continue layering bread, cheese, and cream mixture until pumpkin is filled to about 1/2 inch from top, using all of cream mixture. (You may have some bread and cheese left over.)
Put the lid on the pumpkin and place it in a small roasting pan. Bake for 75-90 minutes, until pumpkin flesh is tender and the filling is set. Drizzle with apple cider vinegar reduction to serve.
Add 2 c apple cider, 1 c apple cider vinegar, and 2 minced shallots to a saucepan. Boil until reduced by at least half, but up to 3/4 and thick enough to coat a metal spoon.