In an overcrowded kitchen drawer, I have an old-fashioned egg beater with those fascinating gears, a mandoline, metal and wooden skewers, a device to strip corn from the cob, a device to butter corn on the cob, a device to chop hardboiled eggs, instant-read thermometers, biscuit cutters, nutcrackers, picks to dig out lobster meat, and stuff shoved in the back I may not have seen for years. This resting place also holds a bench scraper with a six-inch rule and the name Graham Kerr, with the first name in a fancy script and the second in rigid capital letters. When I see it, I often think of the important role Graham Kerr had in my life.
The mother, except for cooking bratwurst, which the father did, prepared the family meals. I might watch her in the kitchen, but I did little, if any, of the hands-on work. However, the mother worked as a grocery store clerk, and I often got my own breakfast and sometimes lunch. This often consisted of two shredded wheat biscuits (bite-sized shredded wheat was not then within my knowledge) with whole milk and copious amounts of sugar, which I would eat while reading the stories of Straight Arrow, the heroic Indian, printed on the cardboard that separated the layers of the cereal in the box. As I got older, however, I learned that I could actually turn on the stove and place bacon and an egg or two in a pan. I could cook bacon and eggs although “easy over” was often beyond me. In college, I bought a hot plate and a Woolworth frying pan and would make bacon and eggs instead of taking a trek to the student union for a snack. My roommates were amazed that I could cook an egg; I was amazed they could not. But my culinary skills had not advanced beyond this rudimentary stage.
I was tired of dorms and roommates when I went to law school, and I lived alone in a small but serviceable apartment with a small but serviceable kitchen. I did not have a meal plan and did not have enough money to eat out. I had no choice but to cook. I cannot conjure up what I ate on a daily basis except for one famous recipe of the day—a chuck steak sprinkled with a dry onion soup mix tightly wrapped in foil and cooked long and low. It was delicious even if a lot fattier than something I would eat now.
My knowledge of food and its possibilities were limited, but one day I came back from a Torts class and turned on the tiny, rabbit-eared, black-and-white television. After the minute it took to warm up, I saw the Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr’s half-hour cooking show. He was lively, pun-filled, and pretending to sip wine incessantly in front of a doting studio audience of what seemed like all middle-aged women, one of whom would be taken by the hand and brought to the front to eat with him at the end of the show. And by his expression when he cut into whatever he had cooked, wielding knife and fork in what was then that strange European style, was beyond delicious.
Kerr’s cooking, as with other chefs then before shelves were stocked with many variants of extra virgin olive oil (I have looked up many times what extra virgin means, but I always forget) used gobs of clarified butter (I did not know what that was then and wondered how you made butter better understood) and cream. (Kerr’s life later took a turn towards the religious, and perhaps as a result, several years after the Galloping Gourmet ended, he reappeared on television doing what I think he called “minimax” cooking, where he took traditional dishes and showed how they could be made with less fat and calories. He wasn’t as much fun.)
His enthusiasm was infectious. Not only did new tastes await, he was trying to convince us that we could make those untried dishes ourselves in our own kitchen, seemingly in a half hour. Even so, for months the show was merely entertainment for me, not instructional. I could not make hamburgers consistently the way I wanted to; I was not about to undertake steak Diane or however he cooked lamb chops, which I had never eaten. Then one day the Galloping Gourmet made chicken Kiev. “I could make that” I thought and dared myself to do it.
I don’t remember every ingredient or step, but the basic concept was to make a flavored butter with parsley and maybe garlic, pound a chicken breast to make it thin (I certainly did not have a meat pounder but probably used the bottom of a frying pan—much kitchen equipment is not really needed), wrap the butter inside the breast, roll the wrap in an egg wash and bread crumbs, and fry the package (or perhaps fry until it is sealed and then bake it.) My result was a beautiful golden brown as Graham said that it should be, but he stressed that chicken Kiev was only properly made if the butter had not escaped during the cooking and first came out when you cut into the finished product. I was a little nervous as I was poised above my creation with a fork and a steak knife gotten with a fill up at a Shell gas station. The knife plunged in and butter flecked with parsley green spurted out drenching the chicken. I was excited and proud. (Ok, you Freudians may want to make something out of breast, spurting liquid, and excitement, but you have a dirty mind. Sometimes a breast is just a chicken breast.) Thanks to Graham Kerr I could cook, and a new life opened for me.