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Friday, March 18, 2011

Book Review: Growing at the Speed of Life by Graham Kerr

(Yes, there will be more pizza reviews coming soon. But I accepted an invitation to review this book and I just finished writing the review, so here it is.)
Childhood is a time for learning, and one of the things I learned during my childhood was the art of malingering. Many was the time, when I had a cold, or was recuperating from something more serious like chicken pox or mumps, that I would force myself to cough, or sniffle more loudly than necessary, to convince my mom that I needed to stay home from school for one more day.
With a somewhat overprotective mom, that wasn’t so hard to do, but the tricky part was persuading her that, while I was still too sick to go back to school, I was well enough to leave my bed and lie on the couch all day watching TV.
Though I inwardly rejoiced when she agreed, it was in fact a mixed blessing. In 1961, then-FCC chairman Newton N. Minow decried television programming as a “vast wasteland,” and in my day it hadn’t gotten much better, especially for a kid on a weekday. This may be hard for younger readers to believe, but a few decades ago, televisions were tuned by means of a dial, which ran from Channel 2 all the way up to Channel 13. And not all of those twelve channels necessarily were tuned into stations; some were pure static.
Among the channels that we did get, game shows dominated the morning lineups, with soap operas (a now-dying genre whose erstwhile popularity remains inexplicable to me to this day) taking over in the afternoon. Aside from “Let’s Make a Deal,” which I liked, this made for a pretty bleak landscape.
Minow’s landmark speech helped lead to the creation of the Public Broadcasting System, which was a godsend for children. Thanks to PBS, I was able to watch “Sesame Street” and its hipper cousin, “Electric Company,” on those weekday mornings.
The afternoon programming on PBS was aimed at a different audience, specifically housewives. But I still found PBS’s shows preferable to “As the World Turns” and “Days of our Lives.”
One of the staples of PBS in the afternoon was the cooking show. The pioneer and grande dame of the genre, Julia Child, led the way, but others followed in her wake. In the 1970s, few were better known or more popular than Graham Kerr, better known to his audience as The Galloping Gourmet.
At the beginning of each show, Kerr would come bounding across the studio set, usually dressed in an unbearably garish suit (which I wasn’t aware of, since we still had a black and white TV), and would start off the show by regaling the old ladies in the audience with tales of his latest globe-trotting culinary adventures. The rest of the show followed the standard cooking-show format, with Kerr preparing a meal; frankly, I remember almost nothing about the food that he cooked, though I well recall his gangly appearance, his British accent, and his effusive demeanor.
Still, I’d given little if any thought to Kerr since then, until last year or so, when reruns of “The Galloping Gourmet” began to appear on the Cooking Channel. That sparked a “Whatever happened to ...” thought or two, but I never pursued it.
It was with some surprise, then, that I was recently invited to review Kerr’s new book, Growing at the Speed of Life:  A Year in the Life of My First Kitchen Garden. In it, Kerr, who now lives in the Pacific Northwest, describes how he went about creating and tending to a backyard vegetable garden, and provides practical advice on growing, and cooking with, various vegetables.
Several times early in the book, Kerr mentions how he benefited from serendipity, the fortunate confluence of events at just the right time, such as the removal of Kerr’s above-ground pool, which left him a concrete slab that made a perfect foundation for a greenhouse. Maybe Kerr’s got some good karma working, but the unexpected offer of a review copy of his book was serendipitous for my wife and me, since she is in the midst of planning our first vegetable garden. And like Kerr, her ambitious plans for the garden are not, I’m afraid, matched by our experience at this sort of thing. So when Kerr’s book arrived in the mail, we eagerly cracked it open and started reading.
As it turns out, the book’s subtitle is a bit misleading; this is not a day-to-day, yearlong account of life in Kerr’s garden. Roughly the first 60 pages are spent on Kerr’s reasons for wanting a garden, a brief account of how he went about creating one, and some advice on various aspects of gardening, such as soil preparation, watering, and greenhouses. The remaining four-fifths of the book is devoted to individual fruits, vegetables and herbs, arranged alphabetically. A brief epilog and appendix touch upon Kerr’s commitment to sharing his harvest with the community, and some ideas on how to deal with plant pests and diseases.
Neither, then, is this anything like a how-to guide for aspiring home gardeners. Besides the relative brevity of Kerr’s discussion of his own gardening efforts, his approach is not always very practical for the average person; not everyone, for instance, is going to be able to afford a professionally built greenhouse with automatic overhead ventilation panels, three power sources, fluorescent lighting, and a nook for taking a cup of tea, which Kerr enjoys while he and his wife gaze out over Washington’s Skagit Valley.
Kerr also apparently wrote this book shortly after his first year of gardening, and he frankly admits that he’s still searching for answers to some of his own questions. For example, his first winter crop was “disappointing,” so he’s laid out a “more modest plan for next winter,” but at this point, we don’t know how that plan will turn out.
That’s not to say that these pages weren’t entertaining. Kerr has an engaging, conversational style of writing, and though his humorous asides sometimes fall flat, Kerr’s descriptions of his occasional mishaps (such as his struggles with a rototiller that proved to be more machine than he could handle) had my wife and me laughing out loud.
Though Kerr does offer some general tips and advice, then, this is not the book to turn to if you’re searching for a home gardening instruction manual. When it comes time to plant, cultivate, harvest and prepare particular fruits and vegetables, though, you’ll find this volume a valuable addition to your bookshelf, and one that you’ll likely turn to often.
Each of the sixty or so entries includes some general background information about the plant in question, practical advice on planting and harvesting, nutritional information, and several recipes. You’ll learn, for instance, that mustard greens originated in the Himalayas, that rutabagas prefer a soil pH between 5.5 and 6.8, and how to prepare everything from an artichoke omelet to zucchini fritters.
Kerr, who was once “awarded” a Broken Wooden Spoon by Weight Watchers International for his high-fat, high-calorie cooking, has sworn off his old ways, and like a lot of converts, he’s a bit of a zealot. Though he’s not a vegetarian, he’s passionate about the importance of reducing our intake of saturated fat, and his recipes reflect that. There’s very little here in the way of deep frying, meat, or dairy products; when cheese makes an appearance, it’s generally what Kerr calls “yogurt cheese,” which is essentially lowfat yogurt with the liquid drained off. There are also vegan versions of traditionally meat-based dishes, like Brunswick stew (with butternut squash substituting for chicken), although one dish, cabbage rolls, defied Kerr’s efforts at recipe conversion, and he actually calls for ground beef in that one (the leanest available, of course).
Still, if one reason that most of us don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables is our belief that they just don’t taste as good as meat (unless they’re breaded and deep fried, at least), why not try making them as flavorful as possible? I haven’t tried preparing any of Kerr’s recipes yet, but if all goes well in our garden’s inaugural season, I hope that we’ll have plenty of homegrown ingredients on hand for doing just that.
Growing at the Speed of Life:  A Year in the Life of My First Kitchen Garden.  By Graham Kerr. 315 pp.  Perigee (Mar. 1, 2011). List price $27.00

1 comment:

  1. Nice synopsis of the book, I have found a gift for my friends! I too watched him on the old B&W and found him a curiosity. Thanks for the review!