Graham Kerr gallops onto the gardening scene
Graham Kerr became famous for galloping through his kitchen and his life, traveling around the world 28 times and making 1,800 television shows, among other Type A pursuits. These days, the pace has changed, if not the enthusiasm. Kerr is taking time to grow asparagus.
But the former Galloping Gourmet is hardly sedentary as he waits for his crops to grow. His 29th book is out this month, and he seems as full of energy as he did when he bounded into his studio kitchen and American homes in his hugely popular cooking show, which ran from 1969 to 1971 and led to other TV series.
Kerr’s new book, “Growing at the Speed of Life,” is an account of his gardening in a box, in raised beds and in a greenhouse. It also includes information about 60 edible plants he has grown or plans to grow — with a few recipes for each — and his thoughts on healthful eating.
“Until you have grown your own carrot, you have never tasted a carrot,” Kerr said by phone from his home in the Skagit Valley of Washington state.
And in his book, he writes: “My kitchen has taken on a whole new feeling, as the garden provided such unrivaled freshness, seasonal variety and the adventure that can come only through observing the miracle of growth at the speed of life.”
Over about a quarter-century, Kerr, 77, has moved from artichokes stuffed with foie gras to artichokes with asparagus, peas and tarragon. He has gone from being declared Public Enemy No. 1 by Weight Watchers for his fat-filled dishes to being a public advocate for a plant-focused diet of fresh foods.
“The Galloping Gourmet” was an early television cooking show hit, marked by Kerr’s clever banter and infectious enthusiasm for butter, cream, wine and the foods of the “good life.” He was handsome and funny, constantly on the go.
“Time was of the essence, and we had no essence,” he said. “It was OK because you live on adrenaline. But you can only live on adrenaline for so long.”
But when Treena Kerr, his wife of 56 years and his producer, suffered a stroke and a heart attack, he began to change his diet and became a spokesman for healthful eating. So perhaps the step to gardening might seem inevitable.
Kerr said that he had previously killed everything he tried to grow and that although he cooked everything imaginable, he’d never grown what he cooked. So he decided to try.
“I took a season and dug up our lawn — I must say, just before Michelle Obama dug up hers. We call ourselves the West Coast South Lawn,” Kerr said.
The first lady famously put an organic garden in the White House lawn and invited Washington, D.C., elementary students to garden with her. She has since taken on childhood obesity as a signature issue, championing eating fresh, healthful food.
“Growing at the Speed of Life” offers straightforward advice about growing food and about eating more fruit and vegetables. It also includes basic recipes for such things as 14 spice mixtures from regions around the world. Kerr’s love for his garden comes through every page, and he said he has to limit the time spent with his plants. “I’ve promised my darling one hour a day,” he said.
Aside from his home garden, Kerr’s passion these days include what’s growing in the backyard of his church, the Hillcrest Christian Fellowship in Mount Vernon, Wash.
Kerr said a small group of congregants met and asked: “What on earth can a small group of people do to help our community be happier and feel hope in the future?” Their answer was concrete: Eat more plants, grow plants and get to know one another.
The three-quarter-acre garden gives people a chance to see what it’s like to grow food, Kerr said.
“Second, we could get our older bodies outdoors and dig and show people you don’t have to sit in an easy-boy chair after 60. And we could get to know each other in a much easier way than sitting in a pew,” he said.
The harvest goes to a food bank. After the first harvest, 180 pounds of produce went to “people who are shut-ins and couldn’t get out,” Kerr said.
All too often, food banks have trouble storing fresh produce, he said. So he hopes to get a few donors to buy a bus that can be retrofitted with shelves and travel where it’s needed.
“I don’t see myself as a national figure like Jamie Oliver,” Kerr said. “I want to do a small thing and do it well and do it until it’s done. If that’s replicated, I could not be a happier person.”
Kerr’s book includes plenty of gardening advice, but the overall message suggests that the benefits of growing things are as much food for the soul as for dinner. He said: “If there is anything our nation needs is a place and an opportunity to somehow get some rest for the soul.”
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