The Kerr Minimum

By Russ Parsons

Published on April 2, 2002

By all accounts, Graham Kerr is a nice guy. He loves people and really wishes them to be happy and healthy. He's got a wacky sense of humor and really likes wearing a kilt to black-tie events. So why does he have me dashing between stove and sink, baking sausages, boiling peas, juggling two root vegetables while I'm peeling red-hot baked apples? Is this some kind of practical joke? If so, his new book, _Graham Kerr's Best _is a regular laff riot.

If only we could put it all down to zaniness. Unfortunately, Kerr seems to be deadly serious. Formerly the Galloping Gourmet of TV fame, Kerr has done one of the most well-publicized turnabouts since St. Augustine. He traces it all in "Graham's 47-year Journey of Change!", a series of cute cartoon images appearing on the endpapers of the book. Here's the "Pleasure-Centered" Graham, working at his parents' hotel and as a catering adviser in the army (?!!); here he is on his long climb to television stardom; then comes the transformation. The "Caring-Centered" Graham, the cartoons tell us, arrived at the "recognition of fat as detrimental to general health" in 1972. After a couple of books and a CNN show, he unveiled his Minimax ™ concept. Minimax, of course, stands for "minimizing known health risks", and "maximizing eating enjoyment"—something you might not think revolutionary enough to warrant trademarking. The final step in Kerr's odyssey is "Caring Wrapped in Pleasure", and, at least so far, _Graham Kerr's Best _is its ultimate expression. After a week spent cooking from the book, I can only say that its ultimacy is devoutly to be wished.

Kerr's diet offers groups of dishes with, respectively, 10, 20, and 30 percent fat. Naturally, you turn first to the 10 percenters. How fast can this baby go? Reading the recipe titles, you might be amazed: Yankee Pot Roast? Bangers and Mash? Creme Caramel? Then you try one. And you end up with blistered fingertips, overcooked peas, and unseasoned rutabaga puree.

And you learn a few things about this book. You find out that Kerr seems to have little sense of how to compose a meal or a recipe. His version of bangers and mash, for example, consists of a plate heaping with Minty Peas (peas boiled with brown sugar and mint), Rutabaga Puree (plain boiled rutabagas, mashed "until smooth"), Mashed Potatoes (boiled, then laced with buttermilk), Apple Puree, some "lower-fat" sausage, and an Onion-Apple Sauce (which is basically spiced onions thickened with a slurry of arrowroot and nonalcoholic wine). When it's all over, you might look down at your half-eaten plate of food and wonder why Kerr didn't simply fold the apple puree into the rutabaga puree, so at least that would taste like something, and then leave well enough alone. But that seems to be Kerr's problem. He can't leave well enough alone.

Another problem: A survey of Kerr's 10 percent entrees shows that over half of them have more than 400 calories per serving and a quarter of them have more than 500. More than a third of the 10 percent desserts have over 250 calories per serving. Since a typical weight-reduction diet counsels between 1,500 and 2,000 calories a day, by choosing one of Kerr's main dishes and one of his desserts, you could be looking at half your daily intake in one sitting.

There are some good ideas here—using strained yogurt as a base for sauces and spreads, for example. And the creme caramel, made with evaporated skim milk, two-percent milk, and egg substitute, was actually pretty good—its unusual flavoring combination of orange and rosemary making up for a somewhat thin texture.

Still, the misses far outweigh the hits. The Yankee Pot Roast might be authentic, but only if you went to some strapped boarding school. It's amazing, but this boiled rump roast really does resemble shoe leather. I'd always thought that was just an expression. And in his recipe for Chicken Fantengo—which is basically baked chicken legs accompanied by braised Jerusalem artichokes—Kerr actually has you peel the skin off the hot chicken legs "using a bowl of ice water to cool down your fingers." Maybe this is a practical joke after all.

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