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TV Dinners

"Real folks" play Julia Child in local news-hour cooking spots

By David Templeton

Arms full of groceries, I sprint into the kitchen. Glancing quickly up at the clock, I collide into my counter, ungracefully spilling wedges of cheese, bundles of celery, packages of ground turkey. I rub my hip with one hand while setting things right with the other, making a mental note that I must give the counter another scrubbing before the camera crew arrives in . . . 45 minutes!

"Why is this kitchen so small?" I snap out loud, wondering suddenly where everyone will stand. My eyes sweep the room, taking in the large Springsteen poster that hangs over my stove. Born in the U.S.A. The one with the famous rear-shot. "Great," I think. "I'm about to be seen on television making meatballs in front of Bruce Springsteen's butt."

If you watch the evening news on KFTY-Channel 50, you have probably seen "Home Cookin'," an increasingly popular, 2 1/2-minute spot that runs every Thursday night, sometime between the current events and the sports. On the air since shortly after the start of this year. "Home Cookin'" showcases a bunch of "real folks," North Bay residents all, who have volunteered to cook up a family recipe or favorite dish right there on the TV, in exchange for which they receive a grocery-store gift certificate and one sixth of their 15-minute allotment of fame.

Produced by KFTY's Rob Olmsted, the lightning-fast spots steer clear of the unintentional corniness such bits often fall victim to. Given a straightforward, matter-of-fact presentation, the "Home Cookin'" segments televised so far have been nothing less than charming.

Maureen Regan, formerly of Petaluma (she recently relocated to San Francisco) was the first subject of "Home Cookin.'" While she was whipping up a favorite dessert, her 3-year-old, Quinn, woke from a nap and was suddenly incorporated into the segment, an improvisational necessity that set the definitive "this-is-real-life" tone that has been reflected in all subse-quent segments. People's dogs often wander in to see what's cooking. Spouses offer suggestions from the other room. Bacon smoke fills up the kitchen.

"The spots do have a special charm, don't they?" Olmsted agrees. "There's nothing artificial about them, though technically it is a staged bit. But the personality of the cook always shines through, and the viewers have really responded to that."

Viewer response is gauged by the number of letters and phone calls that are received, requesting a copy of the featured recipe. The greatest response seems to be given to the recipes served up by local senior citizens. When Barbara Nelson, one of your classic twinkly-eyed grandmother types, was shown cooking a big batch of Irish Tamale Pie in the 40-year-old cast-iron pot she'd received as a wedding present, the station received twice as many responses as usual.

Another well-received spot was with Rohnert Park resident Lars Persson, nattily attired in his cow-spotted apron, speaking in a soft Swedish accent as he related his recipe for Janssen's Temptation, a baked concoction of potatoes, onions, and anchovies.

Though Olmsted occasionally goes recruiting for guest-chefs, even going so far as to corral one visiting journalist into doing a spot, most of the subjects are volunteers who have written in to suggest a favorite recipe.

It is a varied bunch that have done the show so far, as many men as women, and about equally balanced in terms of age. Oddly enough, the majority of the older cooks have been from Marin or Napa, while a pack of younger men have come forward in Sonoma County. Is this demographically significant? Olmsted isn't saying. "I'm just glad people are responding," he laughs. "We do especially love it when people offer recipes that have been in their family for years. Some of these dishes have been passed down orally from mother to daughter for generations. We like to think we're continuing that. There's a kind of folkloric sense to the show, with one person looking right at you, telling you all the steps. You're right there in the kitchen with them. It's very warm."

It's warm in my kitchen as well. Olmsted and his camera crew have arrived to tape the spot that will air on March 21. Cameraman Marco Cuevas, assisted by Adam Dodds and Chris Van Bebber, is busily transforming my living room into the command station, while Olmsted takes a reading on performance space. "Your kitchen will look a lot bigger on TV," he consoles me. "If we can figure out how to get the camera in here."

Cuevas wanders in. "Great," he comments. "We'll have Bruce's butt in the shot." I consider taking the darn thing down, confessing that my wife has never really liked the poster there in the kitchen. "No, it's good," Olmsted says. "It's colorful."

After the kitchen has been examined, reflectors are set up to maximize available light. Extension cords snake across the floor from the kitchen to my dining room table, where a monitor has been set up for Olmsted, who will direct the proceedings. "OK, now. Show us what you're going to do, so we'll know how to shoot it," he coaches gently.

I run through the operation. Chop chop grate grate squish squish sizzle . . . and voila! Meatballs! Someone asks if the recipe has any special name. "Years ago," I recall, "a roommate of mine liked to call these bachelor's balls, but I doubt that's appropriate."

Olmstead concurs. "I think we're ready," he finally commands. "Just look at the camera as you would a friend. Do your thing and tell us about it as you go."

Except for the fact that I have no friends who look even remotely like the big, gray monster now staring across at me, I grasp these instructions and prepare myself. "Roll it," Olmsted says from around the corner. "Whenever you're ready."

I smile at the lens and introduce myself. "We're making meatballs today," I inform the world. "I found this recipe in a Betty Crocker cookbook years ago. My mom gave it to me. I made these meatballs a couple of times, then lost the cookbook. I've been making it up from scratch ever since. It originally called for hamburger meat, but I use turkey these days."

I demonstrate the cracking of the egg, into which I soak a piece of bread, to be worked into the ground meat a few minutes from now. "I can't remember if this egg-in-the-bread thing is part of the original recipe or something I made up," I admit to my friend the camera, "but it works really well."

"Great!" Olmsted crows. "Now we're going to do it again, and this time shorten your introduction a bit."

Um, OK. "Hi," I begin again. "Today we're making meatballs." That's about as short as I can make it. We continue on step by step, until all the balls are rolled and simmering sweetly on the stovetop. "Smells good," pronounces Cuevas, as the crew gathers about to savor my handiwork. "How long till they're done?"

The whole process has taken about 90 minutes. The cords have all been recoiled, and the gear has been packed away. Everyone is pleased with the afternoon's work. "The truth is that you can't go wrong with these bits," Olmsted says. "They make their own magic."

He shows me a packet stuffed with written responses to the show; they are unanimously positive. "We just float our bread crumbs out into the world," he laughs, "and they come back croutons."

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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