Who'd have guessed that three zucchini plants in a cemetery would spawn a popular local cooking show that's still going strong after 20 years?
"QED Cooks" is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a return to its inaugural topic, zucchini, airing from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 21 on WQED-TV.
In the summer of 1993, WQED Director of Programming Chris Fennimore planted a small plot in a community garden in Homewood Cemetery. He put in peppers, tomatoes, basil, and three bush-style zucchini plants.
"I planted the bush variety because I thought they'd be fairly well contained, but..." he said, his voice trailing off.
In fact, he was so inundated with zucchini that he asked Nancy Polinsky, then WQED director of continuity, to run some promos asking viewers for their zucchini recipes -- not for any real programming reasons, but just because he wanted to figure out what to do with all the darn zucchini.
"I thought we'd just get recipes," he said. "But we got so much more."
The reams of information people sent him "were not about food," he said. "They were about family history, they were about cultural history, they were about community things. When people share recipes, that's what they're really sharing."
He was so intrigued by the correspondence that he asked for a time slot on a Saturday schedule. He'd do a zucchini show and offer the recipes in cookbook format when viewers called in to contribute to the station.
He'd never had any culinary training beyond what he learned at his grandmother's knee, as she trotted out Sunday dinners for a large extended family that showed up throughout the day.
And that first show wasn't even a bona fide cooking show. Mr. Fennimore and Ms. Polinsky schlepped in some finished dishes from home.
They didn't even bother taping that first live show, never dreaming they were missing the opportunity to record for the archives a show that would mushroom in popularity.
That first show, aired in August 1993, was popular enough to beget a second show, "C Is for Cookie," which aired in December 1993. From there it became not only a regular series but also a vehicle for doing demos at the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show, making appearances around the city, driving fundraisers for the station and even recording 15 national public televisions shows using local segments.
As he looks back, Mr. Fennimore thinks one of the most memorable shows he's done was titled "Grandma's Kitchen Wisdom." He received countless letters from viewers, detailing the influence of their grandmothers, not only in their kitchens but in their lives. Respect for grandmothers "crosses every cultural and social barrier," he said, noting he received letters from a wide cross-section of populations.
Out of more than 100 "WQED Cooks" episodes, other topics that stand out as memorable in his mind include "Comfort Food," "P Is for Potatoes," "P Is for Pasta," and "Soups and Stews."
"Those were really popular programs," he said. "The profile of our average viewer is not a fussy foodie. It's people who have to feed their families" and who appreciate simple home cooking and tradition.
He is looking forward to returning to the zucchini topic 20 years later.
The cookbook accompanying the show will include a drawing done by his daughter for the first show. Then, she was a teen; now, she's grown up, living abroad, and expecting a baby.
But the recipes inside will be new. On the show, Mr. Fennimore will demonstrate a zucchini frittata recipe submitted by his cousin Lisa, a Vermont chef (see recipe). Other recipes to be featured on the show include Zuchini Fritters, an Italian "Zucchini Medley" that amounts to a vegetable stew, Chicken Zucchini Enchiladas, Chocolate Orange Zucchini Cake and an allergen-free Zucchini Custard Pie made with almond milk and a gluten-free crust.
"QED Cooks" usually is taped live, but this time, it will be taped on Sept. 14 and aired on Sept. 21.
Although the first zucchini show never got taped, there's no chance they'll miss recording the this one for posterity.
Ukrainian Food Festival: Pierogies, stuffed cabbage, kielbasa, borscht, pastries and more. 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 13-14 at Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie. 412-527-5359.
Latino Day: Ethnic food, music, dancing and cultural performances. Noon to 7 p.m. Sept. 14 at Kennywood Park, West Mifflin. 412-689-0611.
Dutch Oven Dinner: Traditional 18th-century dinner cooked in Dutch ovens over an open fire, including beef brisket, cheesy potatoes, orange glazed carrots, cornbread and fresh cobbler. 5 p.m. Sept. 14 at The Meeting House, Volant, Lawrence County. $25 per person or $40 per couple; proceeds benefit restoration of grain grinding at Volant Mills and repair of the Neshannock Creek Dam. Reservations: 724-533-5611.
Michael Symon: The Iron Chef and co-host of ABC's "The Chew" will demonstrate dishes from his new cookbook, "5 in 5," this Saturday, Sept. 8, at Giant Eagle Market District stores: 11 a.m. in Robinson and 3 p.m. in Bethel Park. Free, but register ahead at marketdistrict.com.
A Table Before Me -- From the Farmer's Market: Rania Harris demonstrates four courses for a dinner party as students sample the dishes (made with local produce) with wine. 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16 at Rania's in Mt. Lebanon. $60. 412-531-2222 or rania.com.
FARE Walk for Food Allergy: Walk or sponsor someone else to walk; proceeds will benefit food allergy research, education, advocacy and awareness. Registration starts at 10 a.m. Sept. 15 at Hartwood Acres in Allison Park; ceremony starts at 11 a.m., followed by the walk. foodallergywalk.org.
Wholey's Rachael the Pig Birthday Celebration: Enjoy cake, face painting and balloons for the 20th birthday celebration for Rachael, the 2,500-pound bronze pig who collects donations daily for The Children's Institute. Sept. 20-22 at Wholey's in the Strip District. (During the last three years, Rachael has collected nearly $10,000.)
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup diced chorizo
1/2 cup diced zucchini
1/4 cup diced onion
1 garlic scape, thinly sliced
4 eggs, scrambled with a splash of water
1 ounce Monterey jack or cheddar cheese, sliced thin
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat a 12-inch cast iron pan over medium-high heat.
When hot, add olive oil and tilt to cover bottom of pan. Add chorizo, stirring frequently. When barely starting to brown, add zucchini, onion and garlic scapes. Saute until onions are fragrant and translucent, then distribute everything evenly throughout the pan. Pour the scrambled eggs over the contents of the pan and turn off the heat underneath. Distribute the cheese and basil evenly and put in the oven. Cook until eggs are firm when shaken, or to taste.
-- Chef Lisa Fennimore
Rebecca Sodergren: email@example.com or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.