The night I cooked schnitty for Barry Humphries

Samela Harris was 12 when she first met Barry Humphries after her father brought him home for dinner. It was also the first time she was let loose in the kitchen.

Apr 28, 2023, updated May 01, 2023
Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library

Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library

Of all the Barry Humphries tales swarming through the media since the great comedian’s death, mine is perhaps the oddest.

Barry Humphries ate the first meal I ever cooked. And he lived on to the age of 89, none the worse for it.

Why, as a raw beginner aged just 12, was I cooking for superstar Barry Humphries?

Just odd serendipity.

The context goes thus:

In the late 1950s, Barry surged to a bemusing form of cult popularity among the theatre cognoscenti with a stage show satirising the Australian character. It was then, through a 45 ­– aka vinyl – he gave life to Edna Everage, the Moonee Ponds housewife.

He was theretofore a little-known Melbourne performer. Edna and Wild Life in Suburbia hit a nerve. The 33rpm vinyl did the rounds. We all gathered around our record players listening, laughing, and discussing this diabolical piece of new satire and learning chunks of it by heart. Everyone knew an Edna. She was an untouched Aussie stereotype.

My father, Max Harris, was a writer, critic, and cultural commentator who ran the Mary Martin Bookshop which was an Adelaide mecca in its day. Max was an outspoken warrior against censorship and many of the rampantly repressive values of the ’50s. He had been victim of too many of them as the target of the highly-publicised literary hoax known as the Ern Malley Affair.

In those days, Adelaide’s censorship police very commonly raided theatre shows and also Max’s bookshop. keen to confiscate wicked things like Lolita, Lady Chatterley, the Kama Sutra, and Henry Miller books. Their ears pricked up at the likes of Humphries, not to mention Tom Lehrer, from whose satiric repertoire they banned five songs.

I don’t think they cared for Humphries, whose Melbourne reputation was as an arts subversive, a Dadaist. But, while he walked a fine line of taste, he never crossed that line.

I’m reminded by Peter Goers, who is the undisputed Humphries authority, that Barry even did a skit sending up my father. Witchetty Grub Street. Odd that I don’t recall it.

But I do recall most vividly the night my father brought him home to dinner.

My mother, Yvonne, was a superb cook and very proprietorial of her kitchen domain, and it was a really big deal for me to be allowed to cook dinner. So there I was in that big bright kitchen at Park Road, Kensington Park, fastidiously following the classic recipe for Vienna Schnitzel.

I’d pounded the fillets and prepared plates of eggwash, seasoned flour and breadcrumbs. The trimming were laid out, oh, so fancy. For some reason, I added a sliver of anchovy and some capers to the traditional slice of lemon. I daresay there were some sprigs of parsley there, too. Everything had a sprig of parsley in those days.

Suddenly the big old kitchen door swung party open and a head with a long lank lock of hair peeked into the room. “You must be Sa,” it announced.

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A very startled Sa agreed that she was indeed she. And he introduced himself as Barry.

Oh, my. I was as awestruck as I was astonished. Barry Humphries had come to dinner. On this big night when I had been let loose in the kitchen for the first time.

Yvonne and Max Harris in the early 1950s.

I recall reprimanding my father for not having warned me, but I had over-catered in case of mishap so there was no shortage of schnittys – or of nerves from the beginner cook.

Mother comfortingly ensured I did not burn anything.

Old-school mashed potato, garden peas, and a green salad completed the table. And it all went down rather well, accompanied by lashings of red wine.

Did I say lashings? Those were the Barry Humphries drinking days and a great deal of wine went down, along with a ritual balloon glass or three of brandy with coffee to finish.

It was a raucous night. Barry was in fine form. My father also. Barry managed, with a flourish, to spill red wine all over my mother’s new Scandinavian dining table and also, well into his cups, leave a cigarette burn.

The wine stain paled over time. The burn mark did not. It remained as a reminder of that wild night and, for many years, a conversation piece. So, in a way, Barry Humphries never left the table.

Of course, he and Max stayed connected and I forever tracked Barry’s career and rarely missed a show.

And, as I grew up and into a journalist, Dame Edna never failed to single me out of the press pack. “There’s little Miss Harris,” he would sing-song.

He remembered everyone with that gargantuan brain.

It was Max and the bookshop which Barry had taken to visiting in Adelaide. He was an avowed bibliophile and also a writer, of course.

So there is a particularly cruel irony that such an erudite man of letters was killed by a book.

He had said that his eventually lethal hip break occurred when he tripped over a rug while reaching for a book. I wonder what that book was.

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