Dr Karl: how I eat

The science commentator on Polish dishes, burgers and surviving in the desert.
Dr Karl

Dr Karl (Photo: Mel Koutchavlis)

After World War II, your parents ended up in Australia at the Bonegilla migrant camp, near the Victorian/NSW border. Do you recall your early years there?

In general, kids don’t remember anything under the age of six, except for a few special memories. The story was that we got one egg a week, and they gave that egg to me. That’s what parents do for their kids. The food wasn’t particularly good, but was food. And there was nobody trying to kill us. So it was a very good place to be.

Your parents came from Poland. What did you eat at home?

I remember having brown bread with halwa on it. Nobody had brown bread – everybody else had white bread. And nobody knew what halwa was. So the meals that I ate were completely different. And my parents were, perhaps unfairly, scathing of the fact that the only deli meat available, apart from at the delicatessens, was devon.

You were a taxi driver for 10 years. Is it true that cabbies know where the best food is?

Not best, but different. You could go and get what you wanted quite easily. One of my friends went to the trouble of eating proper meals, whereas I was more hungry for the money. So I started early, finished late and grabbed hamburgers. I have a traumatic memory about a place called Jumbo Burger: as a result of going into one, I smashed up six cars.

What happened?

Around midnight, I ordered my Jumbo Burger for 50c, a bargain. Then I turned around, just to gaze at where I parked my car, in a no-standing zone, and it wasn’t there. I checked my pockets and I had the keys – I just didn’t have my taxi. I went out and someone was saying: “Help, there’s been a terrible accident! A runaway driver-less taxi rolled down the hill and smashed into cars.” Sure enough, there were six smashed-up cars. The Jumbo Burger wasn’t tasting very good by then.

You were a doctor at a children’s hospital, when an incident inspired you to become a science broadcaster.

A Current Affair kept pushing the false claim that there was equal scientific weight on each side of the vaccination argument. At the kids’ hospital, after 20 years of zero deaths from whooping cough, suddenly we had deaths from whooping cough. Seeing a baby die, a baby that didn’t have to die, because this single TV presenter on A Current Affair successfully drove the herd vaccination rate down for whooping cough, inspired me to use my power for good in the media.

Being a doctor in a kids’ hospital was the best job I ever had, but all I could do was deal with one person at a time. But as a broadcaster, I could deal with hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people when I say on the radio, “get your kids vaccinated”.

In your latest book, Vital Science, you address the media hype about cockroach milk being a new superfood.

Practically all species of cockroach give birth to eggs. But one species – one in the whole world – gives birth kind of like platypuses do, so the milk just diffuses through. When I say “milk”, it’s a liquid, it’s white-ish. On the grounds that it had lots of fat in it, the Daily Mail claimed that it could become the next superfood. Well, if that’s their grounds, they should say that cooking oil is the next superfood, because it’s 100 per cent fat.

One heartbreaking story in Vital Science is about the scientists who protected a seed bank during the Siege of Leningrad.

It’s very elevating that they would starve themselves to death rather than eat the food around them, because that was the seed stock for the next generation. Nine of them died. They were very honourable people.

Your father, a concentration camp survivor, once interviewed job candidates at the Water Board, and recognised one as a brutal camp guard.

Yeah, someone who had killed my father’s friends at the concentration camp. My father didn’t say anything and took him through the whole procedure of getting a job and then said, “I remember you.” The guy’s face went white and he asked, “what are you going to do, call the police?” He said, “no, you’ve got the job. I’m not doing this for you, I’m doing this for your children.” The man’s son did electrical engineering and became the boss of a very big European electronics company in Australia and that wouldn’t have happened if the father had gone to jail and the family had struggled.

You have a planet named after you, 18412 Kruszelnicki.

A guy called Robert H McNaught, who discovered a big comet that came past a few years ago, named it after me because he liked what I was doing with science communicating. It’s in orbit between Jupiter and Mars.

You visited 15 Australian deserts in one road trip. What was it like staying fed and watered?

We had to carry around all of our food, because there were no shops to buy anything from. We got our water by navigating to a well every second or third night, on the Canning Stock Route. We drank one and a half tonnes of water in that month, because we were evaporating so fast. An orange peel would get dry and crumbly in half an hour. It was 48°C in the day time, dropping down to about 32°C at three o’clock in the morning. We had a 140-litre fridge and filled it with oranges. So we had frozen oranges and everything else was just dried food.

What do you eat at home?

I follow the wisdom of Michael Pollan: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” For breakfast: different fruits chopped up, with random seeds and yoghurt. For lunch: some vegetarian thing, with protein from either a bean mix, meat or cheese. Dinner, I don’t have very much to eat at all. The thing is to have a variety; go for variety.

Vital Science by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki (Pan Macmillan, $34.99, hbk) is out now.

Related stories