Influences on my Culinary Career...
Jeff Smith, an ordained Methodist minister, became a wildly popular television chef during the 1980s and early 1990s. His shows fanned an already burgeoning interest in cooking across a wide swath of America. His warm, exuberant style and emphasis on the communal nature of the eating experience struck a chord among his viewers. He has been mentioned, in terms of influence on America cooking, as being similar in importance to Julia Childs, even though their respective levels of professional training are analogous to the difference between night and day. His career ended in the early 1990s, after a rash of publicity surrounding his alleged sexual involvement with underage boys during the 1970s became widely known. Even though there never was a definitive trial arising from the allegations, the fact that he and his insurance company paid out five million dollars to the plaintiffs to end the suit just days before the trial, led most to believe in the veracity of the complaints. (Behrens, 1998) Mr. Smith spent the days after his TV collapse cooking for many charity events in the Seattle area. He died in his sleep on July 9, 2004, and was buried in a private family ceremony. (Blake, 2004) Why would I even consider a likely pedophile, certainly untrained, chef as the most influential chef in forming my views on cooking? It has to do with the timing.
As I was raising my family in the mid-1980s, I was looking for something extra to add to my meals. Large grocery stores didn’t carry things like bok choy, fresh chives, and craft cheeses. My mother, who was an excellent cook, had limited herself to the old German standards of meat, potatoes, noodles and vegetables. Dad supplied a huge parade of organically raised vegetables that started in April with fresh hothouse lettuces and ended in early December with Kale. Yet, as good as her food was, I remember the first time I tried a pizza. It was after we travelled to my older brother’s house and having experienced it there, that Mom finally brought home a frozen Totino’s Pizza to bake in the oven. Mom never had an interest, nor were educational opportunities available, for her to branch out into different cuisines. At that time and place, and living as an immigrant family, cooking did not express itself as an interest in cultural exploration and giving hint of the worldwide connectedness of the human experience of enjoying the table. It was simply to put good, healthy food on the table for the family to enjoy. Not bad, but not enough for me.
While the Frugal Gourmet actually began his TV career in Seattle in 1973, it wasn’t until he transferred his show to WTTW Chicago in 1983 and later, in 1990, to A la Carte Productions, that he became widely known. It was in 1983 that I started watching his shows and became excited about his blending of culture, food and spirituality. In my autographed copy of the “The Frugal Gourmet” (1984), Mr. Smith notes, “I am primarily a people lover, then a food lover. The events of the meal, the friends gathered, the family excited over the coming dishes are much more important to me than what is on the plate.” The connectedness of spirituality and food is made clear in the “The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine” (1986); “Hebrew was a desert language, and as concrete as the desert. Food and wine became a natural bit of the language since you could talk about hunger and yet be speaking about one’s longing for fulfillment. Salt, used as a means of preservation (…) becomes a symbol of friendship under this Hebrew method of speaking.” Mr. Smith points out that bread, eaten three times a day, becomes “the Staff of Life”; oil, a symbol of fulfillment and joy in the context of community; and wine is to “gladden the hearts of the people of God.” It was this blending of community, spirituality, plus the introduction of recipes that approximated authentic, multi-cultural food, that got me totally hooked on his shows and books.
In my bookcase, I see a clear visual analogy to my interest in the Frugal Gourmet’s work. His first two books are battered, stained and almost falling apart. His subsequent books are neat and tidy. I never bothered buying his last two books. It was in his first two books, and their attendant TV series, that Mr. Smith most clearly elucidates his interest in food and wine as an expression of spirituality and community. I also sense that these were the recipes closest to his heart, the ones he would have used as a “go to” whenever company would be coming. Looking back, I also see that the interest he inspired in me started a journey toward reading expert chefs that helped define and clarify culturally authentic cooking… people like Paul Prudhomme, James Beard, Marcella Hazan, Charmaine Solomon, Craig Clairborne and Pierre Franey, among many others.
Although he was disgraced by the sexual abuse allegations, was not trained as a chef, and although my interest in him waned as I developed my cooking skills, whenever I think about the contributions people have made to my interest in cooking, the Frugal Gourmet ranks first in opening up my vistas to more than meat, potatoes, noodles, and vegetables.
Behrens, Steve, Cooking star pays plaintiffs in sexual abuse case, Currents, 1998, July 27, retrieved from www.current.org/people/peop813s.html.
Blake, Judith, Jeff Smith, 1939-2004: “Frugal Gourmet” was popular on PBS, Seattle Times: Living, 2004, July 10.
Jeff Smith, The frugal gourmet, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1984
Jeff Smith, The frugal gourmet cooks with wine, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1986.