Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Chef Out of Time

So here I was last night, watching one-third of my holy trinity of latenight cable television channels, The Food Network (the other two being ESPN and The History Channel, a.k.a. "All Hitler, All the Time"), when I realized what a truly culture-changing phenomenon this is. The Food Channel. It's made icons of Emeril Legasse, Rachel Ray, Alton Brown, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and dozens more. "Iron Chef" has become a party game at many of the trendiest parties (at least here in the northwest). Rachel Ray has three regular TV shows as well as her face on Nabisco products and Extra Virgin Olive Oil (there's a Popeye joke in there somewhere, but I'll let it be), Emeril has cookware, spices ('Essence of Emeril' no less), and more, not to mention the fact that you can probably go into the heart of the smallest towns or the biggest cities all over the world, throw an imaginary pinch of salt hard at the ground and yell: "BAM!", and most of the people within earshot of you will laugh and point and say: "Emeril!"

And with mostly 24/7 coverage of all things food, there's enough smart cooking shows (Alton Brown's "Good Eats", Batali's "Molto Mario", or "Iron Chef" for example) to avoid the insipid ones ("How To Boil Water", "The Secret Life of...." and "Rachel's Tasty Travels" leap to mind). But it's the star-making power that boggles my mind. Until 10 or 15 years ago, cooking shows, from the fun ("The Galloping Gourmet") to the serious ("Julia Child") were all on public television. The four major networks wouldn't, as a rule, touch them.

Which got me to thinking about my favorite television chef, the Frugal Gourmet, Jeff Smith.

Jeff Smith (1939-2004), the "Frugal Gourmet" was a native of Tacoma, WA, near where I live now, and made his name at the public television station right near where I grew up, WTTW, in Chicago. He apparently had two completely different personalities, depending on who you talked to. Some have said Smith was a megalomaniacal dictator who had to have everything his own way, and micromanaged his staff into oblivion. Others, including two of his long-time assistants, and a host of longtime friends and associates, say he was a man who laughed easily, was magnanimous, generous, and a culinary genius. About 10 years after he moved his production back home to the Seattle area, seven men charged Smith with sexual abuse as young men years earlier. He denied the allegations and was never charged with any crime, but he and his insurance company settled the suits out of court, and his career was over. He continued to cook for charities and charity events, even while confined to a motorized cart until he died in his sleep after a long bout with heart disease in 2004.

I obviously don't know any more about those incidents than what was subsequently reported, but I think I understand, a little, about how a parishioner can stay loyal to their man of the cloth when he is accused of something as scandalous as that. I met Mr. Smith in the mid-80's, when doing a story about his Frugal Gourmet show, for a college newspaper article. After inquiring with the producers at WTTW, they in turn referred me to Mr. Smith directly, who not only agreed to an interview, he invited me to watch two days of his show's taping, from script meetings to filming. It was a fantastic experience for me. He was "on" every moment of his time in the station, whether it was in meetings, pre-cooking sessions, or in front of the camera. He was indeed a bit of a control freak, which he freely admitted to when asked about it: "When the show is seen, whether by 1 person or thousands, they assume I'm responsible for everything that goes on on my show. And because I take that responsibility, I'm going to do my best to make sure that I know about everything that happens on it. If I mess something up, I'm going to make sure I tell the audience that I messed it up." I saw him yell at several of his assistants in those two days, but I've got to tell you that he pled "mea culpa" about his own missteps a lot more often, and the times he spent laughing with the crew were much more plentiful.

I watched other cooking shows like Julia Child's, but back then her show (for me) was more akin to how I watch do-it-yourself construction shows now: I didn't understand a thing about it, but it was fascinating to watch the techniques. It was like auditing a Quantum Physics lecture, in Chinese, but with it somehow producing really good looking food at the end. But The Frugal Gourmet was different. He explained it, from the historical and cultural background of sitting down at the table with friends, to why it can be cooked like that, or not like that, to short cuts to the same tender morsels. I'm hungry now, I'll be right back. Feel free to grab a bite while I'm gone.

Ok, that's better. I understand that those allegations are horrific, and, if true, gave Jeff Smith his just desserts in ending his career. But since I don't know if they are, what I base The Frugal Gourmet's impact on my life is what I know. I love to cook, I love the history of food, and I love to eat, which accounts for my body type (besides, who needs six-pack abs, when you can have a whole keg?). At least two of those three things I attribute almost exclusively to Jeff Smith. I like to think he would have at least three good shows on the Food Network if things were a bit different. Hell, maybe I'd even watch less of the History Channel then.