WHIP UP SOMETHING PATRIOTIC. Frugal Gourmet waves the flag for early American food
Boston — `JEFFERSON was an architect, a statesman, a great agriculturist, but,'' and he pauses, ``did you know he was the first person to serve pasta at a colonial dinner party?'' My visitor, Jeff Smith, is as excited as if he's discovered a souffl'e that will never collapse.
I reply that I have heard of President Jefferson's appreciation of a fine table. He goes on.
``But did you know that he brought back the waffle iron and French fries from Europe? And he literally stole a completely new strain of rice from Italy,'' Mr. Smith continues with even more enthusiasm.
``Thomas Jefferson made ice cream popular ... and he was more than a gardener. He was an agricultural genius,'' he says, with his voice going up almost an octave.
Jeff Smith is television's Frugal Gourmet, author of several best-selling cookbooks. You might wonder about Jeff, even if you're familiar with his show and his cookbooks - is he a historian or a cooking teacher?
The answer is that he's both.
His newest cookbook is ``The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American'' (William Morrow, $17). Here he features food that has come to us from the early days, using American products - corn, peanuts, turkey, tomatoes, pumpkins, maple syrup, cranberries, and other strictly American foods.
``I'm not talking contemporary artsy plates or nouvelle gauche,'' he says. Nor am I talking about meat loaf and lumpy mashed potatoes.
``All ethnic groups have foods that help them continue to identify themselves. But most of us Americans are not aware of the wonderfully complex history of our own foods,'' he says, ``since many of us still think that everything came over from Europe or some other part of the world. Some of it did, but also, some things were already here.
``We seem to forget that America was discovered by Europeans who were on a search for food. Today we have 20 or more foods that are our own - that belong to us and which we have shared.
``Italy had no tomatoes,'' he says. ``Ireland no potatoes; Switzerland no vanilla or chocolate. China had no corn, peanuts, or sweet potatoes. These last three foods kept China alive at the beginning of the century,'' he explains.
Jeff Smith admits to his blatant cooking patriotism as he waves the flag for American foods. His cookbook includes many stories of how American foods have influenced the diets of the world, along with anecdotes of wit and humorous research.
Then there are some of Smith's modern adaptations of George Washington's and Thomas Jefferson's recipes.
There is an entire section on inventive ways to prepare catfish and a story of a Southern cooking festival starring Chicken Brunswick, Stew Virginia, Spoon Bread, and Huguenot Torte.
A salute to chocolate, the new world treasure, includes delicious recipes for Green Chile Brownies and Cocoa Rye Bread.
There are recipes for grits from Texas, chipped beef on toast from Philadelphia, and meat and poultry pot pies. And a whole chapter on chili.
``The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American'' was an immediate best seller in late 1987. His two previous books were also best sellers.
And Smith remembers the week he had three books on the New York Times best-seller list: the hard-cover and paperback versions of his first cookbook, ``The Frugal Gourmet,'' and the hard cover of his second book, ``The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine.''
``That's never happened in American nonfiction before,'' Smith said, ``and I'm really shocked by all this - I'm really startled, but it's wonderful fun.''
Smith began cooking while he was an ordained Methodist minister and chaplain at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash.
He later started his own cooking school, ``The Chaplain's Pantry,'' and his first television show aired on public television in Tacoma in 1973.
The idea of a clergyman's enjoying food caught people off balance at first, Smith says. He likes the idea and explains.
``I see food as a sacrament and a celebration. I've always been fascinated with the history of the table, as in ancient cultures when it was the place to share the joys of the family. The table was the place for forming covenants or agreements,'' he explains.
Smith continued his television shows in Tacoma until 1977. In 1982, after surgery, he decided to sell his two restaurants, his cooking school, his pot and pan shop, wine shop, and catering business.
Today he has a studio-test-kitchen-apartment in Seattle close by the Pike Place Farmer's Market.
It was his wife, Patty, who helped him with the name for the show. He wanted to do gourmet cooking but didn't want the show to sound snobby. His wife thought the word frugal would set the right tone, and it has caught on.
But the books and the television shows are not geared to low-budget cooking. ``Frugal doesn't mean cheap,'' Smith emphasizes.
``It means you don't waste anything. It's also a kind of totem or signal that says here are recipes that aren't too hard or too expensive that are `user-friendly.'''
Although most of the television audience is adult, with about 50 percent of them males, there are also children. ``They watch the show and quote `The Frug' to their mothers,'' Smith says.
Filming began in 1983 in Chicago - just where it is today. It reaches 15 million households weekly and there are no rehearsals, no scripts, and ``we never stop tape.'' All the cooking is done on the set.
``The Frugal Gourmet'' is a very lively half hour with only one person cooking - Jeff Smith.
Some people say he talks too fast. Others like his constant chatter, because it is full of so many helpful ideas and amusing stories about where the food comes from or how other people cook it.
Smith's next project is to take his television crew abroad for a series of shows on location in the three countries he thinks have contributed most to the cooking of today. It will be ``The Frugal Gourmet on Three Ancient Cuisines.''
``Try to think,'' he says. ``What would you say are the three countries that have had the most influence, from the early beginnings, on what we eat today?''
The answer is China, Italy, and Greece. These are the three cuisines he is exploring and working on. Whether or not his finished television shows will be aired in those countries he didn't say, but I am sure no matter where he goes, people will warm to his enthusiasm, energy, and genuine love and appreciation of food - and ``families gathering at the table.''