Jeff Smith, Cuisine Detective
TV's Frugal Gourmet tracks down food origins in latest series; ethnic food shows to come. FOOD
BOSTON — PURE pleasure tells us we don't need to know the origin of pizza to enjoy a just-baked wedge spread thick with tomato sauce, mushrooms, and mozzarella, and seasoned with herbs and garlic. But Jeff Smith has a different perspective. ``Knowing about the food of the past will help you understand the food we eat today,'' says Mr. Smith, host of the popular PBS television cooking show, The Frugal Gourmet.
Smith is a stickler for giving credit where credit is due, and he doesn't mind destroying a few myths about food in the process.
``Western Europe is usually credited with a majority of foods we enjoy today such as pizza, mayonnaise, and a famous French fish soup called bouillabaisse,'' he says. ``But if you go way back you find that very early cultures have never been given the recognition they deserve for the enormous influence they have on Western eating habits.
``The Italians love to argue about which province or city invented pizza - but actually pizza originated in Greece, not in Italy,'' he says. ``Early Greeks called it an `edible plate,' which is what it is, of course. They topped it with what they called `relishes' and they took it with them into southern Italy and it became very popular there,'' Smith explains.
``The Greeks also must be credited with the invention of bouillabaisse [a fish stew], which they called `Fish In The Pot,' or simply `The Pot,' or kakkavia. They taught the French to make a soup when Marseilles was a Greek shipping town, though the French name for `pot' gave the dish the title of bouillabaisse.''
Smith and his television crew traveled to Italy, China, and Greece to gather evidence on the origins of food for his most recent series of shows. Recipes from his travels also appear in his newest cookbook, ``The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines,'' (William Morrow & Co., $18.95).
From Greece he includes Shrimp in Green Tomato Sauce with Feta, Avgolemono Soup, and Pork Souvlaki. From Rome such classics as Roman ``Rag Soup,'' Grilled Eggplant and Fontina, and Beef-filled Ravioli - Roman-Jewish Style. From China we are offered Peking Duck, Steamed Fish with Black Bean Sauce, and a delicious array of Dim Sum (dumplings).
Smith admits to a dumpling addiction. ``Just the thought of a Chinese dumpling filled with ginger, or an Italian ravioli sitting in truffle butter, or a Greek rice-filled grape leaf, sends me to the kitchen with the shakes!'' he said in a breakfast interview here.
``Many cuisines have influenced the West, the French being one of them. But French cooking, as we know it, is not ancient,'' he says. The French did not really begin to cook until the 17th century, says Smith. They admit the Greeks taught the Romans how to cook, and the Romans taught the French. ``Even the tall white toque, the official hat of chefs everywhere, originated in Greece.'' Certain groups of people within the United States also prepare special foods that identify them. ``We have fine dishes from the Shakers,'' he explains. ``You can't help but admire the simplicity of their practical inventions in sensible things like the wooden clothespin, apple peelers, and pea shellers, and selling vegetable and herb seeds in small packets rather than in bulk.
``But when it comes to food, the Shakers didn't hold back. They wanted us all to have a better life and to enjoy good, wholesome things.''
``There are also wonderful dishes from immigrants such as the Hungarian, Welsh, Basque, Russian, and Ethiopian people who settled in towns and villages all over the United States,'' he adds.
He tells of a fabulous dinner cooked by 50 Latvian women. And when he met with some Ethiopians to learn how to make injera (a special bread), he was invited to give a sermon in the Ethiopian church where he learned about the custom of placing an umbrella over the head of the minister.
AN upcoming television series hosted by Smith will focus on immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island with precious family recipes, vegetable seeds, and cooking traditions.
``Sometimes we seem to forget that America was discovered by Europeans who were on a search for food,'' he says.
Also in the works is a one-hour PBS television special with violinist Itzhak Perlman and Jeff Smith talking about the foods of their youth. ``We both remember childhood dishes with great affection - and some are foods we just don't see anymore. This will be a very humorous show and interesting because of the completely different foods in our backgrounds, and because Mr. Perlman is such a marvelous person - even when he isn't playing the violin.''
Smith, an ordained Methodist minister, lives in Tacoma, Washington, with his wife and two sons. He began cooking while he was chaplain at the University of Puget Sound, then started a cooking school, and in 1973 aired his first television show.
His shows are filmed in Chicago - there are no rehearsals and no scripts. His wife, Patty, helped him decide on the name of the show, but his books and TV 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.'''