Savoring the Melting Pot's Flavors
Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet, says Americans need to celebrate their culinary heritage and value ethnic diversity
CHICAGO — THE concept of America as a melting pot does not sit well with Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet. ``We are a land of proud immigrants with many traditions and flavors,'' he says in a Monitor interview. ``I want Americans to hold onto their heritage as they learn about other cultures. We need this ethnic glue which holds us together.''
Mr. Smith, who is a Methodist minister, is the host of public television's currently-airing, 39-program series ``The Frugal Gourmet On Our Immigrant Ancestors.'' His beaming, bearded countenance is seen on 288 television stations across the United States. It is the fifth show in Smith's ongoing Frugal Gourmet series - the highest-rated television cooking show ever. A 35-chapter companion cookbook by the same name - now third on the New York Times bestseller list - is also available (New York: William Morrow, $19.95).
Both the cookbook and show discuss the food of immigrants who came to the United States through Ellis Island. Smith visited the homes and communities of many different cultural groups, and tells how to make their traditional foods. As the subtitle of his book states, these are ``recipes you should have gotten from your grandmother.''
Although Smith lives in Seattle, he travels to Chicago three months a year to film his television series at WTTW-TV Chicago. Much like the chapters in Smith's cookbook, each program concentrates on an ethnic group and includes a cooking demonstration.
``Where is the teff? Is the beef ready?,'' Smith asks his assistants while preparing for an Ethiopian cooking segment here at the studio. He talks continuously and exuberantly, cracking jokes and telling stories while waiting for the crew to start filming.
``Here's the order of worship,'' he says, reading over the dishes he will display on camera.
The filming begins, and for more than 12 minutes Smith cooks and talks nonstop - without a script. Finally, to the tune of Handel's Water Music, the show ends - but not before he delivers his benedictory ``I bid you peace,'' as he customarily does at the end of each show.
Then the crew appears immediately to test and taste the dishes. ``Is this beef really raw?,'' they ask. ``Show us how you eat with that soft bread.'' The food disappears quickly.
They film other segments elsewhere for the same show: at an Ethiopian church service - in which Smith takes part - and in a Seattle Ethiopian Restaurant. Smith, his cook and assistant Craig Wollam, and Smith's son Channing also demonstrate how to use injera, an Ethiopian bread used to eat with instead of a spoon or fork. The Frugal Gourmet has simplified the way of making this bread so important to the Ethiopian meal.
In another Smith show on Wales, the Welsh Men's Chorus performs during his visit to Scranton, Penn., and a classic Welsh Tea is prepared by descendents of immigrants who worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines. ``My love for the Welsh has come about because of their hymn-singing,'' Smith says in the show where he mixes up a Welsh Leek Pie, a Cold Pork Pie, Scones, and other traditional dishes.
``Thai restaurants are in all the big cities of the US, and Thai food has become the `in thing,''' he says in another show. ``I hope that doesn't mean it's a fad because the Thai people are so gracious and dignified. My son Channing visited Thailand and he wants to go back and marry a Thai girl and live there. I love the people - and the food also. Try the Thai pork or the Thai Chicken in Red Curry and Coconut. Delicious,'' he adds.
Smith encourages people to celebrate their own culinary heritage. ``Food is a catalyst for joy, fellowship, human communication, and meaning,'' he says.
For Smith, food and religion are inextricably combined. In 1967 he was chaplain at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., where he taught theology and another popular course called ``Food As Sacrament and Celebration.'' In 1972, he opened The Chaplain's Pantry with some of his students - a catering service, restaurant, and cookware store.
This led to two cooking series for a public television station in Tacoma. A rerun of one show in Chicago resulted in an invitation to appear on The Phil Donahue Show - which in turn caught the interest of station WTTW-TV Chicago, now responsible for producing The Frugal Gourmet.
In a recent television special, Smith cooked with violinist Izhak Pearlman. Both talked about the foods of their childhood, and described dishes - often unpalatable - that meant something special and wonderful.
``My mother, Emily, is a fine cook,'' Smith says, referring to a segment of the program. ``Although she's Norwegian, we didn't eat much Norwegian food except at the holidays. Have you ever tasted Norwegian lutefisk? It's boiled fish and potatoes in a cream sauce - all-white, colorless and awful.
``But I cannot tell you what eating it brings out in me. When I sit before a bowl of lutefisk, I touch my uncle. It's everything that I am and where I come from,'' he adds.
``Eating this way, sharing the traditional family things is what I'm talking about. It's not ambience. It's not atmosphere. It's a family memory of an individual, an event, or a time, that is brought to the table and shared.''
Sentimental, this Frugal Gourmet? Yes. But there's also no question that he's direct and loud, and he makes a dozen points in one conversation while gesturing and waving his hands.
He might snap at you if you interrupt him, then apologize if he's interrupted you, but he'll hold the floor until he's ready to give up.
Culinary critics have not always been kind to Smith. Some say his recipes are too simplistic. Others complain his history is incomplete. Some are jealous and puzzled by his quick popularity.
But such criticism doesn't bother Smith. ``I'm not a professional chef,'' he says. ``I'm a darn good cook, but Craig is the pro. He has an indescribable talent for being able to taste and then tell exactly what's in a new dish.''
Honesty concerning his cooking ability is one of Smith's appealing qualities and his common touch is another important aspect of his popularity.
In his cookbook, Smith includes delicious, hearty dishes like those from a Basque restaurant in Sparks, Nev., where meals in the Basque boardinghouse tradition include Basque Oxtails, Tongue Stew, rice dishes, and Basque Leg of Lamb.
In one chapter he describes the food of Cambodia as ``very much like the people.... It is delicate, not hot and spicy, and it is flavorful and sweet, just like the people. The meals are eaten while sitting on the floor and the host in the house cares for all of your needs while you are eating.''
Smith's recipe for Cambodian Beef Steak on a Stick is seasoned with lemongrass and nuoc mam, a Cambodian fish sauce. It can be cooked on the charcoal grill or in the broiler.
There are also more than 15 Hungarian recipes in the new cookbook. ``I admit I got a tad carried away,'' he says in the interview. ``My cook and I went to Budapest to taste the food of the Old World. The city is beautiful, the Hungarians charming, and the food out of this world.'' Smith recommends the Sauerkraut Cooked in Paprika Gravy, which, he says, ``will probably just do you in.''
In addition to good cooking, Smith preaches family togetherness at the dinner table. ``Americans are terribly hungry for meaning,'' he says. ``I can tell by the thousands of letters I receive. By taking time to cook together and eat together, families are better equipped for the pressures of dual-career living and the dispersal of the traditional extended family. Food is more than recipes.''
Smith's next television series, now in the works, will be about the whole family. He was overjoyed with a recent New York Times/CBS New poll that found that eating together is important to most American families. ``That's exactly what I've been saying in all my shows and books,'' he says.