Critics Turn Up the Heat Over Frugal Gourmet’s Style, Endorsements : Cooking: TV host Jeff Smith lambasted by food aficionados who say recipes aren’t his--and aren’t affordable. The popular author bites back.
Has Frug-bashing become the soupe du jour for food purists?
Jeff Smith has been roasted to a crisp in recent Harper’s Magazine, Newsweek and newspaper articles. But as the Frugal Gourmet, host of the most popular TV cooking show and author of some of the best-selling cookbooks in history, he can afford to laugh.
He says he can take the heat and won’t get out of the kitchen. In fact, he is planning a trip to Italy this fall for his next book and TV series, “The Frugal Gourmet’s Italian Journal.”
“Not many people read Harper’s, you know. That’s a very small audience,” Smith said.
“I’m still having fun taping shows. My fans certainly couldn’t care less,” he said. “This has nothing to do with our fans, because they know it isn’t true.”
Boiled down to basics, the criticisms center on Smith’s buoyant and often flip style, his product endorsements and the cost, creativity, originality, dependability and quality of his recipes.
In the most scalding attack, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote in Harper’s that he was “a downscale Bill Moyers of the Insinkerator, an aproned P.C. (politically correct) guru of Ethnic Self-Esteem” who dared “to drape the rags of piety over conspicuous consumption.”
In Newsweek, Laura Shapiro skewered Smith as a prime example of prominent cooks who may compromise their integrity by being paid to recommend food products and kitchen ware.
His latest book, “The Frugal Gourmet Whole Family Cookbook,” is “especially shocking . . . the cookbook as infomercial,” Shapiro wrote.
At the spring gathering of the International Assn. of Culinary Professionals, Miami Herald food editor Felicia Gressette wrote, a crack by President Irena Chalmers about “the Frugal Gourmet, who is neither,” was widely quoted with approval.
Newsday writer Irene Sax cited “rumors that his recipes aren’t original” and quoted Nahum Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters Bookstore in New York as saying, “Among people who work seriously in this field and do meticulous research, there’s a sense of outrage about his work.”
Smith says he knows why he is a target: jealousy. He has an estimated 15 million TV viewers and total book sales of nearly 5 million copies.
“People criticize me for enjoying good food when I use the word frugal,” he said.
“Frugal doesn’t mean cheap. It means you don’t waste your money,” Smith said. “They haven’t read my books. They don’t know the meaning of the word.”
Smith said he was warned to expect a backlash when his first cookbook, “The Frugal Gourmet,” hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.
“My agent, Bill Adler, said, ‘Get ready for attacks from journalists, from newspaper cooks. . . . They’re going to figure you haven’t paid your dues.’
Sax reported that “one of the kindest” critics toward Smith was William Rice, food and wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
“I’ve tried to cook his stuff, and let’s say it was hit or miss. Some things worked, and others didn’t,” Rice said. “But as with anyone on TV, he’s really an entertainer, and it’s not fair to hold him to standards of purism.”
Smith, 53, a Methodist minister and former University of Puget Sound chaplain whose TV cooking dates from 1973, insists he gets along well with kitchen superstars like Julia Child and Pierre Franey.
“I wouldn’t say he is a pariah,” said Jonathan Susskind, food writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “A lot of people (culinary professionals) go up to him and talk to him.
“However, I will say that this business is a very sniping, catty profession, and everybody is very quick to turn the paring knife a little bit, stick it in and turn it a little bit.”
With the public, his star continues to rise.
When Smith signed copies of “Whole Family Cookbook” at the Liberties bookstore in Boca Raton, Fla., owner Valk Svekis said the crowds were exceeded only by those drawn by Ivana Trump and Oliver North.
“Why is he beloved?” Harrison wrote. “The short answer is that people are stupid.”
Smith defended his endorsements--"I don’t see anything wrong with endorsing products that I believe in"--and said all the resulting payments are donated to causes ranging from AIDS research to food banks.
“That kind of stuff really hurts me,” he said.