SEATTLE – Jeff Smith, a white-bearded minister who became public television’s popular “Frugal Gourmet” before a sex scandal ruined his career, has died, his business manager said Friday. He was 65.
Smith died in his sleep Wednesday, Jim Paddleford said. He suffered from heart disease and had a valve replaced in 1981.
Smith’s enthusiasm for food began during his childhood in Tacoma. When money was tight, grocers would give his mother cast-off produce such as artichokes; Smith recalled using them as grenades during war games with his brother.
But, Paddleford said, Smith’s mother would always make do with whatever she received, and Smith developed a great appreciation for rustic cooking. “The Frugal Gourmet,” which aired on PBS from 1983 to 1997, wasn’t about being cheap but about making good food simply.
Wearing his signature striped apron, he prefaced the show with history lessons about the culture of each dish, from Armenian meat pie to Welsh cakes with currants.
“People liked the down-home approach. They liked the history part,” Paddleford said. “It was wonderful – we would get these letters from people saying that he allowed them to travel to places they would never see and try foods they would never have tried. He really got them cooking together.”
In the 1960s, Smith, a United Methodist minister, began teaching a course at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma titled “Food as Sacrament and Celebration.” Part of his inspiration was concern for his students; they were spending their money on anti-war causes rather than on eating properly, and he wanted to show them they didn’t have to spend a lot to eat well, Paddleford said.
In 1974 he got his own program on the local PBS affiliate – “Cooking Fish Creatively.” He moved the show to Chicago, and his career took off with an appearance on Phil Donahue’s talk show.
“The Frugal Gourmet” became the nation’s most-watched cooking program, and a series of accompanying cookbooks broke sales records for the category.
But in 1997, seven men filed a lawsuit alleging they had been sexually abused by Smith as youths. Six said the abuse occurred while they worked for him at the Chaplain’s Pantry, a restaurant he operated in Tacoma in the 1970s. The seventh alleged Smith abused him after picking him up as a hitchhiker in 1992.
Smith was soon off the air, though he denied the allegations and was never charged with a crime. He and his insurance companies paid an undisclosed sum to settle the lawsuit.
“The saddest thing was he saw a career he had built … and the good he had done being taken away by largely unsubstantiated innuendo,” Paddleford said. “But he saw there was no way to undo or overcome the public relations, and so he decided to retire.”
F. Mike Shaffer, the Tacoma attorney who represented the seven men who accused Smith, declined to comment Friday.
Smith spent the final years of his life encouraging young chefs, researching a book on biblical foods and traveling to his favorite restaurants and markets in Hong Kong, New York and San Francisco. “He always worked under the premise that you could take the fanciest cuisine and if you dug hard enough you could reduce it to its peasant form,” Paddleford said. “When it was all said and done, the peasant form was the foundation of all cooking for him.”
Smith is survived by his wife, Patricia, and two sons.
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