The Frugal Gourmet, 1939-2004
July 10, 2004 1:20 PM   Subscribe

“I bid you peace…” Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet, dead at 65. One of television’s most popular cooking shows throughout the 80s and 90s, The Frugal Gourmet defined the genre. An ordained United Methodist chaplain, Smith lost his PBS show in 1997 after eight men accused him of sexual assault during the 1970s. Denying the allegations, Smith nonetheless settled the cases out of court. Did the Frugal Gourmet do the ultimate shark jump? Maybe someone should ask Elmo.
posted by wfrgms (28 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Of course, now that I think about it… for a show to “jump the shark” it has to climax and then keep sputtering along for a few more seasons… The Frugal Gourmet just seems to have crashed and burned shortly after the allegations much like another famous show that was canceled after its star was accused of poor behavior...
posted by wfrgms at 1:27 PM on July 10, 2004

Sad. His show, This Old House, and (strangely enough) Perry Mason, were the nexus of my television world growing up. I was deeply conflicted about the allegations, but I decided that it was between him, the accusers, God, and the courts... and I just enjoyed his shows in syndication (while they lasted). His Keeping the Feast cookbook is still one of my favorites.

God speed, Jeff.
posted by silusGROK at 1:49 PM on July 10, 2004

Agreed, silusGROK. I used to watch the oddest combination of shows on PBS on Saturdays. It would be cartoons on the networks, then The Frugal Gourmet, Motorweek, and This Old House (with Bob Vila, not the other guy) for part of my day. It was a sad thing when the scandal broke and accusations were flying.

Rest in peace, Jeff Smith.
posted by SentientAI at 2:05 PM on July 10, 2004

The Seattle Times obit is pretty good.

That page, though, is unmitigated shite, with uninformed people talking out their asses. Like Slashdot.
posted by mcwetboy at 2:13 PM on July 10, 2004

And how is MetaFilter different?
posted by wendell at 2:24 PM on July 10, 2004

(Because we're not uninformed.)
posted by mcwetboy at 2:26 PM on July 10, 2004

Who's Jeff Smith?
posted by Hildago at 2:45 PM on July 10, 2004

posted by quonsar at 3:17 PM on July 10, 2004

Harper's, June 1992, Barbara G. Harrison, "P.C. on the Grill"--look it up. A spirited summary of why the Frug really grated on some people.
posted by gimonca at 3:45 PM on July 10, 2004

gimonca, I read that! I remember the headline was something like "The Frugal Gourmet, Skewered and Lambasted".

I used to enjoy watching him, but then one of my best friends ended up being his waiter one day, and well... Let's just say it changed my view of him.
posted by taz at 4:42 PM on July 10, 2004

Obviously some of the people on the jumptheshark page are morons, but I was surprised to hear from so many dedicated fans who followed the show so passionately. I spent a little time clicking around on that site and had fun reading people's shark-jump calls on some of my favorite shows. Very amusing. Good post!
posted by scarabic at 5:41 PM on July 10, 2004

James Barber is the real frugal gourmet. His "Urban Peasant" collection of rambling recipes is superlative.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:57 PM on July 10, 2004

When you said "ultimate shark jump," I assumed you meant he was cooking shark on his last show....
posted by ParisParamus at 5:59 PM on July 10, 2004

James Barber, aka the Urban Peasant, is a fucking freak. Once, on TV, he made what my circle now refers to as "The End-Stage Alcoholic Father Birthday Cake" - layers of Eggo waffles and Cool-Whip, with a happy-face made of jelly beans.

He also loves stirring things with a chef's knife in his non-stick cookware. Argh.
posted by stonerose at 6:38 PM on July 10, 2004

jump the shark is a pretty obnoxious phrase.
posted by xmutex at 6:55 PM on July 10, 2004

Jeff Smith was a friend of a friend. I liked his shows. I hadn't heard about these allegations of "molesting" teenagers. It is my considered and experienced opinion that teenagers old enough to be working are also old enough to say 'yes' or 'no' to sexual advances. This applies especially in the time when the alleged incidents were to have occurred (teenagers weren't 'children' in the 70's). I doubt any such allegations would have come out had there been no potential for monetary compensation.
posted by Goofyy at 12:03 AM on July 11, 2004

The Smoking Gun has a copy of an affidavit from the 1997 lawsuit, containing the accusations of the seven plaintiffs, which include Smith getting them drunk and using coercion and physical force to get what he wanted out of them. Plus, they were his employees, as well as being underage, so no, it doesn't seem like it was no big deal to me. Plus, when the settlement was reached, there were over a dozen witnesses, other than the seven plaintiffs, who were willing to testify against Smith and who had nothing to gain financially from it.

Look, I'm coming at this from the perspective of someone whose friend was raped by the "cool" teacher in my high school. It only came out five years later, when her parents found some incriminating letters from him. It was not that teacher's first time, but he agreed to plead guilty to statutory rape (a much easier charge to prove, especially five years after the fact), so that never became a matter of public record. My friends and I used to hang out in his classroom all the time, whenever we could. It can be hard to face, but sometimes, people you know personally, even people you like and consider your friends, can have some terrible secrets.
posted by skoosh at 5:23 AM on July 11, 2004

I recall watching an episode in which he featured what seemed to be an abviously unecessary assistant.

With no foreknowledge of the looming scandal(s), I recall the entire episode was a loud ping on the old gaydar.
posted by Fupped Duck at 5:53 AM on July 11, 2004

Wow. A gay chef. What a scandal.
posted by crunchland at 7:00 AM on July 11, 2004

No, crunchland, a gay chef banging teenage boys, and at the very least engaging in date rape behavior.

You probably say the same thing about Michael Jackson's out of court settlements "Wow. a gay musician. What a scandal."
posted by prodigalsun at 7:30 AM on July 11, 2004

...but then one of my best friends ended up being his waiter one day, and well... Let's just say it changed my view of him.

Eh... I learned a lot watching his show, but it wouldn't surprise me that he might be a petty tirant in person. I've known a lot of people with great and wide reputations for being Sooper Nice Guys who are "rude to the waiter" -- and you know the "rude to the waiter" rule...

Apropos of almost nothing, sometimes the good rep is valid. I heard a story many moons ago from a girl who worked banquet cruises in NY Harbor. One time she worked a wedding reception with a lot of NY actors in attendance. One of her tables had some folks who were particularly rude, until a guest at that table -- a tall, distinquished looking who seemed horribly familiar -- spoke quietly to them. Then they were nice. Eventually she recognized that tall, distinquished looking character as Leonard Nimoy.

And appropos the lovely and talented "Craig" (Jeff S's "assistant" for the last year), my gaydar tingled a little, but I always figured it was more of a crush/protege thing -- Jeff was getting pretty wobbly by then (congestive heart disease will do that to you), so I figured he was trying to annoint Craig as his successor.
posted by lodurr at 7:48 AM on July 11, 2004

a gay chef banging teenage boys

As it's been pointed out in earlier replies, these kids were old enough to know better. They worked for him. It's not like Jeff was trolling the junior high school. And since they were willing to settle with him, and there were no criminal charges brought against him, I'm willing to let the guy rest in peace.
posted by crunchland at 8:02 AM on July 11, 2004

getting them drunk and using coercion and physical force to get

That little set of facts changes the entire picture, assuming its true. The idiot shoulda come by my corner, I'd have given what he wanted for a good meal!
posted by Goofyy at 10:49 AM on July 11, 2004

crunchland, you left out the "engaging in date rape behavior" part. (Please see my comment above.) Also, as I mentioned earlier, rape is near impossible to prove in a criminal court years after the fact, when any physical evidence is probably long gone. Furthermore, I doubt that any of the plaintiffs were looking forward to the ordeal of a trial, with its attendant questioning of their sexualities, their prior unwillingness to come forward, and so on. I think the plaintiffs' main goal was probably to destroy Jeff Smith's career so they would never have to see his face on TV again, and that was accomplished. That might seem cold-blooded, but for a victim of a 20-year-old rape, that's probably the most civil possible form of revenge.
posted by skoosh at 11:31 AM on July 11, 2004

I knew Jeff Smith and worked with him over the course of several seasons of his shows. He was a demanding and often difficult person whose mood swings made it impossible to know how I might be treated by him from one moment to the next. I had to walk on eggshells in his presence as did everyone else whether part of his show production process or not.

Alcohol played a significant role in his unpredictability. It was not uncommon, on taping days, to find him passed out, from gin, in his studio trailer at 11:00 in the morning. I suspect that his death stems from both alcoholism and the heart condition and probably in equal amounts.

While Jeff certainly had an exaggerated opinion of his own importance he could be, at times, incredibly generous and warm. He was gregarious by nature and, if he took a liking to you, could talk your ears off.

There is no doubt in my mind that he was gifted intellectually and his ability to "turn it on" when in front of the camera, even when intoxicated, was nothing short of amazing. Show tapings generally went like clockwork.

I have no idea whether or not the allegations against him were true. I remember being surprised when they first were lodged against him but also thinking that they were not outside the realm of possibility. I never witnessed anything that could be construed as homosexual behavior between Jeff and his various cooking assistants. Craig and the other assistants that I knew all seemed to me to be quite hetero (FYI: I'm female).

One last point worth mentioning: Jeff had already retired from doing any more shows some 3 years before the allegations surfaced. In fact, during the 1994 production cycle, the final three years worth of shows were taped and "put in the can." That the shows ended at about the time the accusations came to light was a coincidence. At least that is what I think.
posted by bz at 12:21 PM on July 11, 2004 [1 favorite]

Jeff was at least bi.
posted by Goofyy at 11:32 PM on July 11, 2004

with Bob Vila, not the other guy

FWIW, the other guy got booted retired from This Old House and has been replaced by a fresher face.

As for Jeff Smith, I found his delivery grating, though my mom enjoyed the show.
posted by piskycritter at 5:25 AM on July 12, 2004

Jeff was a major influence in my life. In my early teens, when I was just learning to cook, I would watch Jeff Smith's Frugal Gourmet religiously. It was the first cookery show I learnt from, even before learning to mince garlic from Martin Yan. His obvious love for cooking was infectious. It inspired me to take up cooking seriously and have fun doing it. His show also taught me some important basic principles of cooking including one that I continue to preach to all my friends and family: "Hot wok, cold oil; food won't stick." It is these principles that mark the difference between a good cook and a great one. Jeff's smooth-talking style made cooking look not like a chore but an extremely rewarding experience.

Today, I'm the chef and owner of a fine dining South-east Asian restaurant in Bangalore. Jeff, you played a big part in shaping my future. For that, I will always be grateful.

May The Force be with you.
posted by madman at 11:58 PM on July 12, 2004

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