Every year, usually in summer, I make the Frugal Gourmet’s sesame chicken salad. I use his plausibly Chinese method for poaching, which involves turning off the heat under the water and letting the chicken sit for an hour. Then I mix the meat with sesame oil and tahini, both of which I bought and used for the first time decades ago for this very recipe, and serve it to cries of admiration.
And the whole time I’m doing this, I’m thinking: “Ewww, Frug—you liked little boys.”
As middle-aged readers might remember, the career of early PBS cooking superstar Jeff Smith, a.k.a. the Frugal Gourmet, died a quick and brutal death in 1997, when a grand total of eight men filed suit against Smith for fondling, kissing, and/or raping them as teenagers. Current reported in 1998 that Smith’s trial, which never occurred due to a settlement deal, would have included damning testimony from more than a dozen other people not named in the suits. Smith passed away in 2004.
Innocent until proven guilty and all that, but, um, 19-plus people? Doesn’t look good. It’s made Smith’s ebullient personality take on a rather creepy cast in our memories, not least of which for the always-kinda-unsettling attention he paid to Craig Wollam, his boyish-looking cooking and writing partner.
And yet, cooks out there still retain a little love for the guy, or at least for his recipes, which tend to work. Indeed, as Alton Brown noted last year in The Wall Street Journal while recommending Smith’s book The Frugal Gourmet as one of his top-five faves, “were it not for Smith, I know of at least one would-be cook who’d still be on the sofa ordering takeout.”
A surprising number of cooks have at least one Smith recipe in their regular rotation, like my sesame chicken, or Brown’s Chicago pizza or carrot sauce. Or use a technique they learned while watching Smith on TV, such as his mantra “hot pan, cold oil, food won’t stick.” Or first encountered an ingredient, like whole cloves of garlic, due to Smith’s influence. Hey, the guy routinely got 15 million viewers! That’s a whole lot of people who learned to cook watching him.
So is it still OK to like the Roman Polanski of the food world, cook his recipes, and enjoy the results? Chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Rachael Ray have emerged relatively unscathed from sex scandals, though of course, neither of those alleged incidents involved minors. Do we just not care as much about the private lives of celebrities as we did in 1997? Or is the inappropriate touch still the quickest way to end a career?
Image source: RetroBookShop.com