Jeff Smith: The Frugal Gourmet

The morning my wife and I called it quits, I left the house and went straight to a scheduled interview with Jeff Smith, aka The Frugal Gourmet.

I had a weekly TV column at the time, it was an exclusive interview, and the TV star was only in town for one day.  That devotion to my job is one of the reasons my wife decided to leave.  It was actually the second time I worked my way out of a marriage.  My job was who I was, not what I did.

I watched The Frugal Gourmet regularly. I was always interested in food and cooking, and I liked his humor and cheerful TV persona.  I also liked to use my TV column to support public television whenever I could.

If you ever watched the Frug on TV, you won’t be surprised to know that, as soon as I walked into the room, he tried to turn our handshake into a bear hug.  He was a total stranger, an interview subject, and I thought the over-familiarity was inappropriate.  It was also 20 minutes after my wife and I broke up.  I was not in a hugging mood. I dodged him like Walter Payton avoiding a tackle.

He had an interesting story.  He was a Protestant minister working as a university chaplain in Tacoma, Washington.  He did a lot of premarital counseling with young couples.  This was the generation that grew up eating dinner off separate trays in front of the television.  They did not know how to fix a real dinner, or understand how important it is to a successful marriage and family.

So he started teaching cooking classes. The local public TV station started showing them.  It went national on PBS, and he was one of their biggest stars from 1983 to 1997. When I met him, he was at the height of his fame and popularity.

He wrote 12 books that sold 7 million copies, and licensed a line of cooking products.  Two of his books were Number One and Two on the NY Times best seller list at the same time.

I love stories where a guy gets rich and famous by doing the right thing. But the story has an unhappy final chapter I found out about after he died in 2004 at 65.

In 1997, 12 years after I met him, eight men accused him of assaulting them sexually when they were teenagers.  He denied it, his insurance company settled the cases for an undisclosed sum, and he was never charged with a crime.  After that, he dropped out of sight.

His obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said, “He was an epicurean who embraced the culinary traditions of cultures and countries everywhere, and brought them to Americans at a time when many such tastes were unknown and exotic. Smith once said he was proud of the Northwest’s role in helping spark that food revolution and that Native Americans here had introduced salmon, berries, shellfish and more to the national palate.”

I left my problems at home that unhappy day and did my job, because I was a disciplined person and a workaholic. Today, I call myself a “recovering workaholic.”  My recovery from workaholism began when I left my job at the daily newspaper. For the next few years, I worked less, but still could not enjoy my leisure time.

I had a relapse between 2004 and 2008, when I took a “part-time” job coordinating a speakers’ bureau for the New Hampshire affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI NH).  Like all part-time jobs, it did not stay part-time very long.  Our executive director was a dynamo, always finding funding to start projects, and asking me to help out.  I always said yes. because they were good projects.  I was honored to be asked.

Then the state funded my speakers bureau, and dumped an enormous paperwork burden on me.  I couldn’t take the stress. I was working 42 hours a week, still getting paid for 14.  I even telecommuted to the job from vacation.  September and October were the busiest season for my speakers’ bureau.  I could not go away in August, when all the speaker requests were coming in. Late August, after the children went back to school, was the only time to enjoy the seashore.  Two weeks a year at the seashore is not a luxury for me.  It rests and re-creates my mind, body, and spirit as nothing else can.

I got sick from the job stress, quit, and got well overnight.  I counted my money and found I did not need another day job.

Now, I write and teach mental health recovery skills, choose my own projects and set my own deadlines, and still have enough money to go to the seashore two weeks every summer.  That makes me rich, according to the ancient rabbi who said: “Who is rich? The one who is happy with what he has.”

Today, I am still a disciplined person, but my life is more than my work, and my work is more than my job. The story of how I changed is a good one for another day.

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