Frugal Gourmet serves food with theology on the side Church fund-raiser is in good taste

November 04, 1991|By Patricia Meisol

Sauteed mushrooms, representing the smell of the earth. Whipped cream for a bit of the heavens. Put them over angel hair pasta and behold, a pasta in honor of angels.

Turn the pages of dishes in honor of Wise Men, lambs, donkeys, Roman soldiers, the tax collector and others connected to the Christmas creche and you get the idea behind the latest culinary book by Methodist minister-turned-cook Jeff L. Smith.

Mr. Smith, host of the popular PBS television show, "The Frugal Gourmet," brought his unique commentary on theology and food and a new Christmas cookbook to Baltimore yesterday at a fund-raiser for the restoration of Lovely Lane Methodist Church.

Nearly 800 fans turned out for the sell-out demonstration, the most since the Charles Village church celebrated its centennial seven years ago. Errol G. Smith, Lovely Lane pastor, estimated the event would bring in $25,000 for the 107-year-old Romanesque church, which has a $300,000 debt and $5 million worth of plans for the future. The church was designed by the noted U.S. architect Stanford White in remembrance of the 1784 Christmastime ordination of the first Methodist bishop in America.

In a makeshift table in the sanctuary, its ceiling mural hanging in tatters, Mr. Smith held forth on the origins of herbs and spices, signed books whose profits went to the church, and, later in the day, presided over vespers.

"Frugal doesn't mean cheap, but not wasteful," the 52-year-old chef said in an hourlong demonstration that included theological musings about the lack of a center in an onion and a sermon on the necessity of cooking even when you don't have time.

"Cooking is not a matter of preparing food. It is a matter of preparing history, and when you put a dish in front of the family you have to be able to explain it," Mr. Smith said.

"It means you're giving them memories. Mrs. Swanson's TV trays have no memories. You can't say, 'Listen kids, I want to tell you what your grandmother used to defrost for dinner.' "

Mr. Smith was a chaplain and assistant professor of religion at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, teaching courses such as Food as Sacrament and Celebration, when he began to

examine the role of food in religious cultures. With his students, he opened a pantry and cooking school in 1972. He and his chef, Craig D. Wollam, also on hand yesterday, are now seen on more than 225 television stations.

Among chefs, Mr. Smith is the favorite of 14-year-old Nicole LaBelle, who said she watches four hours of television cooking shows a week. "I have been learning to cook since I could pretty much stand," she said. "I love cooking."

Among those loaded down with books in the autograph line was 9-year-old Gretchen Homer of Carney. Her grandmother, Esther DiGiancinto, said Gretchen got hooked on "The Frugal Gourmet" because it came on just before Sesame Street. Gretchen said her father, like Mr. Smith, is a minister who likes to cook.

"One of the things I like about him is he gives the history behind the food, the culture, the who-invaded-who. . . . But I don't necessarily like what he cooks all the time," said one man who declined to be identified but said he is a computer programmer in Columbia. "But I took his advice and bought a Chinese wok -- the best investment I ever made," the man said.

Yesterday's menu consisted of lamb meatballs made with honey cake, pine nuts, and herbs popular in Persian times, a 1904 carrot sauce, and Esau's Pottage -- named for the biblical man who traded his inheritance for lentils -- in addition to the pasta with cream and mushrooms.

Always, always, saute the mushrooms in olive oil, Mr. Smith advised.

"Olive oil is better than butter," he said. "I like butter. But margarine was invented by the Antichrist."

He urged people to think of food in a theological way. "The reason I say grace before meals is not because I am happy about the food -- who knows? It could be Jell-O -- but to make that most basic confession that I am not God, but dependent on God's creations for our existence," he said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke proclaimed yesterday Jeff Smith Day in Baltimore in honor of the chef's effort to help restore the landmark church.

Gov. William Donald Schafer extended honorary citizenship. "I assume this comes with crab cakes," Mr. Smith said.

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