IT'S HARD to figure out if Jeff Smith, America's favorite frugal gourmet, is a preaching cook or a cooking preacher. Just give him a sharp knife, a pot to simmer stock and a good gas range and he's found home. Or give him a pulpit and a Bible and the word of the Scripture and this ordained Methodist minister has found, well, home.
So it comes as no surprise that he was as comfortable as an old shoe when he recently gave a cooking demonstration and later on presided over vesper services at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church.
Wearing his signature black-striped apron, white button-down shirt and conservative tie, the 52-year-old entertaining minister -- or ministering entertainer -- preached and cooked in the church's cherrywood sanctuary, under a wooden cross, behind two rectangular tables draped in white cloth, amid a pot of boiling water and a pan of shallots sauteed in olive oil.
He came to help the 107-year-old mother church of Methodism raise funds for a $5 million renovation project. He was at home, despite working with pared down equipment and makeshift burners. "Electric burners are like Methodists," he said. "They get hot when they want to, not when they should."
He showed a sell-out crowd of nearly 800 people in an hour-long demonstration how to cook Esau's Pottage (a lentil soup), Persian meatballs, carrot sauce over roasted chicken and angel pasta with whipped cream and porcini, all the while expounding theology and food.
Esau, son of Isaac, traded his birthright to his twin brother for a bowl of pottage, for example. And the pasta selection, which comes straight out of the new "The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas," is dedicated to angels (the fluffy whipped cream symbolizes clouds).
Author of six cookbooks, Smith never envisioned that he would bring his mix of food and theology to millions of people across America. "I thought it was a fly-by-night kind of show," he said of his first TV show on a Tacoma, Wash., public television station. "I thought when I woke up from this dream, I'd be locked up in a mental institution."
Yet he and his sidekick, Craig Wollam, are constantly on the road, doing book signings or helping different churches raise funds -- this from a man who started out more than 20 years ago as a chaplain and religion professor at the University of Puget Sound in Washington state, who opened his own cooking school and catering service.
Now his top-rated PBS cooking show appears on 225 stations nationwide, attracting 15 million viewers a week, most of them men and children. And he has the distinction of being the only cookbook author to hold the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the New York Times best-seller list.
On his first TV appearance, "Cooking Fish Creatively," the director was astounded that he wanted to preach as he cooked.
So on the show, Smith expounded on how onions came to be ("The onion is because God said 'be,'" he said. When it was over, the director went out of the booth and said, 'Hey, you were pretty good. Thank God you didn't preach."