Glamorous even in denim, B. Smith plumbs the crustacean mysteries of Bo Brooks' kitchen in Canton.
Powdered for prime time, Chris Hannan, manager of the family-owned restaurant, explains to Smith the difference in taste between jimmies and females, while a glistening pile of large blue crabs wriggle on a stainless steel counter.
Entering its sixth season, the half-hour, syndicated show, B. Smith with Style, has come to Baltimore on a brilliant late summer day to discover one of the city's most telegenic commodities.
A crew of about a dozen crams into the kitchen, while Smith coyly, but unsuccessfully, tries to pry from Hannan his top-secret spice mix.
"I personally use Old Bay seasoning and a few other things," she says, rather coquettishly.
Hannan more willingly discusses how to steam hundreds of dozens of crabs at once, and tuck them neatly and safely into a pot of "juice."
"Cut!" director Leslie McNeil shouts repeatedly during the four-hour shoot when lines are flubbed, or there's a better shot to take or question to ask. After Hannan says that crabs are done when they smell a certain way, she asks him to describe that smell. "I don't have the faintest idea how to explain that one," he says.
In such ways, the relatively simple procedure of steaming crabs is broken down into a zillion particles, which will then be edited back together in a simulation of reality. It's a tedious process requiring enormous tolerance for down time, repetition and spouting obvious sound bites.
But "the boss," as the crew calls her, stays cool in the midst of the maelstrom. Barbara Smith's presence, in fact, lends this exercise in artifice its one element of authenticity. And therein lies the genius of this particular brand- marketing juggernaut.
Smith, a 52-year-old former fashion model with restaurants in Washington, Manhattan and the Hamptons, is steadily building a lifestyle business empire that is frequently compared - favorably - to that of a more notorious maven of gracious living.
Where Martha comes across as dictatorial, Smith is warm and intuitive, even as she brings the usual stuff - linen, Vogue patterns, wall coverings cookbooks, television, and soon, jewelry, perfume and cosmetics - to the global table.
Smith calls her approach "trans-cultural." She and the obligatory team of assistants glean and synthesize ideas from childhood, museums, cookbooks, international travels as well as trends in gardening, fashion and home design: A little Caribbean here, a little Italian there, add some Cajun catfish fingers and chitterlings in puff pastry, serve with Japanese sweet potatoes and before you know it, we are the world.
In that spirit, Smith's three restaurants are like children, she says. "They're from the same parents but have different personalities," she says. The New York place is "eclectic," Sag Harbor is seafood and D.C. is Cajun, Creole and Southern, she explains. Her two cookbooks, B. Smith's Entertaining and Cooking for Friends (Workman, $30) and B. Smith: Rituals & Celebrations (Random House, $35), reflect that culinary breadth as well.
That Smith is African American is largely incidental. While she clearly revels in the talents of black celebrities who appear on her show, including B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Wesley Snipes, race is not the defining element of Smith's casually gracious image. "She's amazing, " says husband Dan Gasby, co-producer of the television program and never far from his wife's side. "She's a groundbreaker who appeals to women in East Baltimore and to Park Avenue."
Even if she's following the same general lifestyle-marketing blueprint as Stewart, Chris Casson Madden, Christopher Lowell and others, Smith is a pioneer of sorts in her presentation of an affluent, cultured, multiracial world as a fait accompli, not as a pipe dream.
On air, Smith, who is stepmother to Gasby's teen daughter Dana, deliberately traipses through diverse communities where she meets experts from a wide range of backgrounds. During a program shot in Brooklyn, she appears genuinely delighted to be sampling olives, visiting boutiques and learning how to buy antiques.
Smith's own background is the stuff of lifestyle myth. She grew up outside of Pittsburgh in a loving blue-collar home. One biography reads like a cross between that of a 4H prodigy and Miss America contestant: "Barbara was an intellectually curious youngster, had a paper route, produced local fundraising events, volunteered at the local hospital and excelled in sewing and home economics. After finishing high school, she moved to Pittsburgh and became the first African-American ground hostess for TWA while attempting to break into modeling."
Her personal story and charisma are the perfect platform for B. Smith's expanding empire. With it, naturally, comes a credo - albeit a fuzzy one - for consumers of her products to live by. She and Gasby speak of how becoming adept in home arts makes you feel good about yourself and less inclined to wield guns and knives. They sing the praises of hugs and home-baked pies and the neighborly use of first names. Gasby, a commanding presence who does a lot of the talking, suggests that his wife's civics lessons are an antidote to all that is brutal in contemporary life, including work, which he likens to war.
With the exception perhaps of a signature magazine, B. Smith's Style, which folded after three issues, Smith and Gasby's merchandizing campaign and its attendant philosophy appear to be a winning combination. "It is safe to say we have sales in excess from all of our businesses of $40 million annually, Gasby says.
But synergy, unlike other things, doesn't just happen. You have to continually devise ways to spin one product into another. And with each new line, the distinction between Smith's personal identity and her public one gets a little more vague. Practically everything she and her husband do in their private lives is calculated to be fodder for the program and other products. The renovation of their new apartment off Central Park, for example, will be chronicled over several episodes of this coming season's B. Smith with Style. It's not unusual to have 60 crewmembers in their Hamptons home when a celebrity comes to dine. When Gasby says, "We might buy a farm or something like that," it's clear that their intentions have as much to do with business as pleasure.
The constant hustle begs questions: When can you escape your own brand name and just be human? (It was easier back when brand names were fabrications, like Betty Crocker.) When do the pace and deal cutting belie your love-thy-neighbor message? When is enough enough?
During the Bo Brooks taping, Smith and Gasby are visited by his cousin, Rosedale resident Gladys Pearl Wilkerson and her friend Dorothy Gray. During a lull, Gray gets right to the point. "Do you take a vacation?"
And Wilkerson, who clearly dotes on her cousin and his wife, asks if they have any private time.
Smith wouldn't mind a real getaway, she admits. But Gasby reminds her that the months ahead are clogged with obligations across the country. A B. Smith bath line will soon be introduced, as will a window treatment line for the Bed Bath & Beyond chain, where she already sells bed linens. Then there's that "jewelry deal" in Japan. There's talk of a Monday through Friday television program in the future. And come November, there will be not one, but four Thanskgivings, including their own at home the day after the holiday. "You have to cook your own turkey, don't you?" Smith asks.
When she really needs a break, Smith heads alone to the New Age Health Spa in upstate New York. There, after fasting, she enjoys healthy meals and long hikes. "Then, I come back by the discount mall."
By midday, the B. Smith entourage has arrived at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton to tape a segment for the coming season. The light is right, but the camera guys are grumpy and bloopers abound. Smith, though, is an island of serenity as she speaks with senior gardener Phil Krach about time it takes for a topiary to take form.
The new, pagoda-shaped topiary they stand before may take 20 years, Krach says.
"B. - you're surprised, [you say,] 'You must be a very patient man,'" director McNeil instructs her.
"You must be a very patient man," Smith duly tells Krach as the cameras roll.
"Please come back before 20 years," he urges. They walk away together, like old friends.
You get the feeling that if she could, Smith would find a secluded bench, let the late afternoon sun warm her skin, and do absolutely nothing for at least five minutes.
But while Gasby, on his cell, debates issues of creative control with the show's sponsor, Smith forges ahead for the next shot.
What's in a brand?
B. Smith with Style airs 5 a.m. on Saturdays on WJZ and 1:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Saturdays on the WB in Salisbury.
B. Smith's Entertaining and Cooking for Friends (Workman, $30)
B. Smith: Rituals & Celebrations (Random House, $35)
B. Smith's at Union Station, B. Smith's Sag Harbor, B. Smith's in New York City
Shower curtains, sheets, duvet and comforter ensembles sold in more than 300 Bed Bath & Beyond stores.
Walls coverings, including borders and wall paper designs, produced by the Imperial Home Decor Group and available through home centers and design showrooms.
B. Smith's Vogue patterns.