I hear it in some form at some point at least every other week—and I’m sure I could hear it every other minute if I felt the need to seek it out. A snarky comment. A snide remark. A long-look-down-the-nose criticism. In whatever form it comes, it seems that a lot of people take issue with Rachael Ray.
On one hand, I totally get it. She’s incessantly perky, which many find annoying. She has a lot of cutesy catchphrases, including but not limited to: yum-o, delish, and EVOO (I actually get behind this one; it’s a convenient abbreviation.). She tells the same stories over and over again. Yes Rachael, I know you’re going to put nutmeg in your greens because your Grandpa Emmanuel used to do it. We get it, you always burn the bread. Yeah, Worcestershire sauce…Bugs Bunny. Oh, and seriously, if I have to hear one more time how whenever you use cilantro “Jon pulls out his SAT words and calls it verdant”, I might scream.
And on top of it all, she’s famous. Like really famous. She has about five shows on the Food Network, a talk show, and her own brand of cookware, chicken stock, and even dog food. Let’s face it—we all know that nobody likes anybody who’s too damned famous.
Unless you’re talking about Oprah. But that has less to do with like and more to do with fear.
There are a plethora of reasons to be personally annoyed with Rachael Ray. Despite the fact that I can see those reasons, she’s never made my skin crawl. All this aside though, I have to say that a good chunk of the criticisms I’m seeing have nothing to do with her being cheeky and cheerful. Instead they trend toward what she’s actually doing in the kitchen. But if you take an honest look at what she’s actually doing in the kitchen, I have to ask you, What’s so wrong with Rachael Ray?
The only reasons I can see for looking so far down upon her (aside from the fact that she’s really quite petite, heh heh) have to do with highbrow foodie pretension. To a certain extent it’s unavoidable, and I’m guilty of it too. Last year, I chose not to renew my subscription to her Everyday magazine specifically because I had started to feel like the content was beneath me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. Perhaps “beneath me” is the wrong attitude, though. I’ve simply reached a place where what she’s doing doesn’t inspire me like it once did. That does not mean that I no longer see value in her work.
Having someone around like Rachael Ray is important. It’s important because people like her and they listen to what she has to say. It’s important because, when you put aside the fact that her recipes and execution lack the je ne sais quoi of a refined chef, the dishes that she makes taste good and are accessible enough to make people feel like they can cook them too. And above all else, the woman cooks with real food.
As Michael Ruhlman pointed out in this piece, everyone must start somewhere. Since the vast majority of us who are old enough to handle a knife and turn on a stove are coming from a generation of boxed meals and fast food, it’s no surprise that our beginnings are going to be small and pedestrian. Once upon a time Ruhlman made alfredo sauce with Knorr powder, and I used to make mac and cheese with Velveeta. It’s what I grew up with, it’s what I knew—and at least my mother never offered up the boxed Kraft version that tastes less like cheese than almost anything I know.
Despite growing up in these times, I always loved cooking (one of my fondest memories is my grandmother letting me pick out a set of spatulas and teaching me to make scrambled eggs as a child). I always had a good sense for what tasted good with what, but my skill set was limited and my knowledge base of what could be used to make a meal was small. I think most people who don’t cook today suffer similar limitations.
This almost feels like a dirty admission somehow, but I credit the Food Network, and in large part Rachael Ray, for opening my eyes to the culinary world. Of course the good ol’ FN has changed quite a bit in recent years, but we’re talking about that golden period before Mario Batali went away and reality-style programming took hold. I was in college then and I discovered 30 Minute Meals. Here was this young, cheerful person who never claimed to be an expert (and took pride in the fact that she wasn’t), making food entirely from scratch, under a ticking clock, using ingredients that I’d never heard of—smoked paprika, leeks, Parmigiano Reggiano.
She showed me how to chop an onion. She showed me the wrong way, but she showed me how nonetheless (that said, learn to do it the right way, it will change your life). She made me realize that using fresh garlic is absurdly easy and made me disappointed in all the years I’d used the pre-minced stuff in the jar—and used tablespoons of it at a time trying to get a flavor equal to one clove of fresh. She introduced me to fresh herbs, and the majority of my dried herbs have been languishing in the cabinet ever since. She forever turned my palate off to the green can of “shakey-cheese”. She taught me how to make a roux and béchamel, how to make a simple pan sauce for pork chops, and that risotto is an easy weeknight meal.
Yeah, Giada and Ina and Alton helped to teach me some of this stuff too, but Rach was on all the time and she’s the one I really remember. And I’ve got to say, I’ve cooked countless recipes out of her books (though it’s been a couple years since I’ve even cracked one) and 90% of the time they were a hit. She’s the entry-level cook’s cook. So what if it takes the beginner more than 30 minutes to make one of her recipes? You develop that speed and agility in the kitchen over time. Like so many things, the more you do it, the easier it is to do it fast and well.
I understand that she annoys some people. I totally get that for the more advanced cook her food looks mediocre at best. But what she’s promoting is far better than what the majority of Americans out there are currently doing (i.e. frozen meals, fast food, pizza delivery). Yes, she makes a lot of burgers, she does fake-baked pasta dishes, but at least she uses real food to make it all (which is more than we can say for the likes of Sandra Lee, though Ruhlman sees value in even her “work”).
I applaud those of you who have graduated to more refined culinary arenas. True, more and more of us see nothing unordinary about making cheese, putting up jam, and rendering lard in the comfort of our own homes. There are still parts of the country (if not most of it), however, where the children can all identify chicken nuggets but can’t tell the difference between a tomato and a potato. We need to remember that we all started somewhere, and I don’t think I know a single person who grew up learning how to emulsify egg yolks, vinegar, and oil into mayonnaise.
So when it comes to Rachael Ray, turn off the TV or don’t buy her books. Just remember in conversation that she gets people to cook, and rather than run the risk of making people feel ashamed or embarrassed to be purchasing her books and cooking her recipes, telling them that the only valid sources are the ones that make them feel incapable and overwhelmed, we should be supporting her cause. Showing people that cooking, every day, with real ingredients, is easy and possible for everyone—I don’t think that’s too pedestrian for anyone to get behind.