Yes, her recipes occasionally don't work. (The applesauce in this one? Takes almost 45 minutes to mushen.)
Yes, she undertips on her $40 a Day show, the nutritional aspects of her 30-Minute Meals are somewhat questionable, and if I hear “yummo” one more time, I’m seriously going to kill a kitten.
Yet, as weird as it is to admit, Rachael Ray is one of the best things to happen to American kitchens in the last 20 years.
Sweet, sweet Anthony Bourdain was pretty rough on her in his Time interview (“She genuinely offends me.”), but I think he might have confused her with She Who Shall Not Be Named. And while some of his criticism was warranted (seriously, WHY is she shilling for Dunkin?), most of it was a wee bit off.
Think about it. No other ‘90s and ‘00s cheflebrity (not even Emeril) has driven average citizens back to their stoves like Ray has. Nor has anyone else made sort-of upscale cooking look as affordable and achievable. Oh, it’s easy to rag on the ear-splitting Western New York accent and the kitchen-sinkiness of some of her meals, but Ray-Ray’s good points far outweigh the bad. In fact, let’s break ‘em down:
She encourages fresh ingredients. Though Rachael’s the spokesperson for donuts, Munchkins, and other assorted sugar, her shows nearly always highlight produce and non-processed foods. I’ve never seen her break out a pre-chopped onion or a store-bought meal base. And while her dishes may be high in calories and fat, I bet they don’t contain half as many bizarro chemicals as most convenience foods.
She tries to keep things vaguely affordable. As opposed to other, more upscale TV chefs, Rachael thinks like a middle-class mom, focusing somewhat on frugality. She may use a large number of ingredients, but most aren’t particularly exotic or expensive. Plus, she’s pretty good about mentioning thriftier substitutes.
She stretches. You will never find authentic Mughal Indian or Indonesian dishes on 30 Minute Meals. You might even raise an eyebrow at what she calls Greek food. However, Rachael often tries to bring one or two ingredients relatively unfamiliar to American palates into her cooking. It’s a solid way to introduce kids and finicky adults to foreign cuisines without overwhelming them, and she should be lauded for it.
Her recipes are available for free. Sure, Ray-Ray makes sweet bank off her cookbooks, but as of this morning, 1558 recipes were on Food.com, and several hundred more were listed at her personal website (stunningly, at RachaelRay.com). She doesn’t HAVE to do that, and would make even more moolah if she didn't. Yet, it's a concession she make for her economy-minded fans. It's really great, actually.
She knows her audience. Maybe this is an insult to those who believe all cooking shows should be aimed at French Culinary grads, but working moms can’t be braising beef or whipping up a gelee every night of the week. Rachael aims her food at families and/or young people getting into a kitchen for the first time, not professional or even proficient chefs. That’s why her dishes are relatively simple, fresh, and fast. In her case, brevity is the soul of food, not complexity. And for her fans, that’s just fine.
Her food isn’t intimidating. I’ve been to two of Mario Batali’s restaurants, and the man doesn’t make dinner; he makes manna. Alas, trying to duplicate those dishes at home would be extraordinarily time-consuming, expensive, and well beyond most folks’ humble culinary expertise. For better or for worse, Rachael avoids cooking methods that busy people would find unmanageable. Like Bourdain says, taking the path of least resistance should never be encouraged (especially in the kitchen) but again, she’s marketing to home cooks with massive time constraints.
She’s not a chef, and doesn’t pretend to be. Ms. Ray is not a stupid woman. (Loud, yes. Dumb, no.) She knows her limitations, admits them readily, and tackles the big, bad job of meal-prepping anyway. That takes guts, as well as some level of competence in the kitchen. Ray/Batali didn’t beat Flay/DeLaurentiis on Iron Chef because they got lucky.
I’ve now spent the first day of my thirties defending a celebrity. If you'll excuse me, I’m going to the bathroom to wash my brain, but if anyone has any other convincing arguments for or against her, bring ‘em! I’d love to read.
(Photo courtesy of this hilarious Onion pictoral.)