Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Defending the Doyenne: The Semi-Cheap, Kind-of-Healthy Goodness of Rachael Ray

Yes, she plugs Dunkin Donuts.

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, and several hundred more were listed at her personal website (stunningly, at 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.)

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paidtwice said...

Seriously, I think your post is spot on. I love Rachael Ray, and I hate her too. It is a complex relationship. :)

She could do what she does better. But she could also do it a LOT worse.

(However, I CANNOT stand to watch her talk show. I will admit to watching 30-minute meals a few times a month. But I tried her talk show twice and I just COULD NOT stand it. lol)

Kris said...

PT, you're SO right. I want to hate her (THE ACCENT), but I can't. What she's doing is ultimately good for people.

I'm at work during her talk show, for which I thank the gods of programming.

Hops said...

I must nitpick, because you have defamed the delicate and charming Buffalo accent. Rachael Ray is from Central NY and that, my friend is a very different and scary place.

Also? I hate her face and everything she says and does.

Mika said...

Ugh. I can't bear watching her. I don't really care for her food choices and her style is awful.

I also can't stand seeing her all over town on various boxes of crap not to mention her love of the word EVVO.

VixenOnABudget said...

To be quite honest, Rachael Ray is what got me watching cooking shows. She lacks all forms of pretentiousness and as a newbie, I appreciated that.

Of course, now I've graduated on to the likes of Post-Punk Kitchen and Anthony Bourdain (that man is amazing).

Homemaker of the 21st Century said...

This is a great post! My daughters and I love Rachel Ray and often use her recipes. But can we say "bubbly" lol! She drives me nuts!

MoneyCommonSense said...

No way, in my book that woman cannot be redeemed. She might have turned on some people to cooking but with some of her nasty recipes she's probably turned off just as many people as well.
I love AB and I am behind him all the way in his bashing her.

twylitehope said...

I love Rachel! Yes, the over-the-top, perky, cheerleader-for-cooking routine can get on my nerves, but (other than Nigella), she is one of the few people I watch on food network.

My husband doesn't like to be in the room when I do watch her.

Milehimama said...

Yah, I totally can't even stand to think about Sandra Whoever. I think there's a reason she always features alcohol on her show. It's the only way anyone would work with her.
I thought I was the only one who had probs with her recipes! But she does give one a starting point, and convinces us we can do it. She's a cook, not a chef, which I think is why she is so successful.
My all time fave is Alton Brown, though.

Boomie said...

This is a joke right?

Rachael Ray is the epitome of what is wrong with American cooking and why we have an obesity problem. To idolize her in anyway is to worship at the alter of diabetes, fatness, improper nutrition, high cholesterol, heart disease and whatever else could ail you.

You've got to be kidding, right? This has got to be a joke post, right?

Kris said...

Nope. RayRay may have many, many faults, but there are American diet issues far more pressing than a woman who actually cooks.

I would argue that a convenience-centered culture is the much larger problem. We want huge portions of half-assed food served five minutes ago, with no effort made on our parts.

While not the best option to counter this mindset, Rachael is the most popular (and the most irritating), and her good points should be noted.

Alison said...

I agree!
I love the format of her show, just wish someone else hosted it. And I like her cookbooks, but I'm glad they don't have any audio.

I saw some "special" Rachael Ray EVOO at the grocery store yesterday. Yikes.

southerngirl said...

I hate Rachael Ray. Like, I think I'd kick her if I saw her in the street, I find her $40 a day show SO irritating.

However, her 30 minute meals cookbooks are still the only thing getting me to even put a toe into cooking for myself at home (beyond pasta roni) so I guess I owe her for that.

Kris said...

Southerngirl, you totally nailed it. She's supremely annoying, but she gets folks in the kitchen. You take the bad with the good, I guess.

SG said...

The reason why 'Ray-Ray' makes me grit my teeth because she always talks as if she's addressing a group of preschoolers. Why must she refer to sandwiches as 'sammies'? How hard is it to say 'extra-virgin olive oil'? And don't get me started on 'yummo!'. Is she going to start using flashcards next, or having a sing-along, or will she go for the path of least resistance and invite Elmo onto her show?

I second the above poster's recommendation of Alton Brown. He at least seems to assume that his audience members have more than two brain cells on average.

Anonymous said...

When you mute the volume, she is kind of cute...

Anonymous said...

Please don't defame Central New York! Our accent is pretty bad, but Rachael has the far worse Eastern New York accent as she grew up in the greater Albany/Schenectady/Saratoga/Glens Falls area. The Eastern New York accent combines the worst of the Central New York accent with the worst of the New England accent.

That being said, listening to her for more than five minutes makes me want to rupture my eardrums with chopsticks.

marcia said...

Okay, let's not make too much fun of her accent, my spouse is from the Capitol Region of NY. I don't know of anyone there with that accent.

I like Rachael Ray, though my mom calls her "squirrelly girl". I will admit to watching a LOT of food network TV while home on maternity leave and nursing. My husband ate like a KING those 13 weeks.

I have had good luck with several of her recipes (adjusted, of course, to be lower in fat). I also enjoyed Alton Brown's and Barefoot Contessa's recipes.

However, I don't think you can blame her show for obesity in America. Sure, her recipes could be healthier, but a lot of them mirror what I grew up eating. The difference is, we didn't eat a lot of processed crap otherwise and we played outside a lot.

Most people I know with a weight problem eat out a lot.

Martiro said...

I'm not particularly fond of RR's passion for acronyms, but she is enormously entertaining when running behind schedule. She kicks it into high gear, and just throws things into the pans! In her defense, her recipe books are really great (small number of ingredients, arranged and written well). Now if we could get her some professional advice on how to dress properly...