I remember it well, my brother and I flipping through the television stations one day, perhaps during Christmas or Thanksgiving break, and happening upon Rachael Ray, hosting "30 Minute Meals" on the Food Network. "There's something wrong with her," my brother said. "She's too much. She doesn't know how to do the whole TV thing."
I agreed. But we were wrong.
It turns out Rachael Ray really knows how "to do the whole TV thing."
My initial dislike of the woman was to be expected, I think. Liking her, as a young adult, would have been akin to observing a teenager, upon seeing his or her father exit the house in two different shades of plaid and neon socks to boot, and smiling at him. Saying, "There's my Dad. Isn't he great?" and then sauntering over and giving him a big hug. As teens and young adults we aren't capable of loving what - to us - seems inherently uncool, even though we view those who don't care about what others think of them as leaders and exceptionally cool. I remember a particular counselor I had at sleep away camp who wore whatever to the dining hall. Pajamas if she was felt like it. She was really close to her family, too, and didn't mind drawing attention to herself. "How cool," I thought. She just does what she wants. What I didn't realize was that I, nervously tucking my carefully-picked-out t-shirt into my carefully-picked-out shorts, was not at all headed in that direction. It would take me years before I even got close.
Thinking Rachael Ray was ridiculous when I first saw her show, therefore, was absolutely predictable. Watching the Food Network in itself wasn't something I admitted readily, as I do now, first of all, and Rachael embodied a certain nerdy enthusiasm and self confidence I wasn't quite ready to embrace. Growing fond of her took years.
Before we lived in the house we rent now, J and I had the fortune to rent a lovely, spacious house at an affordable price. There was a large master bedroom and we placed a television on the dresser at the foot of the bed. In order to save money we only ordered the very most basic of basic cable and could only choose between only a few stations, one of which was the Food Network. This is the first time in my life I remember watching it purely as entertainment, and not because I thought it was funny to do so. "Look at me, I'm watching the Food Network. How cute is that?"
Not that I was, or ever will be a great cook, but I liked the format. Watching cooking and entertaining shows was relaxing, plus gave me some ideas for things we could make at home. I'd sometimes leave it on in the bedroom as I did stuff around the house. It was like having company over. Company, who made delicious food.
Rachael Ray's 30 Minute Meals was on two times, back to back, in evening. And at first I made fun of her like I always had, and like everyone else seemed to do. I made fun of her for saying "EVOO" for extra virgin olive oil. I made fun of her saying things like "yum-o," and "delish," because who in the name of God says things like that? Seriously.
But it wasn't too long before I started to slowly respect, just a tiny bit, some of the things I'd despised about her. Her garbage bowl, for instance, which she keeps on the counter in order to dispose of trash quickly, without having to run over to the trash can all the time. It had seemed so un-elegant. So typically American, and not in a good way. But then I tried it and it worked out pretty well.
It was more than just her time-saving strategies, however.
It's her. It's the way she utters those catch phrases without a moment's pause and you just know that not-only does she think they're cute, but she hasn't even bothered to think about whether or not anybody thinks they're annoying. Who's got the time? Rachael is too busy building an empire on sheer popularity. Despite all the times I've heard friends complain, "Oh God, I hate her," the majority of Americans doesn't share the view. Rachael Ray has multiple cookbooks and multiple shows. She has a her own line of knives. She is loud and uncouth and people adore her.
I now count myself amongst those who love Rachael Ray. I love her unconditionally. I don't care if she lets some new monstrosity loose, if she comes up with some new recipe, with a title so embarassing I'm reticent to even try it out (see: "Who Ya Callin' Chicken? Chunky Chicken White Chili," and "Goodness Gracious, That's Great Goulash!"). J got me her cookbook a while back, and while I've tried a few of the recipes, it's not my absolute favorite. Among the Food Network set, we really like Giada's "Everyday Italian" book, and my real favorites are some of the little recipe collections I've picked up over the years, for instance, a collaboration of recipes put together by Italian American women, many of the recipes copied from their relatives.
But it doesn't matter that I don't love the recipes, that I don't value Rachael's shows - "30 Minute Meals," "$40 a Day" - purely for the food content. Her attitude is what I value. The attitude that seems to say she doesn't care what anyone thinks in a world where style and glamour rule. Rachael Ray reminds me that it's ok to be passionate and ridiculous and yes, uncool, because it's going out there and doing that matters, and she's doing a lot. And she doesn't care if you're a pretty bad cook or that you don't always buy organic or that maybe you're wearing plaid and neon, she wants you to do it, too.