If there’s a more controversial celebrity “chef” than the ubiquitous Rachael Ray, I’m not sure who it is. With both a rabid fan following and a equally large contingent of foodies who can’t stand her gravelly voice and relentless enthusiasm, most people either love her or hate her. She must be doing something right, though. She’s expanded her empire from the wildly-succesful “30 Minute Meals” to add several more Food Network shows, a daytime talk show, a magazine, multiple cookbooks, and branded kitchen merchandise.
I can’t say that Ray’s mission has much to do with the environment, at least directly. Aside from a few “green” items featured in her magazine such as bamboo salad bowls and the like, distinctions like “local”, “organic”, and “grass-fed” rarely, if ever, enter into her vernacular, although, to her credit, she acknowledges the presence of vegetarians and creates recipes with them in mind. But Ray’s mission to get more people to cook good food on their own is, implicitly, encouraging the very steps that everyday people need to wean themselves off the industrial food machine and nudge them toward their own kitchen.
Let me explain: when I finally graduated into a big-girl kitchen of my own (i.e. after I got married and finally owned more kitchen equipment than a pot, a pan, and some spatulas), 30 Minute Meals seemed like a manageable starting point to creating meals that were manageable for beginning cooks. I cooked her recipes for both my husband and my weekly dinner club with friends and always got rave reviews. This boosted my confidence to try other dishes and expand my cooking to more difficult recipes. By successfully cooking 30 Minute Meals, I knew that food I created from whole, minimally or unprocessed ingredients could be delicious, quick, and easy. To me, that realization was priceless. Suddenly, the world of food was open to me. Once you see and touch the ingredients that go into your food, and you can choose the quality of said ingredients, suddenly you realize the vast difference between a genetically-engineered industrial tomato from your local big box in December and a just-picked heirloom, warm-from-the-sun sungold at the farmers market in July. You start to notice seasonality. You appreciate locality. Eating lower on the food chain seems much more possible and preferable. It wasn’t long before I was a farmers market junkie–as we speak, I’m almost giddy with anticipation of the upcoming season, curious about my favorite farmers and what’s growing this season.
So, despite her relentless marketing, her excessive use of EVOO and catchphrases, the uber-perkiness that’s downright toothache-inducing, Rachael Ray is on to something inevitably sustainable: anyone can cook delicious food with real ingredients. It’s that kind of empowerment that will lead people to recognize and embrace the food treasures in their own backyard.