Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Rachael Ray: The Food's A Prop

For some reason, I have an obsession with writing about people that I personally can't stand. I don't think that it is to be a hater or some other word with a negative connotation. But, because writing about the hated person helps me to explore and explain why I don't particularly like them. Plus, even though I write about stuff that I actually like, it gets boring to be positive all of the time. I have no idea how the people at The Believer do it all of the time. They must be heavily medicated.

I'm taking this opportunity to make rationalizations on the empire that is Rachael Ray. For those who do not own televisions, first, give yourselves a pat on the back. I still think that all of you have made the wrong decision, but I respect your decision nonetheless. Your obstinacy has led you to avoid the wave of enthusiasm and worthless abbreviations that is Rachael Ray. But, since you don't watch TV, you have no idea of who she actually is, so let me explain.

Ray is a television personality with a cooking show, a talk show, and a line of successful cookbooks. When someone normally has a series of cookbooks and a cooking show (multiples actually, but she only actually cooks on one), that would usually entitle them to be called a chef, but not in Ray's case. And, this is a part of her flagship show 30 Minute Meals' brilliance.

30 Minute Meals can be considered one of the best or one of the worst cooking shows that you will ever watch in her life. Other people might see inspiration in the monstrosity of a meal that she made today: a muffuletta salad and a shrimp po'boy with a weird mustard-relish topping. Personally, this meal made me want to gag. But, there is someone who is going to make this meal tomorrow. These people are the reason that Rachael Ray is on track to become the everyman's Martha Stewart.

To tie some of these ideas together, it becomes necessary to talk about the show itself. 30MM begins in a kitchen with Rachael Ray greeting you, the viewer, with a situation. Most of the meals made on the show are inspired by Ray's day-to-day life. Whether that is her family, a movie, or an event of relevance to her, Ray finds inspiration for meals and explains it to you the viewer at the very beginning. After this explanation, which is intended to sell you on the meal, Ray tells you what she will be preparing today and that all meals only take 30 minutes or less, as a title like 30 Minute Meals would dictate.

While this all seems quite banal, Ray pulls a lot of sales tactics in her pitch. Firstly, the overhead wave is a standard of anyone trying to sell something. Believe me here. I worked for USPIRG and GreenPeace as a canvasser; I know what I'm talking about. The first thing that they actually teach you aside from the sales pitch is the same stupid wave that Rachael Ray does when she opens her show. They tell you to do such a wave because it draws attention to yourself. Also, Ray uses a lot of hand motions and is very animated. This is yet another sales tactic. If the seller can convey their excitement to the customer about the product (that would be the meals in this case), the customer will be more likely to try it.

If you have made it past this stage of the program, Ray gets on to the actual cooking. And, at this point, it becomes clear that Rachael Ray is selling a lifestyle more than the actual food. Ray is trying to sell a generation of women and men who would rather order out than cook on the magic that is slaving away in a kitchen. Ray makes the process of cooking far less stressful in her actual techniques along with the fact that she has developed all of her recipes to only take a half an hour. A more experienced cook will be OK with spending hours in the kitchen cooking Coq Au Vin or for that matter baking. Not Rachael Ray! Cooking for hours is unacceptable. Hell, Ray doesn't bake either. It requires measuring cups, which Ray proudly flaunts as not owning. This aspect helps to make Ray appear more like a regular, everyday person instead of one of these highbrow chefs who have training and are real chefs, someone who realizes the grind that is cooking.

I use the word appear because Rachael Ray knows her way around a kitchen. Her family has a history in foodservice as does she. The primary display of this somewhat hidden fact is her absurdly good knife skills. Anyone who has cooked knows that chopping stuff is kind of difficult, especially at speed. She's fast and accurate with her knife. Her onion chopping gives Jacques Pepin (a really fast chopper, but he's old enough to be Ray's dad) a run for his money. This fact is enough to get the attention of anyone who is suspicious.

The suspicion is added to by the ways in which she makes suggestions throughout the course of the show. For example, in the episode that I watched today, Ray decided to make a meal for a jazz festival. During the whole course of the episode, she kept volunteering party ideas and things to do with the food instead of just cooking. I mean, she cooked throughout the show; she didn't have time not to. But, she kept talking about how you can have your own jazz fest at your house. Or, if you went to one of the larger jazz fests, you could bring the meals that she made. If the show were all about the food, she would have just made the meals. But, it becomes clear that Ray is trying to sell the viewer on the idea that food is only one part of the party lifestyle. Ray gives the new found chef ideas for entertain their friends or keep up with their friends if they happen to all be good cooks.

Regardless of friends, Rachael Ray helps to endear herself to the audience in other ways from her party ideas and generally perky presence. Ray does this by flaunting her ordinariness. Her ordinariness comes from the ideas that her measuring and abbreviations. As I noted above, Rachael Ray does not like to make exact measurements. Everything is a handful, a palmful, a half of this, and a half of that. On top of this, most of Ray's common usage items like Olive Oil and her "garbage bowl" (a bowl that takes all of the trash she generates during the show. Saves time apparently. I found leaving stuff strewn across my countertop works just as well) have abbreviations. Olive Oil is EVOO in Ray's Kitchen; the Garbage bowl, a G.B. These two things help to give the regular chef confidence in taking control of their kitchen and not being afraid to cook in a kitchen. Ray helps to convey the idea that cooking is not the exacting, precise field that it is made out to be in Top Chef; it's only that competitive when money gets involved.

Now, this is where I begin to steer away from the Ray school of thought. While I'm generally a fan of cooking fast meals and not having to put in a lot of work, I have to be impressed by the meal that I see presented in the end. Some of Ray's meals look good. As much as I don't like Ray, I'm not above saying some of the stuff she makes actually looks pretty good. Now, for every decent looking meal, there are five bad ones. They are so bad, they make you wonder how Ray thought it was a good idea to present this meal to the public. But, the desirableness of the meal is only secondary to the general message presented by the show, which is cooking is not a difficult proposition to undertake. All you need is some basic ingredients, a few pans, and thirty minutes. This is what Rachael Ray is selling you on instead of the food. This fact alone is why I don't particularly like Rachael Ray: the food seems secondary to her instead of first. There is nothing wrong with being a television personality, but the food has to come first. And, for Ray, the food is a prop to the overall selling of people into the idea that cooking is fun. If you don't cook, this is a fine prospect. For someone like myself who does, it leaves me feeling a little bit more than cold. It just becomes clear to me that 30 Minute Meals is more of a lifestyle show than a real cooking show, bringing it to the level of other lifestyle shows like Semi-Homemade Cooking and Simply Delicioso. And, that's actually a shame because if Ray fully focused on cooking, she would actually be a top level chef instead of a fast-chopping sea of mediocrity like she is now.