Every Day With Rachael Ray

Martha, Oprah, watch your backs. With her four Food Network shows and a passel of best-selling cookbooks, the annoyingly perky Rachael Ray has become the newest lifestyle goddess/TV It Girl. Then there's her talk show, set for the fall; and the bimonthly Every Day With Rachael Ray, launched with the October/November issue.

That title echoes, perhaps too closely, Martha's Everyday Food, but Rachael's approach has more to do with Oprah's just-us-girls tone than Martha's chilly perfectionism. "Rach," as she calls herself throughout the pages of the mag, writes disarmingly (less annoying in print than on TV) about how she keeps losing her passport and how she misses "my girl Boo," her late dog.

That friendly, accessible voice is echoed by other writers in the magazine, and is a big part of its appeal. "My kitchen is in a state of controlled chaos, with food flying, sippy cups hitting the floor and babies demanding a taste of curry," writes Maya Kaimal in the premiere issue. (Sounds just like my house, minus the babies.)

Kaimal's confession is part of "Express Lane," a first-person, blow-by-blow, account of cooking a meal for company, mistakes and all. It's become one of my favorite regular features, showing, by example, that it is possible to balance time in the kitchen with a busy life. That's a lesson I need to learn. I'm a great armchair cook, usually too frazzled to pick up a pan.

I suspect there are many other culinarily challenged people like me, ripe for a magazine pep talk on the benefits of home cooking-- one reason ED has become a hit for its publisher, Reader's Digest Association, which plans to more than double the mag's rate base this year.

By-the-book foodies might be turned off by Rachael's casual techniques, such as saying "one turn of the pan" for one tablespoon of "EVOO," her shorthand for extra virgin olive oil. Yet almost anyone else with a strong interest in the topic would probably enjoy regular features like "Celeb Fridge," coverage of new food and kitchen products, and the solid travel pieces highlighting restaurant choices.

The bulk of ED, of course, is recipes, all listed in a separate index, with every single dish photographed--the gold standard of food mag practice. Those photos range from straightforward to more artistic shots, like a study of red onion slices caught looking like gorgeous flower petals. Not surprisingly in a copy-light book, much of ED's appeal is graphic, with inventive use of many different visual elements, harmonious color palettes, and my favorite, handwriting-like fonts, adding a friendly touch. Yet design never overwhelms function; information is still the star here, presented clearly and cleanly.

ED tries to avoid the "It's my magazine and I'll write about my dead dog if I want to" syndrome of vanity publications, and nearly succeeds. Yet that still-dead pooch is mentioned in both issues, in what may be the oddest column ever in any food magazine. "Pet Friendly" features recipes suitable for both humans and animals (with about a million check-with-your-vet disclaimers.). Other examples of er, self-absorption, include a feature on her wedding in Tuscany, with photo captions like "Hanging with [the unidentified] Hirokyo," as if we're all supposed to be up on the intimate details of Rachael's life.

The Tuscany piece ultimately redeems itself with useful tips from Rachael and her new husband on restaurants. And to further offset the "me, me, me" factor, Rachael isn't the only authority here. Other voices include a "Real Cooks Network" of regular folks around the country, along with many cookbook/lifestyle authors.

One jarring note: in "BLD," which details a celeb's typical food day, the two subjects (Rachael and the actress Roma Maffia) seem to have eating disorders. I don't mind reading about an actress binging--seems an occupational hazard--but what about Rachael's food avoidance? She doesn't even eat a real meal until 9:30 p.m, instead grabbing haphazard snacks like a bag of potato chips. Was she on a diet this day? Are we supposed to do as she says, not as she does? Weird and disappointing.

Another semi-jarring note is when I try out an actual Rachael recipe, her "pet friendly" butternut squash mac and cheese. The initial result, with the sweetness of the squash clashing with the other flavors in the cheese sauce, is more like bum-o! than Rachael's catchphrase "yum-o!" Even my two cats turn up their snouts, as does my husband. The dish does taste better when I microwave it the second night. Still, the recipe got me into my local cheese store--where I tried a great English cheddar--and back into the kitchen. And that's the point, after all.

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