And so it is with Rachael Ray, whom I've learned from informal polling engenders strong feelings -- both good and bad. I'm neither a fan nor a critic of her TV show, multiple book titles, and cookware line, so I approached the February issue of Every Day with Rachael Ray without bias. My experience with food has focused on the consumption end more than the supply side, so I considered myself a good subject for the woman who has given our hectic nation the 30-Minute Meal.
In fact, I was inclined to like Rachael and therefore her magazine. I know that serious foodies have criticized her lack of culinary savvy (fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain called her endorsement deal with Dunkin' Donuts "evil"). But in some ways she seemed like the right person for our age, a cooking expert not for other cooking experts, but for the rest of us. After all, who among us isn't too tired to press fresh garlic after a long day?
Rachael looks cute as a bug's ear, barefoot and in soft clothes, sitting casually on the cover. And at first, I was struck by some of the good stuff in these pages. The upfront "Talk" section contains interesting tidbits about cooking and shopping. And like most mags that feature food, the photography is excellent -- n fact, it borders on pornography. The plump, succulent "baby potatoes" peeking out of the White Bean Stew? The oozing sour cream dripping off The Adirondacker burger? Heck, you had me at "Burger of the Month."
And the handmade manicotti looks and sounds great, supplemented by reminiscences and family photos from author Patricia Nelson. Then you spy the final item on the ingredients list -- "3 cups store-bought meat sauce" -- and you know serious foodaholics see this and read no further than Page 58. But why not? More power to EDWRR. If you're making the manicotti, who decrees you have to make the darn gravy from scratch too?
Then I started reading more of EDWRR.
I'm not an expert on food journalism, but I am an expert on travel journalism. This issue's travel advice is lacking, which raised a red flag about all the editorial content. The report on "How to Pack Light" provides no recognition of current governmental or airline regulations concerning carry-on and checked baggage. There's a reference to packing batteries without acknowledging the lengthy prohibitions on certain types, and the "Travel 101" piece advises wearing slip-on shoes to expedite security lines, even though this defies the Federal Aviation Administration's advice about how best to safely evacuate an airplane. The "Your Vacation, Only Better" and "What a Trip" features offer very generic advice and some romantic suggestions, but are short on the "timeless tips" promised.
Then there's the magazine's raison d'être: food. In service to this column, I tried making the first of February's featured 30-Minute Meals, Smoky Red Rice and Chorizo with Black Beans, because it looked good and easy to make. However, even allowing for my unpolished culinary skills, I stopped looking at the timer after about 50 minutes, since it still wasn't cooked "until tender."
Now opening a jar of Ragu is one thing, but Sticky PB&J Wings? That's right, chicken wings glazed with peanut butter and grape jelly. Didn't David Letterman used to bring on kids to share recipes like spaghetti and jelly beans, or pizza with Hershey's Kisses? But we were all in on the joke. And it was a joke, right? Yet supposedly EDWRR isn't kidding. Even though Elvis died for our gastronomic sins, his 42-year-old heart clogged by loaves of Wonder Bread slathered with peanut butter, bananas, and bacon.
Perhaps most disturbing is the "Hey Rach..." page of reader questions for the mag's founder and editorial director. The first reader asks: "How did you keep your dreams alive? Sometimes I just feel like giving up." RR's answer is anything but windy: "Whatever it is you want to do, take a job in that field. You will learn by experience and, slow and steady, you'll get it done!" Did no one who edited this find it superficial?
Then nine-year-old Alyssa asks, "What's your favorite healthy treat?" The complete three-word response: "Cheese and fruit." The rap on Rachael has long been that she's glib and superficial about most gastronomical matters. "Cheese and fruit" doesn't do much to silence such criticism. On a deeper level, however, it also doesn't provide much for readers. (Care to name some cheeses or fruits that are healthier than others, particularly for children? Will Velveeta do?)
No doubt about it, the Rachael Ray personality that apparently bothers many TV viewers comes through on these pages as well, complete with the trademarked phrases ("yummo" and "sammy") and overuse of superlatives (a Q&A with Spice Girl Mel B includes this line: "You were amazing and you look phenomenal"). Then there's the third-person editorial voice, which refers to its mistress as "Rach," as in: "Short attention span? No prob. Rach's meals are a midwinter night's dream." Which makes you wonder: Just exactly how large is the demographic of readers who are notturned off by such prose?
In the end, there are dozens of expert food magazines on the market, and nearly all of them provide better content than Every Day with Rachael Ray. Even Elvis would tire of it.
Published by: The Reader's Digest Association Inc.
Frequency: 10 times per year