It has come to my attention that Martha Stewart has thrown down the (hand-crafted, freshly-cleaned) gauntlet as the first strike against competitor Rachael Ray. In her first interview since concluding her prison term for insider trading in 2005, Stewart ” told ABC News’ Cynthia McFadden that Ray’s approach to cooking – and cookbook writing – is ‘not good enough for me.'” Stewart criticized Ray’s self-admitted inability to bake, her release of a “new” cookbook that is made up of re-edits of previously published recipes, and stated that “she’s – more of an entertainer… with her bubbly personality, than she is a teacher, like me. That’s not what she’s professing to be.”
Being a smart (if not home-baked) cookie, Ray responded in the best possible way to defuse the situation. “Why would it make me mad?” Ray told ABC. “Her skill set is far beyond mine. That’s simply the reality of it. That doesn’t mean what I do isn’t important, too … I don’t consider it needling. I really just think she’s being honest.” In a flourish worthy of Machiavelli, she added: “I’d rather eat Martha’s than mine, too.”
It will no doubt come as a shock to you that I have an opinion about all of this. I have no dog in this fight; I find both women equally loathsome in their own, special way. I do, however, see this episode as emblematic of an epic battle between two opposite poles: Hard and Perfect or Easy and Sloppy.
I have spent time in both camps, over the years. I have read Martha’s magazine, watched her television show and used her recipes. The magazine is lovely to behold, the recipes are solid and reproducible, and I find her somewhat dry and reserved television persona to be refreshing. Although I have sometimes had to block out the list in the front of the magazine detailing daily tasks to be done by the A+ homeowner (mulching, weeding, filter-cleaning, sweater-darning and trim-washing) lest I should be sucked into a downward spiral of Inadequacy Psychosis, there is arguably a place for a thorough and painstaking breakdown of the jobs that should be done regularly in order to insure optimal living. I also believe that I would enjoy Martha’s company; she has a dry wit and a classy reticence that appeals to me, and I can easily imagine drinking a martini with her (not a fruity one, but a real one with only a whisper of vermouth) and talking paint colors.
I have also watched Rachael’s 27 television shows, read her magazine, and owned one of her cookbooks. Her goal of creating recipes that can be cooked by novices and still offer a variety of flavor and influence is commendable. I have found, however, that many of her recipes don’t work, and that some are reproducible but not in anything like 30 minutes unless one has a prep staff hidden off-camera to slice, dice and saute. Because I can cook, and have fairly high standards for authenticity and execution, I have historically been unable to watch “Thirty Minute Meals’ with its heavy emphasis on shortcuts, and heavy use of “grilling spice” in everything from curry to paprikash. I do not hate her, and I have neither the time nor the energy to frequent sites like “I Hate Rachael Ray” (there’s another whole post there, somewhere) but I privately imagine that I would not want to have a drink with Rachael. She is cute and cool and loves Foo Fighters, but she would undoubtedly order something vile like a Chocolate Martini and giggle ceaselessly. She would probably also say “yum-o” at some point, and make faces approximating orgasmic delight after sampling the bar nuts.
Both women have devoted followers. I know, because of my work, that there are people who write posts on Martha Stewart’s website lamenting their inability to shape marzipan into a tiny banana, or attach lace trim to their knitting projects. I also know that there are also people who are enthralled with Rachael’s promise of dinner in 30 minutes sans Hamburger Helper, and who buy all of her cookbooks which are, as far as I can tell, basically the same. She is a relaxed, bubbly beacon of salvation to those who feel “less than” in a Martha Stewart world of perfection and order.
The truth, people, is that they are both representing extremes, neither of which is necessarily ideal. If you have the time to trace maple leaves onto fabric in autumnal colors, cut out the shapes, dip them into a starch solution, air-dry them and shape them into realistic shapes, have at it. If you are bedeviled by the demands of your job, your budding adolescent, your teething baby or your depressed spouse, you might more profitably buy plastic leaves from the craft store and tend to your real life. Martha Stewart’s world is largely aspirational for most of us, and while I do sometimes use one of her recipes, or adapt one of her craft ideas, she represents for me a kind of repressive and judgmental regime that could be toxic if ingested whole. I do, personally, prefer to cook from scratch, and I enjoy decorating, but those are recreational activities for me. No one should ever feel diminished because they are doing their very best, and still failing to make homemade buttercream frosting or lay their sweaters to rest for the warmer months in satin bags with lavender sachets.
On the other hand, there is nothing glorious about the shortcut. There is nothing wrong with cooking like Rachael Ray if you are pressed for time, or if you are a new and unsteady cooker of food. There is also nothing wrong with working at a higher level in the kitchen if you are willing and able. It has become acceptable to tease the parent who brings in the perfectly decorated cupcakes for the bake sale, or the friend who grinds their own spices to cook Indian food. It is okay to say things like “I could do that, if I had the time…” implying rather strongly that the precise and dedicated approach to cooking is outdated and ridiculous.
Speaking as a person who grinds her own spices and threw away 4 failed “Buches de Noel” before rolling one successfully into a log, there is no shame in aiming high. Many of the best things to eat cannot possibly be cooked in 30 minutes, and Rachael’s World of Quickies would lead an unsophisticated viewer to believe that we should live in a world without braises, roasts, slow-simmering sauces or…baked goods. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in that world. Martha is also entirely correct in stating that she is a teacher, and that Rachael is not. I have turned to detailed, and so far infallible instructions from Martha on brining meat, creating a spun-sugar “cage” for a cake, and prepping artichokes, among other things. There is nothing offered by Rachael that is instructional if one is able to read well enough to follow a recipe and tell when something has turned from pink to brown, or from rigid to al dente.
Clearly, post-prison Martha is striking out at Rachael because she is still scrambling to recoup the damage to her brand caused by, uhm, being in prison. Just as Martha is an easy target for everything from “Saturday Night Live” writers to greeting cards, Rachael is an easy target for Martha, and I am a little surprised that someone representing all things gracious would take such cheap and public shots. I guess I hope Martha gets her stock up (and her manners back), because she is damned good at what she does, and I wish for Rachael to continue to take the high road and skillfully deflect all fire from Camp Stewart, while amassing a huge fortune based on Variations on a Theme of Speedy Stovetop Schlock. As for me and my house, I will go my own way, neither subjugating myself to the demands of icy perfectionism nor throwing up my hands and buying a Garbage Bowl.