- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

Rachael Ray is everywhere these days, sort of like Velveeta over Super-Duper Super Bowl Enchiladas.

She has four shows on the Food Network, including “30 Minute Meals,” on which she chops and stirs — often frantically, sometimes haphazardly — her way to an easy dinner in less than half an hour. Miss Ray has authored 16 books, and she has a lifestyle magazine, Everyday With Rachael Ray.

Miss Ray’s daily syndicated talk show, which runs on Fox 5 in Washington, has been picked up through 2010. She has a line of pots and pans, even her own brand of extra-virgin olive oil (aka “EVOO” on the shows). As a spokeswoman for Nabisco, Miss Ray has her perky face plastered on boxes of Ritz and Wheat Thins crackers.

In the tradition of Martha Stewart before her, conquering the domestic universe can lead to fame and fortune. It also leads to caricatures, parodies and anti-fans. It seems Rachael Ray has become the kitchen maven thousands love to hate.

The anti-fan Web site gets between 150,000 and 300,000 hits a month, with anti-fans making fun of everything from Miss Ray’s expressions (“Sammies” for sandwiches, for instance) to her enthusiasm when she tastes food (the ubiquitous “Yum-o”) to her kitchen mistakes to her wardrobe choices.

“Her flawed 30-minute concept is ruining the family meal,” one site visitor writes. “Her face and voice are infiltrating aspects of everyday life. She has escaped the cable-only confines of the Food Network and made the jump to network TV. A wave of cheaply made lifestyle products has washed over the nation’s stores. Even the American outpost of the Oxford Press deemed one of her inane terms — EVOO — worthy of being published in a dictionary.”

“I just can’t stand it anymore,” another writes. “I was watching ‘30 Minute Meals’ last night, and she made this hot dog/hamburger/nacho. It looked like a combination of canned dog food and vomit. What is up with this weirdo?”

Misty Lane of Lansing, Mich., founded the anti-fan site in 2003. She started watching Ms. Ray’s shows with good intentions, but viewing soon became like a spatula on a chalkboard.

“It got annoying,” Ms. Lane says. “With the arm flailings and the giggling and the horrible recipes and the EVOO. I just had to vent.”

So why not just change the channel? “It’s not that easy because she is everywhere,” Ms. Lane says.

“It’s gone beyond being able to just change the channel when ‘30 Minute Meals’ comes on. She has four shows on the Food Network that are on constantly, plus she has her syndicated talk show. I now have to see her face every time I go to the grocery store because she’s on every box of Ritz, Saltines, Wheat Thins. Most bookstores even have a huge Rachael Ray section, and that annoys me to no end.”

Watching Miss Ray cook is not for those trying to relax. On a recent episode of “30 Minute Meals,” she whipped up snacks for a football party: Chili Dog Nachos and Buffalo Wing Salad.

“Nothing says fall more than a football party. Brewskies,” Miss Ray proclaimed at the top of the show. “We’ll show you how to make a delicious meal from start to end zone. I’m making serious eats for armchair quarterbacks.”

The Chili Dog Nachos are assembled by browning ground beef (in a “screamin’ hot pan,” another Ray-ism). Add in a chopped onion, a couple of cut-up franks, a palm full of cumin and chili powder, and “you are good to go,” Miss Ray says.

As she also would say: “How good is that?”

“Be carefuller than I was when you are getting your meat in there,” Miss Ray tells the audience, immediately setting off a flurry of posts about her bad grammar.

In the beginning, Miss Ray’s Everywoman charm made her a star. Miss Ray, 38, has no formal training. She learned to cook with family members at home and in the restaurant they ran. She worked at the candy counter at Macy’s. The show “30 Minute Meals” was born out of Miss Ray’s experience doing cooking demos at a gourmet market in Albany.

That gig led to a local TV show, which led to the Food Network, which led to an association with Oprah Winfrey, which led to the Oprah-style media domination.

Which is precisely why a backlash is going on, says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

“Backlash is only natural,” Mr. Thompson says. “There used to be three TV stations and a couple of magazines. Now there are thousands of channels, and People and US and Entertainment Tonight and E! There is a tendency for some people to get lots of exposure.

“The big difference now is how fast overexposure happens,” he says. “It happens so fast, and then people really bash you. But if we weren’t living in such a multichannel universe, Rachael Ray wouldn’t have even become a big star. Backlash is every bit as much a byproduct of being a star as carbon dioxide is of the exhaust pipe in a car. Ultimately, though, backlash is good. It gets more people to know who you are.”

Charlie Dougiello, Miss Ray’s director of publicity, agrees. Bashers can bash away — it also means they are tuning in often, he says.

“I see what people are saying,” Mr. Dougiello says. “They specifically comment on what she makes. I realize they must be loyal viewers.”

Mr. Dougiello says Miss Ray has never misrepresented who she is. She has built her brand around showing that with a few ingredients, a can opener and the venerable EVOO, anyone — even you out there with the children and the dog and the commute — can quickly put together dinner.

“Rachael always says that some of the criticisms of her as a chef are correct,” Mr. Dougiello says. “She is not a chef. She whips up meals in a way some chefs would cringe at. If she slips up, she slips up. We don’t stop taping. It is just like life.”

So Miss Ray will continue to cook and giggle and interview celebrities and endorse crackers. In this fast-breaking media world, the anti-fans eventually will move on to a new target, Mr. Dougiello predicts.

“You know you’ve made it when someone hates you,” he says.

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