As someone who is a certified bad chef, as well as the daughter of one, I prefer to get my culinary kicks from cooking shows. The Food Network is a go-to form of comfort entertainment for me, particularly after tough days or those times when the contents of my fridge are sorely lacking. I’ve spent years being mildly obsessed with the homey sultriness of Nigella, the relaxed decadence of Ina Garten, and the circus lunacy of Iron Chef: America (to paraphrase Charlie Brooker, what’s more exciting than watching chefs prepare simple dishes with fresh ingredients in a stadium full of lasers?) There’s an immense level of catharsis to be found in competence, and when you’re as inept at cooking as I am, cooking shows are the dream. Yet I’m rarely inspired to actually try out the recipes I see made on TV. Now and then, I’ll give it a go but the point of such shows is to see what the food looks like when it’s made by someone who knows what they’re doing, and my attempts would inevitably disappoint. Exceptions to this rule include my regular baking of Nigella’s intensely rich chocolate chip cookies, a mixed shot at focaccia inspired by The Great British Bake Off, and Cajun chicken pasta, courtesy of The Pioneer Woman
Based on her stratospherically popular blog, Ree Drummond, a.k.a. The Pioneer Woman, has become one of The Food Network’s biggest stars and easily one of the most bankable names in the American food blogging world. Her mix of buttery comfort food and the rural idyll of her Oklahoma ranch life have won her millions of fans who hang on her every word on topics ranging from grilling a steak to home-schooling your kids. Usually, I’d roll my eyes and change the channel, but my mum had the remote and she really wanted to keep watching. Not because of Drummond herself or the lifestyle she sold, which we both agreed was too twee for our tastes, but because of the food. It wasn’t even that it was especially delicious looking or unique to her. There are dozens of food blogs doing what she does and arguably making it look more professional, but that would spoil the illusion of comfort.
I ended up spending far too long browsing her website and falling into the deepest of internet holes, but when I emerged, I cooked that pasta recipe and was fully delighted by the results. Even I couldn’t mess it up because she made it totally fool proof. There are glossy photographs illustrating every step of the process, with five pictures alone to demonstrate the chopping of a pepper. The instructions themselves are very simple and peppered with hackneyed mum jokes, and the final photos are of a fork twisting up lots of spaghetti to be eaten outside of the shot. The food itself doesn’t look over-prepared or as if it’s been prepped for hours by a consultant, but the photos are of a sharply detailed and professional level that adds to the immersion. It doesn’t feel real for a moment, but when you’re eating the food yourself, having replicated each step to the picture, it almost gets there.
The Pioneer Woman is a bizarre show in many ways. Drummond is not a natural in front of the camera, even after several seasons of practice, and like any show that tries to incorporate its host’s supposed real life into the narrative, it ranges from awkward to embarrassing. Her family seem less comfortable on camera than she is and she seems to spend most of her time driving, which isn’t surprising given the location of her home. Watching the show, you don’t necessarily get the impression that Drummond is an expert in the kitchen or a real lover of food. She seems more like a homemaker who got lucky, which has some truth to it. All of this makes her sound decidedly dull and not worth watching, so why do people, my mum included, keep returning to her hearth?
Drummond isn’t just selling food: She’s selling a lifestyle tied inextricably to the narrative of her life, one she has moulded with intricate detail into a mainstream fairytale that can be sold to the masses. By now, anyone with a passing knowledge of her knows the story of The Pioneer Woman: The ambitious city girl who met the stoic country boy and moved to the rural beauty of Oklahoma, becoming the perfect wife and mother and documenting her journey at every step. Indeed, the tale is so repeated that Drummond made it into a pseudo-memoir chick-lit book that hit the New York Times best-seller list. There’s probably some truth to it, but as with all stories, it’s gone through some stringent editing. Drummond’s husband Ladd is a rancher, but his status as ‘Marlboro Man’, the beacon of masculine simplicity, is a thin façade for his reality as a member of one of the largest land owner families in the United States. With over 433,000 acres to their name, the Drummonds rake in millions through government subsidies and contracts, which adds a certain shade to those wholesome blog stories of simple country folk bringing in the bulls. Drummond herself was hardly a Cinderella in rags when her cowboy prince came along. She grew up on the grounds of a country club in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, then studied in USC. None of this is hidden, nor were they revealed as part of some scandalous exposure of the ‘real’ Pioneer Woman: It’s just that the cleaned up story sells better and people prefer to believe it, even when confronted with the truth.
The story has always made me uneasy. For one, it’s a June Cleaver wet dream, a masterful narrative of what the conservative right has bastardised into ‘family values’ and deification of the supposed ‘real America’, cowboy hats and all. Paula Deen left a gap in the market following her racist tirades, and Drummond is the good time gal who fills those boots with butter and briskets, but remains exceptionally white. Drummond on some level is probably aware of the regressive nature of what she’s selling and it’s startling to note how much it contrasts with her reality. Her blog is her business and it is run as such, with employees, advertising and a long-term plan. The show too, as much as it strains to portray a frills-free ranch wife life, is a role she plays. It’s a softer, more palatable alternative to a real life as a millionaire businesswoman, one who both married into money and made her own fortune. Removing that part from the narrative, including her product lines, cookbooks and recent restaurant that, according to Thrillist, has completely revived the fortunes of the town of Pawshuka where it’s located, feels infantilising. It also relies heavily on a gender dynamic of the good wife and provider husband that denies Ladd Drummond’s equal partnership with his wife in their Pioneer Woman ventures (he is heavily involved with the running of their restaurant). No matter how much money she makes or how many workers are dependent on her business savvy, the image must remain relatable. Then again, it is an image she has fine tuned to the nth degree to be appealing to one of the most profitable demographics in America.
The culinary world is wildly dominated by men who strut around steel kitchens swearing up a storm and demanding a culture of macho allegiances, yet cooking shows are mostly the bastion of the feminine domestic. Nigella Lawson is the daughter of a lord whose house is in one of London’s priciest regions, but she had to continue the charade that her show was almost an add-on to a life of cozy dinner parties and consoling close friends with food. Even at its most glamorous, the message of a woman’s place is clear. That’s something the Pioneer Woman trades in arguably better than anyone since Martha Stewart. What is a nightmare for many women becomes the ultimate paradise, a care-free life of providing for your family on the wide open plains of Oklahoma. That’s not a bad fantasy to have, but it’s only manageable for Drummond because it’s a business plan greatly supported by pre-existing funds. It’s a life that’s always been for sale. Now, visitors to Oklahoma looking for a life of Pioneer Woman life can visit The Lodge, a luxury guest house located on the Drummond family ranch where the show itself is filmed. I’m not sure my mum would pay to fly out to Oklahoma, but the show’s practiced niceness is enough for her.
Still, that Cajun chicken pasta was very tasty.