I watch a lot of cooking shows and read cookbooks voraciously, even though my own lack of culinary skills are something of a running joke in my family. It’s partly my attempt to live vicariously through the stomachs of the more talented chefs in the world and also partly a fantasy come to life. If I can’t cook or own a £300 food mixer that I use while smooth jazz music plays in the background and not a spot of flour spoils my fabulous wardrobe then Nigella Lawson can do it for me. I don’t tend to use fiction as a form of wish fulfilment; this is my crack, and this is nowhere near a new phenomenon. Indeed, the role of the domesticated woman who can whip up a miracle in the kitchen is one that’s been used effectively by corporations and governments alike. However, the image can’t be too fantastical or else it becomes too obviously unattainable. There’s a reason Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbooks don’t inspire the same kind of frenzy as the woman I’m about to discuss. There needs to be an entrance point for the reader, something that makes them think “I could do this. I could cook this food and be like this person”. There needs to be a warmth and sense of honesty, and this is before we even get to the food.
Step forward Ree Drummond, better known as The Pioneer Woman.
I must admit that I’ve been weirdly obsessed with Drummond’s wildly popular website for a while now. It’s not because of the
recipes (although they are lovely – the Cajun chicken pasta is a dream) but because of the Pioneer Woman brand that’s been painstakingly cultivated over the course of several years with the help of some expensive photography equipment and a savvy knowledge of her target audience. Drummond’s life story, one she semi-fictionalised and turned into a New York Times best-selling novel, is one that neatly fits into a number of favourite romantic tropes. After attending college at USC and living a modern cosmopolitan lifestyle (described in broad terms of “landscaped lawns, manicures, pedicures, facials, take-out food”), Drummond briefly moved back home to Oklahoma, with vague plans to live in Chicago and attend law school. While home, she met her now husband Ladd Drummond, who she refers to as Marlboro Man, and they quickly began their lives together on his cattle ranch where she became the consummate homemaker and shared her story with millions of women around the world.
I don’t doubt Drummond’s warmth and her self-deprecating humour that prevails throughout her writing feels very authentic, but the image of the Pioneer Woman herself is questionable at best. For one, the Drummond family are some of the richest landowners in Oklahoma, so any possibility of Ree’s life being anything remotely resembling simple immediately go out the window. Even when Drummond attempts to refute claims of such professionalism – the introduction to her first cookbook The Pioneer Woman Cooks includes the line “It’s not overly polished or glossy” – it doesn’t stick because everything that follows practically glistens with the touch of sheen.
It’s tough to imagine any one person living and working daily on a ranch whilst maintaining a house, home-schooling four children, updating a website several times a day complete with hundreds of photographs, and general entertaining, a common theme of the site. The words Drummond share feel relatable and many women do seem to connect with them and her homey recipes (at one point, Drummond’s site received more weekly visits than The Daily Beast. Sorry Tina Brown). These women connect so much that they were willing to spend $20 or so on a cookbook with no new recipes. Everything in that debut cookbook is from her website. Her relatable fantasy is free to all internet users, but the hardback copy just has that extra touch.
The cookbook itself is a paper version of the website, pure and simple. It’s full of the same delicious, if not especially original recipes that elicit Midwest nostalgia and buttery comfort. There are multiple postcard style photos of her husband and Stetson clad children, and each recipe offers detailed step by step information, complete with glossy photographs of each part, from the simplest act of deseeding chillies to squeezing lime into a bowl of ingredients. It’s colourful and simply put together, giving the illusion of a gossipy best friend sharing advice over the kitchen table. While Drummond is not the most skilled of writers, she nails that persona. The recipes are certainly appetising to look at on the page, and the “Keepin’ It Real” section with pictures of dirty dishes abandoned in the sink with the caption “Where’s my staff of assistants” keeps the illusion going. You’re not just buying recipes with the Pioneer Woman; you’re buying an idea, a whole new world straight from a postcard or Harlequin novel that’s a popular and completely understandable fantasy yet seemingly just within reach for those who desire it.
I can’t fault Drummond for this because she’s not doing anything new. She’s just perfected the formula to a freakishly strong degree. Betty Crocker was created decades before to sell the same ideals. Here in Britain we have Delia Smith and the aforementioned Nigella and a stream of men and women who help to push diet as lifestyle and fantasy from their beautiful and expensively installed kitchens ready for impromptu dinner parties that nobody outside of cooking shows seems to throw. Drummond’s fellow Food Network star Ina Garten follows the brand too, complete with table decorating advice. Granted, most of those others don’t write romance novels of their own life to help create the image but you can’t fault Drummond for being so on point with her target audience.
But there’s fantasy and there’s reality. There’s that which we want and that which we have. I’d hazard a guess that the cookbook writer most people relate to the most is not Ree Drummond but Jack Monroe.
For one long, painful year, British single mother Jack Monroe struggled below the breadline as unemployment, repeated issues with the benefits system and piling up debts threatened to destroy her life. For a long period of time, she had only £10 a week to feed herself and her young son on. A blog post she had written on her mobile phone entitled “Hunger Hurts” detailed the true price of poverty in one of the richest countries in the world, and it soon went viral. A website, which shares its name of A Girl Called Jack with her debut book, previously used to report on local council meetings became a place for Monroe to share her budget recipes she had put together on a miniscule budget, from 9p veggie burgers to a simple tomato sauce. Now, Monroe is working on her second book and working as an anti-poverty campaigner. She still spends about £10 a week on food for her small family.
A Girl Called Jack is the anti-Pioneer Woman. I don’t say that to put Drummond or her work down because I still enjoy those
recipes, but in the grand scheme of my life and that of the public in this time of widening class gaps and austerity, Monroe’s book is a raw, hard-hitting reminder of the state of the nation. It’s a simpler affair, with far less photographs and a focus away from being folksy and relatable. There are several pictures of Monroe, and she definitely cuts a different figure in comparison to Drummond, with her tattoos, short hair and less expensive surroundings. The recipes are also varied and surprising, not the kind expected from a budget cookery series. Tagine and falafels are featured as well as favourites like pizzas and bread. Monroe also offers advice on how to save money on the weekly shop. It’s nothing ground-breaking but it’s something almost never seen in these kinds of books and the reader knows how authentic every word is. Her blog post is here as well as an update one year later. It’s a punch to the gut but it’s one with hope. The book has many functions – support for those in tough times, a rallying political cry, a genuinely helpful and delicious series of recipes (even I couldn’t screw up those 9p burgers) but it’s not for one moment something we want to relate to or fantasise about. Hunger hurts, as Monroe says, and there’s nothing fun or sexy about poverty. This is a book that exists out of necessity, not just for Monroe but for millions of people here and across the pond.
Others have tried to create budget recipes for these tough times, notably Jamie Oliver, but he failed because his approach was patronising, his understanding of the situation totally lacking, and crucially, he’s never been there. He’s never had to feed his kids on £10 a week or hide from bailiffs thanks to mounting debts. His Money Saving Meals book retailed for £26 and called for expensive tools and ingredients. It also didn’t help that he treated his target audience like idiots. There are some areas where you can fake authenticity and others where you just can’t.
So why compare these two books and their respective authors? It’s because they represent two sides of the same coin. One follows in the footsteps of giants and another one genuinely has pioneered something that’s as close to revolutionary as this area gets. The Pioneer Woman is aspirational and provides comfort through stormy nights, but A Girl Named Jack is there to help you out when the tough times bite.