My children’s new TV heroine is a redheaded, knife-wielding, 43-year-old mom. On the Food Network, she cooks, takes pictures, and keeps house for her cowboy husband and their four children. You may know her as the Pioneer Woman.
For grown-ups, hers is a dreamy romantic tale. Oklahoma-born Ree Drummond lived the big-city life in L.A. as a young woman before returning to her roots, falling in love, and becoming a rancher’s wife. One day in 2006 she started a blog. Her story has since spawned cookbooks, children’s picture books about her basset hound, a memoir, a movie in the works, and a new season for her TV series.
For my urban kids, the Drummond family passes for exotic. My kids dodge four-wheeled vehicles; Ms. Drummond’s kids wrangle four-hooved animals. Mine take the school bus; hers learn at home. Our front yard is one long-jump wide; the Pioneer Woman’s kids wear chaps and cowboy boots and ride horses on their ranch.
With more than four-fifths of Americans now living in urban or suburban settings, the rural Drummonds are a throwback to a time when kids actually did play a game un-self-consciously called cowboys and Indians. Surrounded by blue sky and cattle, birthing twice as many children as the average American mom, the Pioneer Woman is a little bit of idealized, old-fashioned Americana.
But success breeds close inspection. Drummond’s detractors deride her “derivative” recipes and multiple sticks of butter. Someone has to muck out the stalls, but this mom also enjoys the trappings of wealth – albeit a laid-back kind that’s evidenced in a fancy kitchen and vast tracts of land, instead of luxury handbags and high heels with red soles.
For her blog, Drummond maintains a beautiful, color-saturated world in photos she takes herself. Pretty food, cute kids, lovely landscapes. She always used to keep her “Marlboro Man” – an allusion to his cowboyness, not that he smokes – tucked under the wide brim of his hat. You never knew his name (same for the kids) nor saw his eyes, a clever device that maintained some privacy for her husband and some mystery for her readers, whose curiosity about the guy who swept Ree off her feet was not to be satisfied.
Enter television. On TV, there’s no place to hide either names or faces. The children are still lovely, but they don’t have to speak much. At least you won’t catch them with their heads bowed down over an iPad. Yet grownups must talk. So the dreamy husband is slightly less so now, having lost his mystery to the chatter around his favorite meals and the daily chores.
My kids discovered the Pioneer Woman during winter break because we’d already found this genre of food shows a relatively safe place for them to watch TV. For preschoolers, PBS Kids still rules. Curious George battles it out in the ratings with the likes of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. But after you’ve outgrown the educational value of programs aimed at the youngest viewers, what’s a kid to watch?
In addition to the Pioneer Woman, in our house you like the manufactured drama among chefs, apparently. For the most part, it’s civil. With titles like “Cupcake Wars” and “Chopped,” the suspense and competition to create the best edible masterpiece are somehow entertaining enough.
While the viewing of certain types of TV and video games has been associated with attention problems like ADHD in children, science isn’t quite sure if the jerky motions and high excitement level of some screen-time offerings do cause these negative effects. And that’s just the eye-challenging pace we’re talking about. There’s also plenty of attitude to avoid on TV: When it comes to how we treat our parents, siblings, and friends, many times the behavior is in service to a joke, not the golden rule.
So in the meantime, we’re playing it pretty safe while watching a little stirring and taste-testing. Here in the land where Julia Child’s TV persona was born, perhaps not all the Food Network grandchildren of “The French Chef” are good enough to wield her whisk. But if the cooking on TV inspires some experimentation in the kitchen by my own kids, that’s a win.
When I asked one child why she liked Ree Drummond so much, it’s hard for her to articulate. But my daughter adds a final thought: “Oh – and she has dimples.”