Lamenting The Imprisonment Of TV’s Culinary Genius

Say what you will about Martha Stewart – almost everyone does, lately. But don’t say it around me; I love the woman. As far as I’m concerned, her cooking show, “From Martha’s Kitchen,” is among the most soothing things in the world. Precise annunciation, makes pretty much everything else in the world seem that much more secure. That restrained voice, those artfully-matched pastels and yes, even the over-involved culinary creations all come together. Maybe it’s the New Englander in me, but something about the almost Puritanical control Martha exhibits in her kitchen and in her make me feel downright elated. A certified TV food junkie, I was horrified when I tuned in to watch “From Martha’s Kitchen” on the Food Network, and instead saw Rachael Ray’s vapid grin flashing at me, as she promised some manner of 30-minute meal that was “gonna get my friends cookin’ and my coworkers lookin’ ” or something of that nature. I nearly fell up the stairs bolting to my computer to search the Food Network website. There it was, posted beneath the now ironic image of a smiling, pastel-clad Martha, carefully arranging some manner of flowers: “‘From Martha’s Kitchen’ has ended its production; episode information and recipes can no longer be provided by Food Network.” Sweet mercy! I frantically searched PBS, CBS and various obscure cable channels but to no avail; the only channel showing anything vaguely Martha-esque was the Style Network, and that was just “Martha Stewart Living” – no trace of culinary genius and a bit too craft-oriented for my taste. Arrivederci Martha and bonjourno Rachael Ray, who seems to have taken over the Food Network in light of Martha’s impending incarceration. Ms. Ray’s faintly pretty mug can now be seen on “30-Minute Meals,” weekday evenings in time slots where Martha once reigned. “$40 a Day,” seems to be all over the schedule and, coming soon to primetime, “The Inside Dish,” in which Ms. Ray cavorts with celebrities and also contrives to cook something. She even had her own hour-long special, the numbingly dull “Rachael Ray’s Block Party.” What’s most annoying about the ubiquitous Ms. Ray, in my opinion, is that she somehow seems to systematically dumb down everything she encounters from olive oil to the English language. On “30-Minute Meals,” Ms. Ray insists upon calling extra-virgin olive oil “eee-vee-oh-oh,” somehow eschewing the otherwise universal abbreviation for the stuff, “evoo.” Adding to Ms. Ray’s verbal inelegance is her habit of jettisoning the final “g” in words. Instead of “cooking,” she’s “cookin’.” She doesn’t need to get those potatoes “going,” she needs to get them “goin’.” With any luck you’ll keep “watchin'” her shows. This pitiful attempt at down-home, salt-of-the-earth vernacular may be just what it seems: ignorance designed to reassure a wider audience that might be cowed by Martha.It generally never hurts to play to the lowest common denominator, especially when it comes to television. But the Food Network presents an interesting case. While nearly all of its shows appeal to most people because they are entertaining and informative – and not a few of them, like Ms. Ray’s, appeal to silly people because they are also fundamentally silly – several shows cater to a slightly more sophisticated audience that has the leisure time not only to watch the Food Network, but also to spend more than 30 minutes cooking a meal or $40 buying a few. “From Martha’s Kitchen” was one of these shows, as is “The Barefoot Contessa,” “Everyday Italian” and “Sara’s Secrets.” As annoyed as some people were by Martha Stewart, they were annoyed at her over-the-top competence and sophistication, not at her playing to the lowest common denominator as Ms. Ray does. The hosts of the other relatively more erudite Food Network shows – Garten, De Laurentiis and Moulton – are not quite up to the task of taking Martha’s place. None have her chilly urbanity, her authority or is so entertaining. Ina Garten always seems to be a slightly pixilated, and her Hamptons shtick can get a little old a little fast; the willowy Giada De Laurentiis is a bit too sincere and from the look of her doesn’t eat much of what she makes; and Sara Moulton is unremittingly perky, something at which Martha would certainly scoff. To lift a line from Simon and Garfunkel, where have you gone, Martha Stewart, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you…unfortunately, Martha’s gone to Alderson “Camp Cupcake” Federal Prison. But unlike Joe DiMaggio Martha’s coming back, so Rachael Rays of the world beware: no amount of eee-vee-oh-oh will let you slip under Martha’s radar. Nothin’ will.