My mother didn't have the same privileges that my brother and I were accustomed to growing up, but she did have my Nana. My grandmother made sure that all seven of her children were clothed, fed, and educated. My mother always says that my Nana could not only turn lemons into lemonade, but she also planted the seeds that turned into lemon trees in her own backyard. She was the Martha Stewart of Westbury.
When my father settled our little family into the town of Bay Shore on Long Island, New York, my mother was opened to a whole new world of suburban housewives. These women thrived on carpooling, going to PTA meetings, and helping their Girl Scout leaders have the best group of girls in the system. Cooking was a totally different story than what my Nana had provided.
My Own Suburban Landscape
In the late 1990s, before Food Network made a splash amongst the moms in my suburban community, it was commonplace to pick up McDonald's on the way home from after-school activities, sports practice, or music lessons. The cool and easy fix as a suburban family on the go was to order drive-thru on the way home. Most families were way too busy to wait for a home-cooked meal, let alone have time to sit down and eat it together.
My mother was responsible for the food in my family (my dad has little interest in cooking). And while my mother cooked more than most of the other moms in my town, we often ate out. In the beginning we would have pizza Fridays, eat out in New York City because we spent our Saturday afternoons in one of the five boroughs exploring, and then on Sunday after church we would go to dinner with Grams and Pops. In one week we could've easily eaten out three to five times. Growing up on Long Island, we were also accustomed to being surrounded by the best Italian restaurants, so by the time I was five I knew how to order a chicken parm dinner or a cheese pizza over the phone.
And my mom was busy. Between pursuing her master's degree in education, caring for a newborn son, driving me around town to be on time for my latest extracurricular endeavor, and keeping up with her correction officer husband, my mother ran a tight ship that was micromanaged down to the hour. But the allure of drive-thru food wore off, and she grew tired of spending unnecessary money and feeding her family dinners that weren't always delicious. In came the Food Network.
How Cooking Changed with Rachael Ray
My mom's love affair with Food Network started out as an innocent guilty pleasure and turned into a full-blown obsession. Rachael Ray, although not a chef, was a marketing genius. Not only were her meals healthy and her catch phrases snappy, but she also made middle-class housewives feel as though they were being introduced to the luxurious world of cooking — right from the comfort of their own living rooms.
I will never forget when my mom started using extra-virgin olive oil in her recipes and started saying phrases like "you can't cook EVOO on high temperatures or else it will scorch." Gone were the days of June Cleaver casseroles.
The Unexpected Benefit of 30-Minute Meals
What I loved most about growing up on 30-minute meals was the fact that my mother could get dinner done without fussing over high-maintenance cookbooks, and she was able to open up our family to different types of cuisines. We no longer had hamburgers and hot dogs on the menu as a quick meal — we now had turkey burgers with a simple Caesar salad and homemade croutons on the side.
Once the allure of drive-thru dinners lost its spark, my mom began to spread the trend and convenience of whipping up a 30-minute meal to every cook she knew. And the message spread like wildfire. Instead of bragging at soccer games about how packed someone's schedule was for the night and how their family had to get fast food, families in my community were talking home cooking. There was Tex-Mex, quick Italian dishes, and even dessert that didn't come in a carton.
These 30-minute meals provided my family the opportunity to grow up on home-cooked meals, even when the schedule didn't permit it. These meals brought me and my mother closer together. On Saturdays we would spend all morning watching Rachael Ray as she zoomed around the kitchen, and since this was the era before smart phones, I would run up and down the stairs while my mom printed out recipes she wanted to try in the upcoming week.
Not only did 30-minute meals provide a quick, delicious fix for my family, but it also taught me early on that just because you were a girl boss outside of the home, that didn't also mean you had to sacrifice whipping up a grandiose meal in the kitchen. Rachael Ray taught this generation of cooks in my suburban community that not only could you have it your way, but you could also have it in 30 minutes or less.
30-Minute Meal Inspiration
- 5 Recipes That Will Teach You the Art of 30-Minute Meals
- 30-Minute Meals from Around the World
- For 30-Minute Meals, Make Sure These Things Are in Your Pantry
- The 10 Keys to Actual, Honest-to-God, 30-Minute Meals
- Grocery Store Shortcuts Are the Key to the 30-Minute Meal
- 5 Days of (Truly) 30-Minute Meals from Marge Perry