Ree Drummond has a face that looks as pale and soft as biscuit dough, dimpled and a little jowly. It’s a face that never once loses its grin through entire episodes of The Pioneer Woman, Drummond’s cooking show on the Food Network. Brashly copper-haired, with eyebrows sketched into quizzical arches, the Pioneer Woman wears her smile like a shrug, one that seems to say, “To hell with being perfect.” At the same time, she’s showing you how to make perfect crème brûlée.
That’s the manufactured tension at the heart of Drummond’s show—how to make perfect food in the midst of an imperfect life. “If something doesn’t turn out just right,” the Pioneer Woman says in a promo, “I say, ‘Look, it’s rustic,’ and then I feel better.” The thing is, on her TV show, the food always manages to turn out just right.
Female viewers will identify with Drummond’s mix of dorkishness and girlish grace (“I channel Lucille Ball, Vivien Leigh, and Ethel Merman,” her Twitter profile says). A stampede of kids and animals and dust is always threatening to invade the soaring, light-filled Oklahoma lodge house (it looks a lot like a sprawling home in a high-end suburb) she shares with the silent, hunky rancher husband she calls Marlboro Man. And yet Drummond executes meals that almost anyone could make—even with the demands of laundry and homeschooling and the occasional bout of paralyzing despair—and make beautifully. The Pioneer Woman is about weaving an escapist fantasy out of the mundane strands of a woman’s life.
A lot has been written about the Pioneer Woman and her blog, which existed long before the TV show. Drummond’s first cookbook debuted at the top of the New York Times best-seller list (her latest, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from My Frontier, has been on the list for a couple of weeks now). Also debuting there: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels: A Love Story, Drummond’s 2011 memoir about being romanced by her chaps-wearing husband, Ladd, and moving from LA to Oklahoma. The New Yorker has profiled her. She has nearly 300,000 Twitter followers and more than 400,000 likes on Facebook. Her website gets 20 million hits a month. Drummond is a megabrand.
But if some Saturday morning you just clicked onto The Pioneer Woman on TV, not knowing Drummond’s net worth, you might not guess she draws Martha-size audience share. The episodes on season two of the show—through pacing, visual styling, and the narratives that play out over the course of 30 minutes—reinforce Drummond’s branding, which is to say they seem totally authentic. “I live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere,” Drummond says in voice-over as the show starts, “and I’ve got a lot of mouths to feed.” It’s a tag line soaked in relationship marketing, for women who feel overwhelmed with everything that’s on their plate. This is masterful food TV.
A recent episode, “Triple Act,” found Drummond getting ready for the arrival of her mom, Gee, and sister Betsy for a girls’ weekend. The Pioneer Woman asks a lot of open-ended questions. “What is it about scallops? They’re so wonderful.” Or, “What is it about moms and daughters getting together that never gets old?” The questions reinforce Drummond’s bond with viewers, even as they carry the force of philosophical musings.
A softly grinning Drummond preps crème brûlée in anticipation of the family reunion. “This is the happiest day of my life,” she says, and you believe her, just like you believe in the food she’s making. “I don’t know what I’m more excited about,” she pivots to confess, ladling custard into ramekins. “My mom and Betsy visiting or crème brûlée. Maybe both.” Bam! In one stroke, Drummond has closed the sale, injecting her recipe with a meaning deeper than mere taste.
And when it comes time to eat that crème brûlée (after a lunch of pasta and seafood baked in foil), instead of letting Mom and Betsy and Drummond’s two teen daughters have their own ramekins, the Pioneer Woman does something subtle but brilliant. She sets all the ramekins on a tray in the middle of the enormous farmhouse table, and lets everybody dig in communally with spoons: female bonding over dessert, played out visually.
Next day, by the end of a Sunday lunch consisting of the kind of warm spinach salad that’s on the menu at a Nordstrom department store café, and Gee and Betsy are packing up to go home, Drummond turns her soft-mouthed little smile to the camera. “This is a triumph,” she says. You have to think she means it.
The Pioneer Woman airs Saturdays on the Food Network, 10 a.m. Eastern and Pacific Time, 9 a.m. Central.
Image source: FoodNetwork.com