Long Reads

The Value of Hamburger Soup & Corn Dog Muffins

June 10, 2016

In the anxious twilight of my youth, when I may have benefited from experiencing the great outdoors, I spent most of my time in my dad’s home office using the internet to dodge that obligation. I was fifteen, I was stuck in Illinois, and I was usually hungry at 1 A.M. I was lucky to come of age alongside the internet; I learned early that reading blogs was the number one time-waster, for it required little effort or self-confidence to alternately rag on or covet other people’s lives.

It’s curious, then, that the blogger whose life I found myself most obsessed with was not in the well-groomed, treeless expanse of New York City as evidenced by Man Repeller or The Sartorialist, but rather in Oklahoma—and a middle-aged cattle rancher’s wife.

The Pioneer Woman’s Ree Drummond was an O.G. food blogger, and she embodied a life that was so far from my own, using exotic words like “calf nut” and “Crisco.” Drummond is notable to many as a scrappy, shabby-chic figure. No matter that Drummond’s husband Ladd (known to many as “The Marlboro Man”) owns enormous swaths of expensive land in Oklahoma, or that she goes on ski vacations to Vail, she’s still known best for her down-home relatability, her freezer meals, her vaguely Christian lifestyle, and her doting attention on her cowboy husband and four polite, photogenic kids. Drummond also homeschools those kids, the itsy-bitsy part-time cattle ranchers who I have seen grow up before my eyes thanks to Ree’s DSLR.

Shop the Story

I’ve been reading Drummond’s blog "The Pioneer Woman" since its inception in May 2006. Back then, Drummond was my secret honky-tonk respite during sleepless nights and final exams, but now, she may be the second coming of Paula Deen (based solely on butter to vegetable ratios—not based on old-school Southern racism). She’s garnered herself a New Yorker profile, cookbooks, an Oklahoma-chic linen and houseware line for Walmart bruised by plaids and florals, a memoir titled The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels, several children’s books, a soon-to-come restaurant and market, her own design of KitchenAid mixers (I've put one on my Christmas list for several years; my mother refuses to indulge my Pioneer Woman obsession because she finds her delivery to be “too flat for TV”), and of course, a Food Network show in its thirteenth season.

My sleep hygiene improved some time last fall when The Pioneer Woman Collection debuted on Netflix. I fall asleep to her most nights, the empowering music in her opening credits as a royalty-free lullaby. But I can admit that my mom’s right: Drummond’s delivery on the show is stilted and her tunics are a running joke at this point between Drummsticks across America. (We fans call ourselves Drummsticks).

I’m mostly grown up now. And maybe it’s overexposure—or maybe it’s because as I got older, I realized I’m not the kind of cook who considers herself a “chocoholic” like Drummond does—but I no longer find her life fascinating. The Pioneer Woman will always be a constant as long as I have WiFi, but she’s no longer someone whose writing literally keeps me up at night. But outgrowing Drummond in favor of reading fawning profiles of René Redzepi or Sean Brock doesn’t feel like a rite of passage. It just makes me sad.

The longer I spend attuned to the coastal food world, the more I’ve been told by those that supposedly hold the most cultural capital that the edible helium balloons and hyper-masculine meat and bacon culture is a better, more noble object of study than the meals women prepare daily for their families. Drummond isn’t just a woman cook, but also a rural one from the center of the country. Her food is salty, cheesy, and cheap. She’s hawks wares for Walmart. She’s a meat-thawing housewife in a butterfly-sleeved tunic. She’s not an icon, is what I’ve been lead to believe.

But while the Pioneer Woman is most certainly selling a false image of folksy domesticity, her life is still aspirational to many of her (estimated 95% female) readers who want easy, tasty recipes, not just Instagram fodder or intel for their office Michelin star pools. So when I set out to make a full-on Pioneer Woman meal to reconnect with my roots, I wanted to do her justice. It would be the frontier approximation of Julie and Julia. I even bought ketchup and yellow mustard for the occasion. It was feminist, or something like that.

To be clear, I almost always hate the food Drummond makes. I can no longer look at a complimentary continental breakfast buffet without thinking about a waffle pizza that Drummond once purported her college-aged daughter could make in her freshman dorm room. Once she made a dish of funeral potatoes for a baby’s birth, and I can’t remember ever laughing so hard at the juxtaposition. Her spicy Dr. Pepper shredded pork is a sight to behold—and then look away from immediately.

I’m certainly not saying I have a more sophisticated palate than Drummond. My standard meals are puzzling and horrifying to outsiders, and usually consist of prosciutto bought at a bodega, coconut Icelandic skyr, hard Parmesan cheese, raw garlic, and an undiluted cold brew toddy in different permutations about four times a day. But I am saying that I eat exactly what I want, something that Ree only seems allowed to do when her husband is out of town at a corporate team-building retreat for cattle ranchers, or whatever it is he does.

In The Pioneer Woman’s opening credits, the “accidental country girl” herself tells viewers that her food is “simple but scrumptious” and “every meal needs to be approved by “cowboys, hungry kids, and [her].” Ladd is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy who can immediately sense (and then complain) when his wife puts a bit of wine in her sauces for brightness. He’s deathly afraid of salad. As a result, Ree is a butter, Jack cheese, Rotel, flour quesadilla, and chocolate kind of girl.

I, on the other hand, have a Brooklyn kitchen that is essentially a hallway leading to a filthy bathroom. Our touchy-touchy fire alarm starts whining the second I put a slice of bread in the toaster. Some time last March, the handle broke off my refrigerator door because my roommate and I overloaded it with jars of pickles, and we never bothered to get it fixed. Like most of my urban contemporaries, when I’m too tired to cook, I don’t thaw out pre-made freezer meals like Drummond might—I’ll just order a $14 carb and protein bowl from whichever middling storefront of the moment delivers to our apartment. And I don’t own a microwave, a staple of Drummond’s process.

With those constraints in mind, I picked recipes that seemed to be the most Pioneer Woman-y of all. The final menu consisted of hamburger soup, corn dog muffins, Cap’n Crunch chicken strips (a recipe Drummond adapted from the restaurant chain Planet Hollywood), and Hyacinth’s Everything Cookies. (Hyacinth of Hyacinth’s Everything Cookies fame is Ree’s best friend. Their kids are also in the same homeschool group. No Pioneer Woman meal would be complete without Hyacinth’s input.)

Pioneer Woman don’t lie: Her recipes are super simple! Scrumptious, I’m really not so sure. The hamburger soup, the recipe of which I followed to the T, tasted like what I and everyone else who took a taste called “worse chili.” By the end of the day, I still had an enormous batch crusting over in our beloved palm green Le Creuset Dutch oven, the most unappealing stew that ever deigned to touch its cast iron walls. I ladled it into plastic containers and stuffed it into the back of my refrigerator, hoping it would somehow vanish on its own.

I decorated the corn dog muffins with ketchup and mustard frosting. Ree didn’t recommend that, but I added my own touch. The corn muffin element of the corn dog muffin was perfect, rich, and soft. I just found myself wishing there wasn’t a slivered hotdog in the middle. The Cap’n Crunch chicken strips were bizarre—akin to Milk Bar’s cereal milk, but with meat instead of soft serve. A friend and I decried them, but we did end up eating all twelve.

Setting up for Cap'n Crunch chicken strips.

Hyacinth’s Everything Cookies, probably like her homeschool classes, were passable. I tried to give them away to the outdoor-loving kids who live below me who I am constantly trying to impress, saying things like “Sup?” or “School sucks!” to them when we happen to pass each other in the front hallway. I made a sign and waited three hours. It was 1 P.M. and they were at school, obviously. I thought about asking their mom if they’d let me homeschool them as an immersive Pioneer Woman experiment the next day, but she was at work. The kids’ math skills are probably better than mine, anyway.

The start of hamburger soup (left) and my desperate plea for eaters (right).

The grand total of The Pioneer Woman-inspired four-course meal was less than $100, and all of the ingredients were purchased at sporadically-stocked grocery near my house underneath a set of elevated train tracks. Though I doled my leftovers out to friends, neighbor children, and the depths of my refrigerator, the feast probably could have fed 20 people. Each ingredient was easy to find and prepare, and I’m assuming my local grocery has a similar standard stock to the market Ree visits “in town” every few episodes. The food tasted familiar and it tasted American. It tasted like home.

Like Ree, the way I found myself living in the place I do was “accidental.” It comforted me to know that Pioneer Woman’s inoffensive, pleasingly bland recipes were a signpost to any pioneer who had hitched her wagon to the wrong star and found herself out on the range.

Any recipes from the Pioneer Woman that you know and love? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Tags:

35 Comments

Bethica J. March 22, 2018
okay this was funny especially the part about Hyacinth’s Everything Cookies and home schooling the neighbor kids. I knew something was up when I first saw this show but at this point its like why even complain. Sometimes it nice to pretend that Ladd and Cowboy Josh handle the massive heard of cows with just the help of the Dad Chuck and the children.
 
richard P. October 5, 2017
I found this article due to an article I had just read on Thrillist.com. I have been following Ree Drummond since her show started on the Food net work. I enjoy the show very much. Not always for the recipes but for the vibe the show brings. Americana. Midwest ranching lifestyle. Just as I enjoyed Paula Deen for her fun, humor and great story telling in the kitchen along with some pretty good recipes, I do the same with The Pioneer Woman. I certainly appreciate the authors opinions on Ree's recipes. Just as with any of the Food channels, websites, or blogs I have read and followed you have to chose carefully! Being from the "other coast", San Francisco, I enjoy the diversity of cooking and all the tastes and flavors food offers. BTW, her mint brownies and stewed mushrooms are truly some of the best I have made and continue to make for my holiday dinners! <br />I do believe some of the comments in the article were not necessary to get the point across. Enjoy the food! Enjoy the show for what it offers! Be open to new choices!
 
Suzanne C. June 14, 2016
I am amazed at the drama this well researched, well written and hilarious story has wrought. Maybe if we all read it all the way through that would be more clear . Certainly many are reading (and then commenting) between the lines which make them as as guilty of elitism and snobbery and mean spiritedness as they claim the author to be. Some of the responses are so misplaced , inappropriate and personal that it makes one concerned about their soundness of mind. Really people, calm down. We can all use a little levity right now. Claire, your stories are always brilliant. Julia-spot on. Keep up the good work.
 
Robin L. June 14, 2016
Wow! I think it may be time for the Food 52 editorial staff to shut down the comments on this puppy. The last comment left by Julia may have crossed the line, very unnecessarily, of what is appropriate to express here. Opinions have been expressed and none are right, none are wrong, they are opinions. Your right to express yourself, or the author' and commenters', supersedes noone else's...even a dumb rude jerk's like mine. Find something else to get so worked up about...something that actually matters....this just does not merit what you wrote!
 
Rachel June 14, 2016
I believe that Julia is probably the author's mother (or relative of some sort) which is why she's so upset. By name calling and being nasty to the readership on a site that her daughter/relative probably wanted to write for again, she's made it ten times worse. I, for one, doubt that I'll read any more of her articles if they show up here again. Further, I am rather surprised that the editorial staff hasn't pulled it down altogether, or at the very least, made some sort of statement, because so many people have thought it "isolated and offended" (to borrow your words) with the 'mean girl' attitude and tone that seemed very out of touch with the general content and quality of the articles usually featured on the site. <br /><br />I'm also rather surprised that the Food52 editorial staff has taken to scolding some for being trolls, but the comments by Julia below, have been threatening, rude, and condescending, and there has not been even the gentlest remonstrance from the editorial staff. They should be standing by the ROE that they articulated to a commenter who jumped onto my previous thread during my discussion with Sarah. <br /><br />For the record, Julia can have my email address if she feels it is that important. There is really nothing you could say that would change my opinion about the fact that you've jumped to the rescue with statements like, "Now everyone back off so that I never have to comment on an article about corn dog muffins ever again in my life". That is just sad.
 
Julia C. June 14, 2016
Firstly, I'd love the email addresses of all 28 rude jerks on here questioning not just the writing style and opinions, but also the moral core of the author of this piece, Claire Carusillo. Not only is she probably smarter than anyone you people have ever met, she's on the next level of hilarity which is why this piece seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. Whilst everyone on this thing seems to be defending the kind of red meat eatin', butter slatherin' Americana Ree purports to represent, they fail to understand that they are simultaneously being taken for a fool by Ree who is by no means an actual country gal of idyllic yore, she is a shrewd business woman who spends most of her time telling her audience about how she buys food in bulk, that tacos mean ground beef and cheddar cheese, and that she primarily uses canned goods. She is, as Claire states, actually the wife of one of the wealthiest cattle ranchers in the country and at this moment probably signing off on a collection of cheap dishware, utensils and placemats no doubt designed by a fresh out of design school Walmart intern, to shill out to her admittedly middle American, tight budget, all American fall base, all the while praying that her folksy persona will take her to true Paula Deen status (as though this is truly something to aspire to). The commenters on this post also seem to have selective reading comprehension as the author states from the get go that she is from Illinois and a champion of Midwestern values lifestyle, and not the "east coast liberal elite" who refers to anything other than New York and California as "flyover states" (people still really think this is a good diss in 2016?). Ree's episodes usually consist of 90% recipes that make me gag need to look away and then one redeeming recipe that makes you say hey maybe I could try these blistered green beans with srirahcha, Worcestershire, lemon juice and slivered almonds. Claire, however, champions every recipe, finding one small glimmer of hope in an otherwise beef-stuffed greasy fatty recipe and makes her beloved family watch right up to the end credits. And by the way, these meals she makes aren't actually designed for middle American families, they are designed for the very specific demographic of families who wake up at 4 AM to herd cattle, fix fences and plant crops before homeschool group- people who are burning off the approximately 1,200 calories each meal she makes provides. These aren't good or healthy options for American families. Ree isnt even allowed eat vegetables until her tsar of a husband is out of town. Now everyone back off so that I never have to comment on an article about corn dog muffins ever again in my life.
 
Kat June 14, 2016
Um, not all of us are rude jerks, please read through the comments. And whether we like it or not, everyone is entitled to their opinion (within reason), author and readers alike.
 
Cate June 13, 2016
I'm still puzzled why I read this through. It was very mean-girlish and presented a derogatory view of what the author probably refers to as "fly over country." The beauty of America is the diversity and complexity of it's inhabitants. At tables across the country, families sit down to this hamburger stew stuff, Beef Wellington, and McDonalds. Whatever works and whatever gets the family fed. I've never watched Drummond; she's totally foreign to me. After reading this article I've gathered she's an anti-feminist, simpleton, homeschooling housewife with little to no personality and a second rate Paula Deen. If that's what the author was intending, spot on.
 
Nancy M. June 13, 2016
I had never made a Pioneer Woman recipe so after reading this snotty article I went immediately to her blog. Last night I made a casserole with spaghetti, chicken, canned mushroom soup and cheese. It was easy and spectacularly gooey, and did not include kale or anything else fashionable. It was delicious and I look forward to the leftovers tonight. Next time I make it I will probably make a béchamel instead of using the can of soup. There are lots of different kinds of cooks and we can learn from all of them.
 
Jodie K. June 12, 2016
I have to agree with several other comments - the article was indeed humorous, but it was also mean spirited and snobby. I'm not a fan of Ms. Drummond's recipes, personally - but this young woman who authored this article should revisit once she's married with 4 kids trying to make the money stretch to feed that family. There were many kinder ways you could have maintained the humor and crux of the article without the sarcasm.
 
Jeanette M. June 12, 2016
The author has every right to critique the Pioneer Woman recipes she made (they do sound awful). Her personal comments came across as ugly and unnecessarily mean.
 
Kat June 12, 2016
I enjoyed this article, it was honest and humorous. Sometimes we need not take things too seriously. It is, after all, just an article about a self-made (millionaire) cook and her recipes. We read it and we move on. I doubt Ree will be tossing and turning after reading this. That said, I adore Nigella and her food writing but I have had my fair share of dodgy recipe outcomes and recipes I skim over and think ugh. But love her all the same!
 
mcarusillo June 11, 2016
haters gonna hate. Thanks for your honest opinion Claire
 
Lala June 11, 2016
Sadly, most of the commenters nailed this article - it is absolutely snobbish and derogatory. I really don't see how the editors can defend it. Very disappointing. Maybe it's an opinion piece, but it is a mean spirited opinion that reflects negatively on the author and on Food52 for trying to defend it. Not cool.
 
Shelly June 10, 2016
All I got from this article was that the author is stuck up. That's it. Total waste of time. Worst I've read in a while. It didn't seem to have any point than to praise her own sophisticated palate, and tear down someone else. It was like a high school mean girl took up food blogging.<br />
 
Marsha G. June 10, 2016
I stopped watching Ree Drummond the minute she said that it was ok to use the alleged Parm in the green shaker cans from the dairy case, then proceeded to shake a can all over something she was preparing. She is a poor, poor Paula Deen 2.0. http://www.what-marsha-eats.tumblr.com
 
Khushbu S. June 10, 2016
I thought this piece was absolutely hilarious and well written. The author clearly states she is from Illinois in the first paragraph so I don't understand where all of this "coastal elitist" anger is coming from. She very clearly tested all of these recipes and offered up her opinion in a humorous and intelligent way. Often food writing can be too complimentary, too flower or will drone on, but this does not. I think the author shows that you can have an admiration for someone but not love everything that they do.
 
B N. June 10, 2016
I don't comment on this site often but felt compelled to add my two cents - as someone who has cooked many dishes posted here (and who frequently consults this site for ideas), I also enjoy Ree's show and have made several of her recipes. In my experience, there are appropriate occasions to use and enjoy both of these resources depending on what you're wanting to make. I did not care for the negative tone of this article and I don't see the need for providing this sort of "me over them" or "East Coast over Middle America" viewpoint on your site. I would prefer a celebratory and inclusive atmosphere of all the different ways people cook throughout the country. I hate to say, this had shades of the (granted, stereotypical and not necessarily fair) perceived NYC-type elitist attitude toward "regular folks" who don't live in big cities. For the record, I myself live in the Southeast. Ultimately, I just honestly didn't like the whole tone.
 
Syl J. June 10, 2016
I agree with the other commenters - this is mean, condescending and insufferably snobbish. The writer says she's not saying her palate is more sophisticated than Ree's, but that's exactly what she's saying implicitly as she goes right into a laundry list of the stuff /she/ likes to eat - Icelandic yogurt, prosciutto, "hard parmesan cheese" (is there a soft kind?) - and when she talks about how words like "Crisco" and "calf nut" are foreign. The snootish way the writer looks down at Ree and her way of life - "Hyacinth’s Everything Cookies, probably like her homeschool classes, were passable." - really? <br /><br />This is not a tribute to Pioneer Woman as it pretends to be, but someone trying to assert just how much more sophisticated and better she is than the country simpleton she portrays Ree as, and how much more liberated as a woman the writer is. Because apparently Ree can't eat what she wants unless her husband goes out of town, which is not an impression I've ever gotten from her but is clearly the writer showing how much more of a true-blue feminist she is than Ree. <br /><br />I've also spent a long time reading Pioneer Woman from when it first began, years and years ago, back when I started learning to cook. I branched out to learn more complicated recipes and techniques, but I never stopped reading her. There's nothing wrong with her food, and there's nothing stopping anyone from seasoning it differently if they find it bland. Pioneer Woman was there when I was a student with only loan money to live on, trying to make it through years and years more schooling. I don't use Rotel, but sometimes it's what you've got. I think it's amazing that no matter how much more wealth the Pioneer Woman brand now amasses, her food and recipes can still appeal to a ton of people. <br /><br />I would never consider the recipes the writer picked as Pioneer Woman's most emblematic recipes - I think it's just another example of how much the writer looks down at her, as they probably are the recipes that sound the most hokey and country bumpkin-esque to anyone who really just sees the world through stereotype. This article was just offensive, and not even about food. It's about how the author tried to cook like an unsophisticated country "bumpkin" one day. Look at me, I tried to be like an everyday country girl, which I'm really really not! Ugh. <br /><br />Also, "Scrumptious, I’m really not so sure. Maybe to a cowboy" - I don't see how you could possibly read that in a way that's not condescending. <br /><br />I'm not for censorship or for shouting down others who don't have my opinion, but I am for editorial discretion, and I think it was a poor decision to publish this pretentious, offensive piece.
 
Sarah J. June 10, 2016
I agree that the "Maybe to a cowboy" phrase is unnecessary and detracts from the point, and thanks for saying so. I've removed that phrase.
 
Syl J. June 10, 2016
d
 
karen K. June 10, 2016
I think this article is hilarious and honest!!
 
Robin L. June 10, 2016
As "paramount" said, Ree Drummond is laughing all the way to the bank. What was the point of this article? Maybe I am overly sensitive as a Southern gal who occasionally rocks a tunic fabulously, but I think articles like this serve to offend and isolate readers, rather than educate or entertain. JMO!