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The Value of Hamburger Soup & Corn Dog Muffins

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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.

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 Brown Sugar Balsamic-Glazed Pork Loin that Pinterest Loved
The Brown Sugar Balsamic-Glazed Pork Loin that Pinterest Loved

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.
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: Food Biz