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For Rachael Ray, 40, wildly successful Food Network star, editor of a namesake magazine, creator of food and cookware lines, and author of more than a dozen cookbooks, cooking has always been a family affair. Ray's mother, Elsa Scuderi, managed family restaurants in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, before relocating to upstate New York, where she was a food supervisor at several area eateries. Ray grew up around Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains, and still retreats to that area when she needs some R&R. She credits her mom as the greatest influence on her cooking -- and her life.
"I have no memory of childhood that isn't generated in a kitchen or centered around food. The living room must have had an inferiority complex because everything happened in the kitchen. I grew up there on my mother's hip and at my grandfather's feet. My grandfather, my mother's father, was a fabulous cook and a wonderful gardener. He took care of me when I was a kid, and he made sardines and calamari, with garlic and oil on everything. He was a diabetic, so he served a lot of lean meat, seafood, and vegetables. That was good food to me! I didn't know what a Dorito was until I went to school -- and, frankly, they looked disgusting.
"My mom and I always talked about doing a program we'd call Shoestrings, where we'd teach low-income moms and latchkey kids how to make good food on a shoestring. We could never find a place to teach it or fund it, but it was a dream of ours since I was about 18, more than 20 years ago now. That's one of the reasons I started Yum-o! [Ray's charity, which promotes healthy eating habits for kids and their families]. It's not about putting kids on diets and giving them calorie counts; it's about getting families to make small changes in their meals. I try to take a food that's familiar to kids, like a chicken nugget, and make it healthier but still have it be fun to eat.
"Even now my mom and I share recipes constantly. I talk to her every single day of my life, about everything. She's a huge inspiration to me. She raised my brother, sister, and me to be brave, to make our own way in the world, and when an opportunity presents itself, to follow it.
"My mother loves life, and my grandfather was the same. No matter how hard they worked, they always seemed happy to be alive and to have work to do. They didn't do that thing that a lot of us in America do, taking so much for granted. We get spoiled just enough to feel we have the luxury of being grumpy. I catch myself doing that every once in a while. The day just kicks my butt, and I'll sit in the chair and think, What am I grumpy about, really? What do I have to be grumpy about when I have 10 fingers and 10 toes and a brain, and I have absolutely no reason to be doing anything but smiling?"
-- As told to Roberta Caploe
Barbara (B.) Smith, 59, is the host of B. Smith with Style, a nationally syndicated television program, and she has a collection of home goods available at Bed Bath & Beyond, a furniture line at home stores nationwide, and a jewelry line with Zalemark. From the start Smith has involved her extended family in the operations of her three namesake restaurants, in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Sag Harbor, New York. While growing up, Dana Gasby, 22, Smith's stepdaughter, was a regular in the restaurants' kitchens as well as at the recipe-testing table. Although Gasby, who graduated from college last spring, is currently working for a sports-marketing firm, she prides herself on her entertaining skills, just like her stepmom.
"I met Dana when she was 4. As far as I'm concerned, she's my daughter. I remember teaching her how to set the table. I bought flatware with crayon-colored handles and said, 'This is yours, and this is how you set the table.' I also gave her a nonstick skillet so she could make eggs. You can't hurt an egg with a nonstick pan.
"Dana always liked to help out. Early on I was the chopper and she was the stirrer, but as she got older she could really help. She always liked to make holiday meals, too. We had a house near the beach, where we spent most of our holidays. For Christmas we used to make a dish of homemade lobster ravioli. Since we were near the water, lobster seemed like the perfect ingredient.
"Because Dana went back and forth between her mom's house and our place, cooking together wasn't an every-night thing. But Monday night was family night at our house. Whether she was with us or her mom for the weekend, on Mondays she'd know, okay, this is our night.
"Later, when she was in college, we'd have Thanksgiving at our place in New York City. Afterward I'd send her off with leftovers. She said that on the train back to Washington, D.C., where she was in school, the other passengers would enjoy smelling the aromas.
"I learned to cook from my mother and grandmother. I loved it when my mother had a meeting of one of her clubs and I could set the table and help out, getting vegetables from the garden and chopping. In the small town where we lived, there was just one store. It was the meat market as well as the grocery store, and we had an account there. When I was in junior high, I'd stop at the store on the nights when I was cooking dinner and buy what I wanted. One of my favorites was smothered liver and onions with rice. After many nights of eating it, my mother said, 'I know you like this dish, but can you please make something else?'
"My mom passed away in 1997, but before she died Dana got the chance to cook with her. She lived in Memphis and was a great cook -- a really great cook. My mother came up to the New York City restaurant twice and the first thing she said to me was, 'You have some of my dishes on the menu!'"
-- As told to Jennifer Castoro
Sandra Lee, 42, has become a household name by teaching viewers of her hit Food Network show and readers of her nearly 20 cookbooks how to create "Semi-Homemade" masterpieces in very little time and with more store-bought than homemade ingredients. She considers her paternal grandmother, Grandma Lorraine, the force behind her empire and her love of cooking.
"When I was 2, my mother dropped my younger sister, Cindy, and me off at my grandmother's to be babysat...and didn't come back. It wasn't until I was 6 or 7 that I realized Grandma Lorraine was not my mother. Since my father was her only child, it was great fun for her to have two little girls around.
"During the holidays Grandma Lorraine decorated every nook and cranny of the house. She was on a tight budget and very careful with money, so she often used food to decorate. For instance, she would create centerpieces consisting of a bundt cake with a bouquet in the middle. Using food is a great way to make something more beautiful without being wasteful. When she was home she probably spent 50 percent of her time in the kitchen. So we did, too. She'd put us up on a stool and let us mix and pour -- even though it would have been faster for her to do everything herself. I felt like a little sous-chef.
"She made a lot of cakes and the Wilton cake-decorating books were always around. As a little girl I loved leafing through those cookbooks, which were filled with page after page of ornately styled cakes. For our birthdays Grandma Lorraine would take an aluminum pie pan, flip it over, put a one-layer cake on it and decorate. To us, that pie pan was a beautiful, fancy pedestal. My grandmother was the original Semi-Homemaker! I still have a photo album of her baked goods. One picture shows a princess cake with a doll sticking out of it -- that was the hot cake the year Wilton came out with it. Other photos are of the big Santa Claus that she made for the holidays and a Yule log with iced red-and-white poinsettias. There's even a picture in the book of a cake shaped like a woman wearing a bustier. I saw that after Grandma passed away and thought, Oh my goodness, my grandma decorated a bustier!
"I remember coming into the kitchen once when she was preparing a wedding cake for someone in her church. She never shooed me out, but I could tell it was really important to her. I watched her load this beautiful creation into the back of a car -- she was very worried that someone was going to bump into her icing and ruin her work of art.
"Even after we moved out of Grandma's house, she made every visit special, from waking me up by stroking my hair to having fresh sliced peaches waiting in the kitchen. I wanted to crawl into my grandma's skin -- she was it for me. Anything she did, I wanted to do. That's undoubtedly why I have such a passion for food."
-- As told to Lisa Gerry
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2008.