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