On a recent Sunday afternoon, viewers who tuned in to the Food Network for Ina Garten's half-hour cooking show, The Barefoot Contessa, may have noticed a curious juxtaposition had they sat through the commercial breaks.
Garten, as usual, was casually dressed and radiantly at ease in her East Hampton, New York, kitchen-cum-television set. She was whipping up a brunch of baked-brioche French toast, maple-glazed bacon, sautéed tomatoes and pomegranate fizz. But every 10 minutes or so, she was interrupted by a commercial break featuring a giddy little doughboy extolling the woo-hoo goodness of frozen crescent rolls and cinnamon buns.
Ina Garten, whose popular cookbooks and TV programs have transformed the art of home cooking and entertaining, may seem like the antithesis of poppin'-fresh convenience food, but like a 21st-century Betty Crocker, the Contessa has just launched her own line of "fast-food" products, and she was in Toronto last week to promote them.
Garten, a former policy analyst in the Jimmy Carter administration, made her pre-television foray into comestibles in 1978 when she made a 360-degree career change and purchased the Barefoot Contessa, a soup-to-nuts Westhampton Beach specialty food store named after the Humphrey Bogart film. And when it comes to home cooking, she understands the value of meals made with love, not muss and fuss.
Hence the success of her five cookbooks. Barefoot Contessa at Home, launched last October, has already sold 273,000 copies. Ever since 1999's The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, Garten's recipes -- from turkey meatloaf to mixed berry pavlova -- have remained uncomplicated.
Now, she's determined to make life in the kitchen even simpler. Developed with her neighbour and business partner, Frank Newbold, and distributed by Stonewall Kitchen, a New England-based specialty food company, the Barefoot Contessa Pantry ranges from savoury products (creamy mustard vinaigrette) to sweet (blood-orange marmalade). Most popular, however, are her dessert baking mixes, which just launched at Indigo Books and Music.
More than 800 people turned out to greet Garten and Newbold last week at the bookstore chain's Manulife Centre location in Toronto to share nibbles of cookies and cupcakes prepared by Eatertainment, whose catering kitchen is upstairs.
"She's a natural," gushed Garten fan Mariane Lopreski. "She doesn't fuss about things and she's not snooty."
"I love her casual way and her beautiful garden. It's the whole lifestyle," echoed Ethelrose Coombs-Doeber.
As Garten pointed out after the crowd had dispersed, "It's not that I'm making something for them; I've actually showed them food that they can make for themselves."
But it's more than that. She's one of the few (untrained) television chefs who can go heavy on the superlatives -- "Gorgeous! Amazing! Wow!" -- without sounding saccharine. Her ability to communicate deliciousness is believable.
Garten ascribes her success to an insight that Alice Waters (of the famed Chez Panisse in California) once made about herself. "I'm not that good a cook; I'm a good taster."
Newbold stressed that every product in the line has been tested against Garten's made-from-scratch recipes. "We want to make products that Ina is proud of. If we can't get the flavour of something, we'll stop rather than compromise."
Indeed, her Outrageous Brownies live up to their name; 50,000 boxes sold in the fourth quarter of last year alone according to Stonewall Kitchen. So does their price: At $15.99 a box, which makes nine regular-sized squares, they'd bring rather low profit margins at a bake sale (most conventional mixes cost less than $4).
But the difference, Garten says, is not just the quality of ingredients, it's but the fact that she puts greater onus on the home-chef. The brownies, for instance, are a two-stage process that requires adding a stick of butter to semi-sweet chocolate chunks before combining with the dry mixture and two eggs. The lemon angel food cake (not available at Indigo) calls for the zest of a fresh lemon to prevent that simulated "Pledge" flavour.
"I think it's more respectful to the cook," Garten said. "Just adding water doesn't feel like cooking."
And on a lazy weekend, when being a slave to the kitchen seems cruel, and yet watching the Food Network makes you hungry, Garten's mixes are a mouthwatering middle ground.
"You get the sense of making something fresh. These mixes are full of such rich smells, a family feels like you're cooking for them," says Newbold, who revealed that a decadent peanut butter brownie mix may arrive as early as this summer.
And that's something to woo-hoo about.
Or as Newbold described his own reaction: "You fall to your knees and weep, and then you get back up and eat another one."