An Ode to ‘$40 a Day,’ Or How Rachael Ray Taught Me Independence

Rachael Ray was a symbol of efficiency in our household. She churned out meals in a half hour, presenting thick dishes filled with macaroni and meat and cheese that would satisfy our family of six on a hectic school night. To this day, although it’s made far less frequently because of an emptier house and dietary restrictions, my mom still rattles off, “The Rachael Ray sloppy joe mac and cheese,” when she’s returning to this old favorite for dinner.

Rachael’s New York Italian roots and her assured way of instruction have always felt like home to me. I know so many women with the same friendly but no-nonsense quickness about them, and lately, I’ve appreciated the same quality in Alex Guarnaschelli and her recipes. Before Food Network was an endless loop of challenge shows and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (not complaining, BTW), it was 30-Minute Meals and $40 a Day for me.

On the latter, Rachael was dropped into a new city, challenging herself to get through a day of sightseeing with a food budget of only $40. This was the early 2000s, so the feat might be near impossible to pull off today, but as a kid, I was fascinated, piling my mom with questions. “What happens if she spends more? Why is it only $40? Does the restaurant know she’s coming with cameras?”

My mother even owned a travelogue of all the $40 a Day locations, many of which probably aren’t open today. But I loved that book, delighting in Rachael’s mini-summaries of the trip and her honest tackling of FAQs from fans. I even remember a vacation or two where we passed by restaurants my mom recognized from the book, as both she and I rarely forget a name or a face.

As I grew older and Rachael transitioned into her own talk show, our family fandom of her never died down. I bought her book celebrating her 50th birthday as a Christmas gift for my mom, and I still salivate over the cooking tutorials she did from her home kitchen during the pandemic.

But now, I also appreciate the person behind the persona. Maybe it was her confident stride into a restaurant, the megawatt grin she’d give a hostess, and the way she proclaimed, “Just me!” or “Table for one!” She took the camera through the restaurant dining experience in a step-by-step manner that isn’t really seen on the Food Network today. Perhaps in an even more influential move, she showed no shame or fear in women dining and traveling alone. Yes, she wasn’t really “alone,” and I’m sure some of her encounters with a restaurant’s staff were staged to a certain extent. But there was no shame in her doing this herself, and although she’s now been married for years, she’s upfront about having been an older bride and really leading a full life before meeting her husband.

Last year, I signed up both myself and my mom for free tickets to a taping of Rachael’s talk show. Since the pandemic, she now spends only a few weeks filming in the New York studio before retreating upstate to film more episodes from home. The energy she brought in between segments was a quieter no-business tone, one that carries the confidence of someone who’s earned their place. It’s understandably different than the earnest energy of $40 a Day, but that doesn’t change my soft spot for Rachael and her content.  It’s the background noise of so many family memories, but upon a deeper glance, her influence is really one of independence in new settings.

One of my greatest little joys is going to a restaurant alone, typically before an event on a weeknight, and having dinner and a drink while reading my Kindle. I’m not extroverted enough to chat with my waiter about having a cocktail earlier and just needing a big water with lemon like Rachael does, but the thing I always try to embody? The ease she has in tackling this alone time. To quote the old MasterCard commercials, particularly this one burned into my memory from our ’90s VHS recordings of movies airing on TV, that’s priceless. 

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