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.

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Favorite Books Read in 2021

1. The Soulmate Equation, by Christina Lauren

I find that Christina Lauren books are either straight-up rom-coms or dramedies, and I usually prefer their more serious stories to the fluffier ones. However, The Soulmate Equation was a surprising blend of these two extremes, and I ate it up completely. I love when the sexiness of certain romance novel scenes is just so palpable on the page, and this was especially true of this book.

2. Wild at Heart, by K.A. Tucker

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Favorite Movies of 2021

1. Soul (2020, Watched 1/2/21)

Like anyone with a conscience, I was really feeling the damage of 2020 by last year’s holiday season. I struggled in feeling hopeful for the future and overcoming what seemed like a major dead end. Then I watched Soul, and the second its closing credits rolled, I sobbed. Suddenly, everything was going to be okay. Almost anything Pixar has made in the last decade has the power to destroy me, and Soul‘s take on enjoying your life and finding gratitude in it was no exception.

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Favorite TV of 2021

Until these last few cautious, difficult weeks of 2021, I was definitely enjoying the return of semi-normalcy in the world, and that included marathoning less television. I even went through phases of just not having the patience for much TV. This will likely change amidst colder weather and the current Omicron surge, but when I came across something this year that really clicked with me, I went all in.

As always, this isn’t limited to TV released just this year.

  1. Dash & Lily

I initially thought this love letter to a New York City Christmas would be too difficult to watch in December 2020, when the dimmest light of hope was that a COVID vaccine was officially ready. After friends insisted it was right up my alley, I watched the entire season on New Year’s Day. It’s delightful and occasionally heartwrenching, and if you know New York, you’ll recognize plenty of settings and slight inconsistencies with real life (my nitpick: the characters drink holiday cocktails at McSorley’s, which actually only serves light or dark ale).

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Favorite TV of 2020

TV has honestly been my saving grace of 2020. It was one of the few pros of early quarantine, and even now, when there still isn’t much to do safely but stay home, it remains a great distraction. This year, I’ve had the time to try out some prestige TV, revisit old trashy favorites like Four Weddings, 16 and Pregnant, and America’s Next Top Model, and discover some unexpected gems.

Up until the summer hit and the glaring uncertainty of the fall TV season was palpable, 2020 really delivered when it came to escapist TV. While I’ll refrain from my rant about Peter Weber’s Bachelor season cursing the rest of the year (his finale aired just as everything was imploding in March), I feel like 2020 allowed for a new kind of inclusive creativity that hasn’t quite happened before.

By that, I mean that there was truly something for everyone. I have no interest in dark, brooding dramas like Ozark and I can’t find the energy to commit to a new dating reality show like Love is Blind, but they’re there for whoever wants them. I want nothing to do with shows’ COVID-adjacent storylines, but they’re there if you want them. On the other hand, witty dramedies with smart female characters that delivered a perfect combination of joy and heartbreak? There was an abundance of them this year that I don’t think I’ve seen before.

That being said, I’m still working through popular 2020 favorites like The Queen’s Gambit and Normal People, because content that’s on the slow, bleaker side isn’t really doing it for me now. The common theme among the following favorites is definitely a sense of optimism and happiness.

1) Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Season 1

Season 1 Episode 2 Dance GIF by Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist

The final scene of this season finale is honestly the most beautiful piece of television I’ve seen in a really long time (and I cry at a lot of TV!). My parents unexpectedly stumbled upon the premiere episode on their own and loved it, so all of us watching the show together every Sunday became a highlight of our early quarantine. It delivered so much joy but could also crush your heart within a matter of seconds. I’m so excited for its second season premiere on Jan. 5 and its schedule upgrade from a Sunday night slot to Tuesdays.

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Little Things, The Theme of 2020

Weekdays off in elementary school meant watching Live! with Regis and Kelly and giggling uncontrollably at the opening conversation. Now looking at all of these commemorative clips of Regis Philbin, I realize just how much his joy and self-deprecating humor remind me of my grandfathers, both lifelong, hearty New Yorkers of that age and likely to have experienced the same cultural touchpoints. Sure, America chose to wake up to him, but New Yorkers had a particular familarity with him. Kathie Lee Gifford’s tribute to him on TODAY made me cry, and although I don’t remember the Regis and Kathie Lee era, their occasional reunions on TODAY‘s fourth hour showed me just how magical their daily dynamic must have been. For a laugh, watch Regis’s delight at a bird landing on Kathie Lee’s head and then his Halloween stint as Gelman on TODAY in 2016. I also love his guest spot on How I Met Your Mother

Either the Queen has an obvious favorite among the grandkids or she feels really bad about Princess Beatrice having to cancel her original wedding plans and deal with Prince Andrew’s shenanigans. Whichever it is, I loved how Beatrice wore an old, tweaked gown of the Queen’s as well as her grandmother’s wedding day tiara on her own big day. I wouldn’t want to wear Beatrice and Eugenie’s wedding dresses, but they both did such great jobs of achieving classic fashion while still adhering to royal modesty rules.

The Parent Trap is one of two or three movies I can quote verbatim, and as her fellow Long Islander, I’m always going to want Lindsay Lohan to be well. How great did she seem in Katie Couric’s cast reunion?

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Top 10 Favorite TV Shows — For Now

Favorite TV shows formulate in your consciousness in a different way than favorite movies do. Favorite movies often stem from sometime in childhood, when you had ample time to watch and rewatch and when obsessions were encouraged. These are less likely to fade away from your favor because they’re so reminiscent of how you became who you are. These stay embedded in your mind, serving as an ever-faithful time capsule that triggers your brain to recite lines and reenact scenes like nobody’s business.

Favorite TV shows are liable to change over time, molding to fit the phase of life you’re in, and you may outgrow these more quickly. Such is the case for me with this list, and the favorite shows I decided upon only were mostly newer shows that feel particularly monumental to who I am and what I’m drawn to.

1) Friends

episode 8 hug GIF

This is the most constant of my TV favorites. It hooked me from an early age, so it really blows my mind when I hear about people in their late teens and twenties watching it for the first time. I don’t watch it as often as I did then, but its take on friends-as-family, clever wordplay, and physical comedy is the ultimate recipe for comfort in my book. The Thanksgiving episodes remain a must-watch every year, and, yes, I’m a total Monica with underlying qualities of Chandler and Ross.

2) Lost

evangeline lilly pilot GIF

I’ve mentioned before that finishing Lost inspired me to pursue entertainment journalism, and as a gradual result, I was lucky to spend almost two years in a dream position in that field. It was the first series I watched that showed me the power of television storytelling and how the medium could be used to its full potential. I stick to the belief that it kicked off the flashback trend in TV dramas, and as seen with NBC’s Manifest, its mystical plot and ensemble cast are still inspiring the basic structure of so many shows.

3) The Middlehappy the middle GIF by ABC Network

In addition to Everybody Loves Raymond, The Middle is the closest existing TV portrayal of my family. We watched this one from the beginning, and our real-life situations always closely mirrored what was happening on it at the time. Reruns provide a dose of nourishing nostalgia and, seeing as I once watched episodes on a international flight that was homeward bound, revisiting it will always feel like coming home.

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My Desert Island Discs Playlist

I’ve written before about Desert Island Discs, a BBC-produced podcast that interviews public figures about the eight songs they’d want access to if they were stuck on a desert island. In between explanations of each selected song, they discuss their upbringing, the growth of their careers, and what they anticipate in time to come. Its archive goes back to the 1940s, and while most new episodes feature figures only those in the UK would know, there are also plenty of appearances from American and global stars.

The reasoning behind guests’ song choices varies. Some may pick music that is significant to a certain time in their life or has always meant something to them. Others think more rationally, considering which records they wouldn’t tire of on a desert island. I tried my hand at this selection process with both angles in mind.

1) “Piano Man,” by Billy Joel

Now Paul is a real estate novelist / Who never had time for a wife / And he’s talkin’ with Davy, who’s still in the Navy / And probably will be for life

If you were born and raised on Long Island in the last 50 years, a love for Billy Joel and this particular song runs through your blood from the very second of your first breath. He’s our local bard, our very own William Shakespeare of music. This is the song that was there before my memories even formed — I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know it. Its lyrics ache with lost potential, pessimistic optimism, and the sad comfort of an often pathetic routine.

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My Monumental Reality Show Seasons

I’ve never really identified as a fan of reality TV. With the exception of the Bachelor franchise, I don’t watch what I think reality TV has become nowadays – irritable housewives’ Bravo shows, the ever-persistent singing competitions, and delectably sweet baking shows.

Instead, I associate more with the earlier concepts of the genre. Strangers thrown into a house together, competitors in a remote location proving survival of the fittest, and relatively unproduced docu-series. Starting from when I was nine years old and lasting throughout my teens, the age of reality TV’s rise and fall left a decent influence on my cultural identity. I hope you’re ready for a trip down memory lane, because I wanted to share thoughts about some of the reality TV seasons that most contributed to this shaping.

America’s Next Top Model, Cycle 6

The first eight cycles of America’s Next Top Model summarize exactly what was so great about reality TV in the early 2000s. Contestants still didn’t realize how production could portray them wrongly, social media fame didn’t quite exist yet, and personal fashion was simultaneously simple and horrendous. I also love Cycle 3 and its whackily entertaining cast, but I was first introduced to ANTM through an MTV weekend marathon of Cycle 6. Can you even call yourself an ANTM fan if you don’t live for Jade’s one-liners in this season? On top of that, the rest of the cast was also funny and complex, and Tyra Banks was at her peak of zaniness. I always resort to Cycles 3 and 6 when I need something brainless to play in the background as I do something else. After all, nothing truly beats a reality competition series with all of the old-school ANTM elements.

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