I had heard of The Pioneer Woman blog before, but hadn’t really thought too deeply about the saga of Ree Drummond until I read a New Yorker profile of her the other night. This city girl moved to a ranch in Oklahoma after marrying a cowboy (the “Marlboro Man”), is homeschooling their four children, and blogs about her cooking, ranch life and parenting adventures, often with gorgeously photoshopped illustrations. I am salivating just looking at her Pineapple Upside Down Biscuits.
Judging by the stats in the New Yorker profile, I am not the only one eating it up. The Pioneer Woman blog gets 4.4 million unique visitors per month, with 23.3 million page views. The site is not particularly ad-heavy, yet her ad revenue for 2010 was “solidly one million” dollars (per the article). That doesn’t include the take from her best-selling cookbooks and other books, movie option, etc.
I have been pondering what exactly is so alluring about the Pioneer Woman’s glorified home making. It’s a subject I explore in a chapter of All The Money In The World called “The Chicken Mystique” — referring to the incredible rise in people keeping chickens in a not-so-agrarian age. It’s part of the broader trend toward turning our suburban backyards into edible gardens and, in more extreme forms, taking on more of a do-it-yourself, cashless economic existence. The idea is that by growing our own food, bartering with neighbors, and living a simple, rugged life, we can build green and happy homes with limited money — perhaps no longer needing two incomes, or (as hinted in Shannon Hayes’ 2009 book, Radical Homemakers) even one. You can remove yourself from the extractive economy, and be part of the production economy. You can be like the Little House on the Prairie books — living a simple life with simple pleasures.
Of course, few people glorifying this ideal are living this way. Hayes, for instance, spends a chunk of her time writing books. Drummond is running a 7-figure business. Barbara Kingsolver wrote about the roughly $10,000 worth of food her small farm produced in the year she chronicled in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but of course the best-selling book she got out of the experience was a far more lucrative investment of her time. The radical homemaking concept has a big element of fantasy to it — raising vegetables in the White House garden is cool when you know you won’t actually have to survive on that plot during a Long Winter (per the title of one Little House on the Prairie book).
This is why I refer to it as a “mystique” — similar to the feminine mystique women’s magazine editors were peddling in Betty Friedan’s day. The idea was that you were supposed to naturally find fulfillment through waxing your floors. Now we recognize that such shopping and chauffeur-ing domesticity isn’t that exciting, so we’re jazzed it up with our gardens, our chickens, our canning and pickling, etc. Now we want to find fulfillment by becoming pioneers.
But while some people may find perfect contentment in simply living this simple life, most of us find more fulfillment in doing something to change the larger world. For most of us who are not going to make 7-figures writing about our herb gardens, all this becomes a question of how we allocate that scarce resource known as time. If we are in jobs that do tap our core competencies, then treating do-it-yourself domesticity as something more important than a hobby is taking time away from what we do best — from what we will have a larger impact doing. That’s why it’s important to recognize the pioneer/farm fantasy for what it is — a fun fantasy to read about, rather than an ideal to pursue.