LAKE GEORGE - Dawn Wagner of Ballston Spa sat in the front row Thursday of the packed Lake George High School auditorium, and clutched a Rachael Ray cookbook to her chest as the celebrity cook and international television sensation launched her annual show to benefit the scholarship association of her mater, Lake George High.
In a question-and-answer session soon after, Wagner asked Rachael Ray how she stayed so perky. Ray answered "caffeine during the daytime and red wine at night," evoking laughs. In the exchange, Ray discovered that Wagner and her friends had camped out overnight on the lawn of the high school weeks ago to assure they could get tickets.
Ray responded with an expression of amazement, and then gave Wagner tickets to her show which is taped in Manhattan, and currently has a waiting list of over 200,000 fans for a mere 2240 seats booked daily in the television studio.
Alternately sitting in a lawn chair or sleeping in her sedan, Wagner said, she'd secured those precious tickets to see Ray.
"I lost a night's sleep, but it was worth it," she said.
Ray offered tips, revelations and advice
This and other casual conversations, which delighted Ray's local fans, were highlights of the show. The event included little-known facts about the celebrity's life, offbeat tips on cooking, and advice on improving family eating habits - a relatively new initiative of Rachael Ray's charity foundation.
Cooking tips Rachael Ray offered included zapping a lime in the microwave for a dozen seconds or so to prompt it to release its juice. Personal information she revealed included being dropped and hitting her head as a Lake George High cheerleader when performing in an acrobatic routine.
Also, she identified her favorite talk-show guests as comedienne Tina Fey, Michael J. Fox, Carol Burnett, and former President Bill Clinton. Her hobbies include running, travel, and photography. She also enjoys watching movies and reading, particularly in her Lake Luzerne hideaway, she said. Also, she loves the aroma of cumin, which she revealed is pumped into casinos to make people lose their inhibitions and spend more money.
Celebrity seeks to boost family health
But the focus of her presentation this year, which included cooking up lowfat Buffalo-style Chicken Cordon Bleu, Sweet & Sour Thai Noodle Bowls and Country Captain Chicken, was a new emphasis on healthy eating.
Noting the soaring childhood obesity and diabetes rates nationally, she advised that parents should steer their children towards healthy substitutes for fat- and sugar-laden favorite foods, particularly the convenience foods.
Ray said children were apt to reject lectures on healthy eating, but would be open to discussing the issue.
"In making healthy changes, it's a matter of getting kids involved in a conversation," she said.
Although apt to reject abrupt changes, children would be likely to accept gradual changes in food consumption, she advised.
For example, switching to whole wheat pasta would boost vital nutrients and taste, without offending anyone, she suggested. Fat, sugar and salt content can be reduced without a major difference in taste or texture, she said.
"There are a lot of subtle changes that can make a big difference without family members noticing," she said.
Adoring fans bear gifts, Ray advises youth
During the program, Ashton Altheiser, 12, of Malta, gave Ray a bouquet of flowers - as he has for the past two years. Ashton's sister and their parents and the members of their Bible study group were all in the front row - Ashton's mom Shawn had camped out overnight to get tickets.
Shawn Altheiser got a rousing cheer, including a "Kumbayah" from Rachael Ray when a spectator asked if Ray had published a cookbook for celiac patients, and Shawn quickly handed Ray a booklet of Ray's own gluten-free recipes that the Wilton mother had downloaded from the Internet and made into a booklet. Ray had a school official Xerox the recipe collection, and she passed it out to those in the crowd seeking gluten-free recipes.
When former Lake George business teacher Sue Strauss asked a question from the audience, Ray offered a wry compliment to Strauss and the other business instructors.
"Thank you, I've got a hell of a business going now," she said.
Later, Rachael Ray offered career advice for youth who were in awe of her success. The first credo, she said is to follow your dreams.
"Work harder than everyone else, and don't give your bosses an attitude," she said. "And don't think of saying 'That's not my job.'"
Queensbury Eighth-Grader Stephanie Gengel said Ray was an inspiration.
'Seeing her success has me looking forward to my future," she said. Stephanie brought her mother Marcia, and her grandmother Norma Cross, who traveled from Arizona to see the show.
Marisol Maldonado of Lake George snapped photographs before and after the presentation, while Ray signed books and greeted her fans one by one.
"I love her show, her cooking, her personality and spirit," Maldonado said.
Local people aid effort, Ray respects roots
The show was followed by a buffet meal donated by Ray and several local businesses, prepared on site under the direction of Steve Colletti of Minerva.
Debbie Alvarino of the Lake George Baking Co. donated 500 dinner rolls and eclairs for the event.
Dawn Hlavary Starratt, a high school classmate of Rachael Ray's, said she admired how Ray donated so much.
"She does such good things for the community," Starratt said.
School Superintendent Mary Cahill, who watched the presentation and welcomed Ray to the school, seconded the point, noting that Ray's benefit show annually raises thousands of dollars for scholarships and school technology equipment. This past year, show proceeds bought iPod Touch handheld devices with educational applications. In prior years, proceeds bought computerized blackboards.
"She's a really special person to come back to her roots like this," Cahill said. "It's amazing she maintains this type of connection and does it with heart."