When I mention Sandra Lee to people, most either don’t know who she is or they bring up the Kwanzaa cake. The “Kwanzaa cake” refers to one seasonal-themed episode of her Food Network show Semi-Homemade With Sandra Lee, where she instructed viewers to: celebrate the holiday by covering a store-bought angel food cake with an entire container of vanilla frosting flavored with cocoa powder, fill the hole in the middle with a can of cold pie filling, sprinkle it with sunflower seeds and acorns and top off the whole mess with four full-sized candles. A video of her making the cake went viral and Anthony Bourdain described it as a “crime against humanity.” The incident demonstrated both an astounding lack of self-awareness by a woman most often described as looking like a Stepford Wife, but perhaps even more importantly for a cooking show host, no apparent understanding of what good food actually tastes like. It was stupid and gross and exactly the kind of thing that made me fall in love with Sandra Lee in the first place.
I had been watching the Food Network for years before the Kwanzaa cake debacle, so I was already familiar with Sandra Lee. On her show, Semi-Homemade, she creates recipes using 70% store bought ingredients and 30% fresh ones. Like most people who find the thought of eating a cold can of pie filling unappealing, I initially found her horrifying. “That’s not cooking!,” I would shout as she dumped some vanilla extract into a tub of Cool Whip and declared it every bit as good as whipped cream made from scratch. At this point in my life I was subsisting primarily on microwave burritos and vegan curries my roommate had made, and even I still managed to find her show personally offensive. Why did she get to be on television? She wasn’t a chef. Anyone could combine mayonnaise and sour cream and call it a dip.
My opinion changed when I broke my foot and spent a week lying on the couch watching the Food Network because I was too depressed to follow anything with a plot. It was the first time I’d sat through an entire episode of Semi-Homemade, and it was one the most entertaining things I’d ever seen.
Sandra Lee possesses a deranged attention to detail and enjoys matching her outfits to the decor in her kitchen, which changes every episode. All of her meals have themes, such as “Racetrack Tailgate,” or “Denim and Diamonds,” and she creates elaborate “tablescapes” to serve them on. One Super Bowl episode featured upside-down megaphones with pompoms sticking out of them as a centerpiece. For “Casino Night,” she made ornaments out of playing cards and poker chips, then hung them from a wreath she’d attached to the bottom of a chandelier. And yes, her food is insane. The more I watched her though, the more I realized how stupid it was to get upset about what she was making. Her show reaches heights of absurdity that render parody redundant and those who bother criticizing her seem to take her more seriously than she takes herself. Sure, she makes bad food, but it’s creatively bad.
There’s a thrill to watching Semi-Homemade that a “legitimate” cooking show could never match. You truly never know what is going to happen. Unlike trained chefs, Sandra Lee isn’t reined in by any traditional sense of “good taste.” She possesses both the palate and enthusiasm of a child, and it’s impossible to mistake a Sandra Lee recipe for anything else. I have watched her make polenta with white chocolate and serve lump crabmeat over a canned tropical fruit cup. She frequently takes the store-bought fraction of the equation to the extreme, calling for the very food the recipe is supposed to be making as an ingredient. “Speedy Swedish Meatballs,” include a package of frozen meatballs and most of her soup recipes require a can of soup. Her “May Day Cake,” is one of my favorite examples of this. The ingredients include five cans of frosting, two store-bought cakes, and twelve store-bought cupcakes. Viewers are instructed to slather the cakes in frosting, and then stack them into a tower. The center of her “Pumpkin-Cheesecake Petit Fours,” requires purchasing a cheesecake and a pumpkin pie, scooping out the fillings, and combining them.
The best part of the show is “Cocktail Time.” This happens after she’s finished making her themed meal and before she’s revealed her tablescape. It’s the segment of the show that definitively proves Sandra Lee is a good time and all other cooking show hosts are boring. Most of her cocktails are extremely sweet and seem designed to make your guests not only blind drunk, but possibly sick. Her favorite ingredient is vanilla vodka, but she also enjoys drinking things that look like cleaning fluid, including blue curacao and tropical liqueur. Most of her concoctions include three or more kinds of sweetened alcohol and I have seen her top them off with everything from whipped cream and sticks of rock candy to full sized gingerbread men that she turned into garnishes by impaling them in the crotch with the rim of a martini glass. She also has a strange affinity for dairy-based cocktails. The recipe for “Farmstand Lemonade,” includes lemonade, citrus-flavored vodka, and heavy cream. I’m pretty sure this would curdle in your stomach, but that’s beside the point. The point is that Sandra Lee has no shame. Not only does she like to drink, she likes to drink the tackiest and most potent cocktails imaginable. She’s the type of woman who would go into a dive bar and order a daiquiri, uniroinically. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with someone like that?
Lots of people, it turns out. Sandra Lee had her detractors from the moment she published her first cookbook in 2003. Amanda Hesser, the cookbook critic for The New York Times, hated it, calling her recipes “simply odd” and noting that one for hollandaise sauce “leaves the reader wondering how much cooking Ms. Lee has done.” But Sandra Lee wasn’t writing recipes for The New York Times. She was writing them for people like herself, before she struck it rich at the age of twenty-seven selling a product called Kurtain Kraft on QVC. Lee’s recipes feel more retro than they do a sign of a modern foodpocolypse. Her definition of Semi-Homemade might be her own creation, but convenience cooking has been around for decades. The fascinating blog “Mid-Century Menu” is dedicated to making bizarre recipes from vintage cookbooks. Most of them would qualify as Semi-Homemade, including a recipe for tuna casserole with potato chips from 1960, as well as one for “Checkerboard Bake,” with Kraft dinner and SPAM from 1970. There’s something romantic about lamenting the days when everyone cooked from scratch, but for many people packaged food is the fondly remembered food of their past.
Sandra Lee grew up poor. Her parents had her when they were sixteen. Her father left when she was two and her mother was an alcoholic who was also addicted to prescription pills. According to her memoir she was essentially raising her four siblings by the time she was twelve. She cooked for the family using groceries she bought with food stamps. In her memoir Made From Scratch (Note: I actually read most of it, only skipping the chapters where she recalls selling various home goods at trade shows which is possibly the most boring subject anyone could ever write about) she writes, “At the beginning of every month, we ate a lot of fried chicken, tacos, and burgers. By the end of the month, it was anything I could create out of cornmeal.” To make extra money she cleaned houses and sold crafts like hand-loomed pot holders and pieces of driftwood she decorated with plastic animals.
Her show might be ridiculous, with its tablescapes and Kwanzaa cakes, but it’s clear that her interest in short-cut cooking and kitschy crafts isn’t an act. It was a lifeline that helped her survive and led her out of poverty. This is what makes her show so uniquely fun to watch. It somehow manages to be both campy and earnest. When she decorates a Christmas tree with wine glasses and tops it with a Nutcracker holding a blue cocktail or suggests giving a child a drink made of microwaved cream soda, butterscotch sauce, and a pat of butter as a treat, she’s not doing it with a wink. She’s just having fun. These days it’s rare to see ideas this bizarre executed with such a degree of enthusiasm and a lack of irony.
John Waters once said that “irony is snobbery. If you’re really poor in a country where there’s a famine, is there such a thing as irony? Is anything so bad it’s good? Usually irony is for the wealthy. It’s snobbism, in a way, because you’re saying something is good because it’s bad.” Is my affection for Sandra Lee ironic? I have two of her cookbooks, but would never make any of her recipes because, well, they look bad. My favorite Sandra Lee concoctions are her weirdest and most inedible. I stopped watching the last few seasons of her show when she started making an effort to modernize her food for a more health-conscious audience. In 2011 she actually reversed her 70/30 ratio, and only made recipes that included 70% fresh ingredients. I found the new show, Money Saving Meals, just as boring. Where were the cocktails? The sets constructed from a craft store? The original iteration of Semi-Homemade felt like a party, a cooking show set in Pee-Wee’s playhouse. This was just a cooking show.
Franz Kafka said, “Don’t bend, don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” Putting acorns on a cake isn’t logical. Neither is mixing lemonade and heavy cream. Sandra Lee has followed her obsession with craft stores and cake mixes all the way to writing twenty-six best-selling cookbooks and becoming the “First Lady of New York.” The fact that the concept she first built her empire on is so strange and silly makes this more—not less—impressive. Watching an episode of Semi-Homemade is seeing someone living out their dream in full force, with all of their eccentricities intact. That’s a rare and joyful thing to encounter. I mean that sincerely.
Sarah Bridgins is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. Her poems have appeared in MonkeyBicycle, InDigest, Sink Review, Two Serious Ladies, and NAP, among other journals. Her chapbook “We Are Not Pilgrims” was recently published by Mondo Bummer, and her book reviews and interviews have been featured in Bookslut, The Rumpus, and the NY Daily News’s Page Views blog. You can find more of her writing at: http://sarahbridgins.blogspot.com/.