Marion Cunningham, the recently deceased grand dame of home cooking, said, “The table is the place where you learn who you are and where you are from.” Sandra Lee has created her signature “tablescapes” by topping tables with, among many other things, fruit painted with edible gold leaf, fairy dolls, rubber rain boots, ping-pong balls and bedazzled denim jeans from the Salvation Army. What does this say about who she is and where she is from? What does it say about us?
Some would say these items are nothing compared to what she actually puts on the plates themselves. In an effort to appeal to those seeking convenience in the kitchen, Lee uses few ingredients that don’t come out of a can, jar, plastic bag, carton or squeeze tube. Since 2002, when her first collection of recipes, Semi-Homemade Cooking hit stores, she has relied on her oft-stated formula of 70 percent packaged ingredients and 30 percent fresh, though Lee’s account of that ratio might be a little off (unless you consider just-unscrewed vodka a fresh ingredient).
But she is a reaction of sorts to the strain of hipster foodie-ism that so many Americans find unbearable. If you are into obsessively describing which farm produced every tendril and shoot, and piece of fat and gristle on your plate, or Instagramming the fresh bee pollen-dusted gelée of certified organic lizard testicle you just prepared in your Williamsburg apartment, Sandra Lee is not for you. And she doesn’t care what you think. She is also so over-the-top that she’s nearly unassailable. She is gleefully, deliriously, unabashedly not health conscious (though even Lee’s dishes are not as egregiously gut-busting and artery-clogging as Paula Deen’s). One cultural commentator quipped that beating up on the likes of Sandra Lee is “like taking a bat to a piñata without wearing a blindfold.”
But there is no shortage of bat-wielding critics showing up sans blindfold: Anthony Bourdain once called Lee, “pure evil,” going on to say, “This frightening hell spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time.” As far as Bourdain put-downs go, this was something of a love tap. But, to be fair, Lee’s food segments could easily be mistaken for an absurdist’s satiric vision of television cooking shows. Particularly the “Kwanzaa Cake” episode (Google it and watch if you haven’t seen it. I’ll wait…Done? Ok, let’s continue).
Every time Sandra piles another ingredient into a dish you may question her sanity (vanilla syrup, cocoa powder, cinnamon, sugar, frosting and pie filling?).
Rare is the cooking segment where she fails to, let’s say, surprise. You blink two or three times in incredulity during almost all of them. But you can’t deny they are entertaining. And this aspect has garnered her an entirely separate shadow audience online, one that follows her, watching, dissecting and enjoying her segments sometimes just for the sheer audacity they exhibit. If nothing else, this really speaks to just how much fun she seems to be having. And the fun is infectious.
The best thing about Lee’s television shows might be watching her make drinks. She uses the same method, saying things like, “We’re going to use three types of rum here: Passion fruit, vanilla and coconut.” This is about the time your jaw drops. Then she pours the rums into the blender in boozy splashes, dumps in a pint of sherbet and hits frappe.
It is this sort of behavior that has earned her the somewhat endearing nickname “Auntie Drunky” in some internet circles. But of greater importance is the way Lee embraces a meal all at once—from pre-game adult smoothie to post-prandial cigarette—while encouraging her viewers to do the same.
In publicity photos Sandra Lee looks like America’s robot princess—powered by diet soda, silicone and cotton candy-flavored vodka. There is an icy perfection behind her eyes. She’s like a big-haired blonde velociraptor. Forget what Bourdain said, she is neither Betty Crocker nor Kathie Lee (despite the fondness for frou-frou cocktails). Lee is a terminatrix in the Martha Stewart mold, hell-bent on domestic domination.
With little to no formal culinary training, Lee has published 25 cookbooks and a memoir (and said she has a novel in the works), she hosts two shows on the Food Network (one under the Semi-Homemade banner and another, Money Saving Meals, aimed at more cost-conscious home cooks) and appears in annual holiday specials on HGTV. In addition, she has collaborated on her own line of housewares with K-Mart and Sears. And she’s done it all with a prettily vacant expression on her face.
Sandra also plays the perfect sort-of-stepmom to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s teen daughters (the Gov and Lee are not married, but happily coupled) and recently displayed the first family’s newly remodeled Westchester home (the work on which she personally oversaw, naturally) in the pages of Elle Décor magazine, which painted a pantingly predictable how-does-she-do-it-all? picture.
But she only looks like a Stepford wife.
In a widely circulated video of outtakes from her Food Network show, she appeared loose, if not a bit punchy, uttering “Fuck me” and the like when she flubbed her lines and, at one point, grabbing her breasts jokingly while making an entendre about being semi-homemade herself. “Here’s her real personality,” she quipped. “Just splice together all the curse words.”
The video was quickly pulled from YouTube after leaking, though it can still be found online. Her detractors seem to relish in schadenfreude and take a certain satisfaction in the video, though it’s not exactly clear why. Sure it was funny, but embarrassing for Lee? Not really.
Nothing all that odd or out of character for Lee actually occurs. If anything, she reacts as anyone would. And for someone who strives so hard to have a down-to-earth image, that wouldn’t seem to present a problem.
There seems to be a contingent rooting for Lee to fail, but they are basically spitting their artisanal kombucha into the wind. They can complain all they want—this rhinestone-decked train is going to keep rolling. Lee is, to paraphrase The World According to Garp, predisastered.
But perhaps Lee has more in common with the deified Marion Cunningham than you’d first think. Cunningham, a California homemaker who overcame alcoholism and agoraphobia and vaulted into the cooking scene when she reintroduced the classic The Fannie Farmer Cookbook to American bookshelves, came along at a time when the country was enthralled with eating out, ordering in and the microwave. She bemoaned the loss of the communal table, the shared daily experience of dining together at home. “Too many families seldom sit down together; it’s gobble and go,” she wrote in her new introduction to The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, “eating food on the run, reheating it in relays in the microwave as one dashes off to a committee meeting, another to basketball practice. As a result we are losing an important value. Food is more than fodder.”
In our current fast food nation, racing toward a collision with obesity, disease and catastrophe, Lee might not exactly be holding up the STOP sign, but she’s certainly providing a speed bump.
She embodies a certain kind of purely American pleasure, and appeals to a vast audience for it. She is not preaching to her audience the way some might. At the same time, she embraces a sort of old-fashioned value system that has been lost—that of sitting around the table and eating food together, even if most of that food came out of day-glow plastic packs.
A million locavore hardliners are vying to be the next Alice Waters, but the next Alice Waters will be preaching to the converted—swapping recipes with an audience mouthing the words and nodding along in unison, and then dutifully rushing to their Tumblr blogs to write it all up and share with yet more similarly likeminded folks.
The desire for comfort food is a sort of longing nostalgia for a time that never existed. Jonathan Gold, LA Weekly food critic and one of the most decorated food writers in the country, recently said, “The comfort food thing started in the eighties, when people were hungry for the food their moms used to make. Except mom wasn’t a very good cook. Mom made everything out of a box, so they were eating boxed cupcakes and canned frosting.” Lee fills a certain role in that nostalgia for comfort food and family meals. Because her style, after all, for a generation is just like dear old Mom used to make (before she and Dad got divorced and Mom resorted to just ordering out and leaving the kids to their own devices).
Much of Lee’s persona speaks to this. She is trying to make cooking fun and accessible so that almost anyone would feel comfortable in the kitchen. She envisions meals from start to finish, complete with her well-known and at times outlandish table settings.
A great deal of this desire to speak to family meals and encourage home cooking may have to do with Lee’s own biography (which you can read in her memoir Made From Scratch). In many respects it is a classic American roman à clef: Our heroine comes from hardscrabble roots—a young girl, caring for her sisters, is barely able to keep food on the table, while her divorcée mom pops pills—and goes on to achieve the ultimate success in American culture: tv celebrity. Her devotion to Christmas and Halloween (and the fractured-fairytale displays, such as a cocktail glass tree, that her holiday specials have spawned) also stem from her upbringing (the family, Jehovah’s Witnesses, did not celebrate birthdays or holidays), but it also dovetails nicely with the hearth and homebody message of Lee’s brand.
The Kwanzaa Cake episode (you watched it by now, right?) was a debacle in every way—pandering, poorly conceived and executed, and gross all the way through to its syrupy center. But the way Lee marches through the segment so gamely says much about her. You know that she knows the segment isn’t going well, that the more she adds to it, the worse the cake looks, but that’s life—things don’t always pan out the way you (or your producers) imagined. She shrugs it off, smiles blithely, adds another layer of frosting and nuts, and hopes for the best.