Look at Me, I’m Sandra Lee

Sandra Dee

As uncool as it might be (especially for a 26-year-old), I have to admit: I am a Food Network addict.  It’s not as bad as it used to be.  When I was unemployed and learning to cook, I would keep the Food Network on all day, both to keep me company and to instruct me on the finer points of baking, sauteing, etc.  I watched Emeril Live and Paula’s Home Cooking (my favorite) and even Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee.  I found Ina Garten and Giada DeLaurentiis a bit intimidating.  I wanted to become Nigella Lawson (okay–I still do).  But Sandra, with all her whipped topping and canned pie filling and “tablescapes,” left me a little dumbfounded.  She was like a middle-aged Barbie doll, and her kitchen and wardrobe changed each episode to match the theme of her menu.  She used toys in her place settings and, once, a plastic-ivy-covered chair for a centerpiece.  When I saw her, I couldn’t get a particular song out of my head–you know, the one from Grease that goes, “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee…”  And I wondered, for a while, if Sandra Lee was her real name, or if she just wanted to be associated with Gidget.

Sandra Lee

With a little research, I discovered that Ms. Lee was originally an interior designer of sorts, selling curtains through infomercials, QVC, etc.  Which explains the tablescape segment she includes in each of her shows and the themed-up sets.  Food Network’s bio page says she then attended Le Cordon Bleu, and in 2003, her first Food Network show aired.  Since then she’s started her own magazine, published several cookbooks, and started a Semi-Homemade empire.  But the thing about Sandra Lee is, for all her popularity with certain groups, she has been criticized, heckled, and scorned more than any Food Network star I can think of.  If she were more widely known, they’d be showing her cellulite in the tabloids.

There is a reason I’m writing about this now.  I have to admit, I am one of Sandra Lee’s critics (though I have found at least one recipe of hers worthy of adding to my recipe library–though, admittedly, it sort of loosely fits with her 70/30 canned-to-fresh aesthetic) but in a small way that basically involves not watching her shows and not reading her contributions to Food Network Magazine (yes, I’m a subscriber).  But I recently read something that got me all riled up: an article in the Huffington Post, in which the creator of the infamous Kwanzaa cake confesses to writing Ms. Lee’s recipes.

I’m not really surprised that someone writes her recipes for her.  It actually makes sense.  Most of what she does can’t actually be qualified as cooking, anyway.  It’s more like assembly.  But still, the Food Network claims she attended Le Cordon Bleu (but they don’t say for how long or whether she graduated) and they have, in recent years, made a huge deal about their chefs not only being TV personalities but honest-to-goodness, amazing cooks (case in point: The Next Food Network Star).  And going forward, maybe they’ll stick to this dedication to real cooks and real food.  But I guess they can’t erase the past.

So here’s what I’ve been thinking.  Sure, Sandra Lee (as Amanda Hesser of the New York Times wrote), “…seems more intent on encouraging people to create excuses for not cooking than on encouraging them to cook wholesome simple foods”, and maybe it’s true that her style “…encourages a dislike for cooking, and gives people an excuse for feeding themselves and their families mediocre food filled with preservatives.” But different strokes, right?  For different folks?

There was a time in my life when I truly preferred orange blocks of Velveeta to the expensive brie my grandmother served at holiday gatherings.  Both my father and my husband prefer their cherry pies made with canned filling.  And Sandra is not the only Food Network star to use prepackaged foods–she’s just the only one who’s made them into a tag line.

You could look at this from a nutritional standpoint or a culinary standpoint or even an ethical standpoint.  You could point fingers; many have.  I know I’m sorely tempted to.  I’m tempted to point and laugh, much of the time, because certain recipes really seem like something Amy Sedaris might come up with:

But in a way, don’t you feel bad for her?  Knowing someone else wrote her most infamous recipes, and that she, somehow not knowing any better, actually put corn nuts (acorns) on cake in front of a national TV audience?

Even her colleagues poke fun at her.  Ina Garten, in an episode of The Barefoot Contessa, said that it drives her crazy when people talk about “tablescapes.”  Alton Brown has commented that Sandra Lee’s style of cooking is opening a can and having a cocktail.  (I do appreciate her “cocktail time” segment, even though her Sugar Plum Fairies didn’t exactly agree with me, making for an interesting Christmas night.)

Maybe we could think of Sandra Lee’s food as the Twilight of the culinary world.  From a technical standpoint, it might not be incredibly well crafted, but it has its moments and it is certainly popular in certain circles.  Whether it’s good for you or not is debatable; some would assert that it is detrimental to our minds, bodies, our culture in general.  But it’s out there, and it won’t go away any time soon.  If nothing else, it can be appreciated ironically.  So there’s that.


  • Scott Eubanks says:

    I have to admit that I’ve been searching for the platonic saute pan for a few months now and I’m leaning toward stainless steel. This last weekend, while my girlfriend and daughter were busy Christmas shopping, I ducked into a Williams & Sonoma to see if their sale was any good, a furtive and depressing venture.

    • Laura says:

      I usually look for my cookware at Bed, Bath, and Beyond (I guess the kitchen is “Beyond.”) Still not super cheap but solid stuff. With Williams-Sonoma, you’re paying for status as much as anything.

    • Geneva says:

      Try the Kitchen Engine in the Flour Mill. It may not be the cheapest place in Spokane, but it’s a local, family-owned business. And they have a really nice assortment of cookie cutters, if you’re in to that kind of thing.

    • Marcus says:

      You could also try one of the discount stores, like a TJ Maxx or Ross. I’ve bought cookware there before, and as long as you know what you want and don’t just buy the shiniest one, you’re good to go.

      (I can’t believe I just wrote that.)

      Also, W/S doesn’t take returns/exchanges without a receipt, even if it’s a gift. Dirty bastards. So now I’m stuck with these Star Wars pancake molds that I don’t really want.

      (Can’t believe I wrote that, either.)

  • Marcus says:

    Laura, I could never watch more than ten minutes of Sandra Lee’s show. What’s really striking is that it probably wouldn’t seem so bad on its own, but when you watch it alongside some of the other really tremendous Food Network shows, it just makes her look spoiled and lazy.

    But there’s a huge segment of the population that’s spoiled and lazy, so I guess she’s not lacking for an audience.

    Also, thinking about cooking has inspired me to make my famous chili for dinner tonight. So thank you for that. (And thanks to my papa-in-law for dropping off some freshly butchered elk to use in it.)

  • Jennifer says:

    Poor Sandra Lee. She looks like she tries so hard to please – and she is so proud of her “craft”. I am, however, very quick to pick out her shortcomings. She must have a good contract with the Network. Oh. And I think she knows that if we could see her face and body age – she’d be outta there. Lots of pancake – on her face, not the skillet.

    • Jennifer says:

      I wonder what it’s like for her at the Food Network Christmas Party…does she stand in the corner all alone – a wallflower holding a lovely cocktail? Pobrecita.

  • Geneva says:

    That song has been stuck in my head all day.

  • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

    I admit it. I’m a Sandra Lee fan (though, like Laura, my favorite Food Network show is Paula Deen’s). I’ve never actually made any of Sandra’s recipes (I admit to not have made many of the Food Network’s recipes period), but I like the idea of semi-homemade. And now I’ll go cry because Marcus thinks I’m spoiled and lazy. :)

    My favorite part of Sandra Lee episodes, though, is cocktail time. I like to play a little game called “Guess How Drunk Sandra Gets.” She’ll do one part orange juice (glug) to two parts vodka (glug glug glug glug glug glug), and if that cocktail comes out looking orange I’ll…well, I don’t know what I’d do, because it never happens. I figure she films more than one show a day, so this amuses me to no end. It’s sort of like watching Paula with her butter (seriously, she put some on top of spaghetti sauce the other day; like a lot).

    • Marcus says:

      I don’t think you’re spoiled and lazy. But the fact that you think Paula Deen uses too much butter upsets me.

      Butter: Only one letter away from Better.™

    • Laura says:

      I also enjoy cocktail time, and the concept of “half a part,” which seems a little illogical to me. Why isn’t the smallest part a part? Because she doesn’t want to say “eight parts vodka”?

  • Marsha Stone says:

    I watch, and enjoy, many of the shows on Food Network. Ina is a favorite; her food looks so decadent. Also, I am married to a chef. He demands fresh only. Yet, when I had a houseful of kiddos to feed, and a tight cooking schedule, the concept of semi homemade appealed to me. Confession: I love to watch SL. She’s beautiful, shapely and doesn’t show her boobage, like Giada does. It is difficult to listen to her tho. SL gushes a bit too much over her dishes. That said, too many people eat Tuna Helper. SL shows how to make something much tastier than Tuna Helper, and just as fast.

    • Karen Martin says:

      Agreed. I have one cookbook given to me as a gift from Ina. Never made a thing from it. The ingredients are, lets face it not your normal grocery store fair. Sandra’s on the other hand especially the meat I have used because it is basically what you use for seasoning and gives another spin on just frying or backing a piece of chicken or pork. She gets a lot of grief because she is pretty and not fat. I have watched most all the shows a time or two but the one that really does cook most like an everyday person would be Sandra. And sometimes, not always, I like to make the table look nice. If you slop food on a table it does not matter how you cooked it, it still looks sloppy. Presentation is everything. It makes even those low cost budget meals look great and I think everyone deserves a nice plate of food for dinner after a day at work.

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