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.
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.