Sandra Lee’s recipe for success

Californians must be pleased that New York elected Andrew Cuomo, son of Mario, as its Democratic governor. The election affirms, yet again, that blue California has an East Coast bookend in blue New York state, an ideologically close, if geographically distant, high-spending, high-taxing, latte-sipping ally across the vast and incomprehensible sea of red that swept the country this fall.

But I’d like to ask you smug blue-staters a question: How does Cuomo’s blond, buxom and uninhibitedly extroverted live-in girlfriend, Food Network superstar Sandra Lee, fit into your equation?

The 44-year-old Lee’s two shows, “Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee” and “Sandra’s Money Saving Meals,” are built around decidedly red-state recipes, heavy on condensed soup and canned cake frosting. Meals are served on over-the-top, color-coordinated “tablescapes” and lubricated by supersized, Lee-invented cocktails featuring so much booze, sugar and butterfat that it’s a tossup whether regular tipplers will succumb to cirrhosis, diabetes or heart disease.

Lee’s television shows and books have made her the most reviled cook ever among the locavore-foodie “slow food” crowd, which has responded with blog entries such as “Thirteen More Things I Hate About Sandra Lee” and contests asking entrants to spell out how much and why they loathe Lee. “Don’t worry about being profane,” one contest urges.


Lee doesn’t seem to mind. She just holds her head high all the way to the bank to deposit the proceeds from her 16 bestselling cookbooks. It’s clear that Lee’s unstoppable, hardscrabble ebullience is a shot in the arm — make that an IV drip — for the morose-looking and perpetually frozen-faced Cuomo, who is almost never photographed smiling, even when he has his arm draped around his undeniably glamorous girlfriend.

I grudgingly have to admit that Lee’s cuisine has little to recommend it, with ingredients that are typically 70% off the processed shelf. But the sniffy high dudgeon they arouse in the all-organic-all-the-time set is great fun to watch. Lee boasts that she attended a Le Cordon Bleu cooking school — for exactly two weeks. “I was scraping beef tendons and I thought, ‘I’m outta here!’ ” she told an interviewer for the now-defunct Gourmet magazine.

I must say that I myself gasped in horror while watching a YouTube clip of Lee smothering what looked like perfectly good pork chops with the contents of a can of condensed cream of potato soup (I didn’t even know there was such a thing). And Lee’s lasagna recipe, which she says is “Andrew’s favorite,” features cottage cheese instead of ricotta and condensed tomato soup for sauce. Even Cuomo’s Italian American mother, Matilda, who otherwise never comments in public about her son’s romantic life, couldn’t keep quiet about that recipe. “That’s not the way you make a lasagna,” she complained in an interview.

And then there’s my nomination for the most ghastly-sounding dish in Lee’s culinary repertoire: Kwanzaa cake (ingredients include store-bought angel food cake, canned frosting, cocoa powder and corn nuts for strewing on top). That one made me want to tip off the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


Still, when I read the sanctimonious New York Times review of Lee’s 2003 bestseller, “Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade Cooking,” it made me want to whip up a batch of Lee’s Gnocchi Dippers (ingredients: jarred garlic, Tabasco sauce, sour cream and Velveeta). The review by Amanda Hesser drips with condescension, not just for Lee but for most American cooks. “If someone tells you often enough that you do not have time to shop at a good butcher ... you may start to believe it,” Hesser wrote. “And that is just how Ms. Lee wins you over. Using the same strategy that has been so successful for the food industry, she seems more intent on encouraging people to create excuses for not cooking than on encouraging them to cook wholesome simple foods.”

As someone who lives and works at least a half-hour subway ride from “a good butcher” and so buys most of her meat from the Safeway, a.k.a. “the food industry,” I found myself wondering whether those pork chops in potato soup might not be so awful after all.

Furthermore, you have to admire Lee’s sheer bravura. On Oct. 24, about a week away from the Nov. 2 election in which her boyfriend’s political fate would be decided, Lee broadcast her annual Halloween special on the Food Network. It was a business-as-usual Lee-lapalooza. She sported waistlength hair extensions and a deep-decolletage fairy queen costume that showed off as much cleavage as family TV permits. The food that day included frozen cheesecake on a stick and a cocktail composed of equal parts of half-and-half, vanilla vodka and hazelnut and white chocolate liqueurs, served in goblets the size of hurricane lamps. It’s “a favorite of the fairies,” insisted Lee.

All I can figure is it must be true that opposites attract. Even those who embrace his politics would have to admit that the saturnine, brooding Cuomo doesn’t seem like a lot of fun. In his life, Lee might be likened to the jolt of electrical current that galvanized the dead limbs of Frankenstein’s monster into life.

There is a lesson to be learned here for the Democratic Party. Across the country this Thanksgiving, Americans cooked “semi-homemade.” They opened cans of green beans and topped them with condensed cream of mushroom soup. They tucked canned yams under a blanket of tiny marshmallows from a bag. They poured premixed pumpkin pie filling into premade crusts.

Whether or not you prepared your Thanksgiving dinner this way, it’s crucial to understand that people buy Sandra Lee’s books by the thousands because they genuinely like her approach. And they think her “tablescapes” are creative (which in a way they are).

In this midterm election, the Democrats considered themselves too good for Lee’s people. Alienated from a condescending elite, ordinary Americans who don’t seek out “good butchers” and aren’t averse to opening cans when they make cooking easier were precisely the sort of people who cost the Democrats so many elections. Perhaps it is time for them to quit looking down their noses at Lee’s fans and start taking them, and what they believe, seriously.

Except, perhaps, for Kwanzaa cake.


Charlotte Allen cooks and writes in Washington.