Just how offensive is Sandra Lee’s crazy Kwanzaa cake?

A recent mea culpa from the creator of this Internet sensation raises the question: What is Kwanzaa food?

Topics: Food traditions, Food,

Just how offensive is Sandra Lee's crazy Kwanzaa cake?Sandra Lee and her Kwanzaa cake.

It was the cultural mash-up that was destined for the Viral Video Hall of Fame: Sandra “Queen of QVC, First Lady of New York” Lee going all-out for African America with her Kwanzaa Cake.

In the clip, the very perky — and it must be said, white — Lee takes her Semi-Homemade philosophy (yes, she refers to it as a “philosophy,” and yes, it’s trademarked) to new heights, using an array of store-bought cake, frosting, canned pie filling and corn nuts to “celebrate” the African-American holiday. As you might guess, the video takes pride of place in the pantheon of hilarious culinary disaster videos.

But a recent mea culpa from the cake’s actual creator broke through our collective efforts to block its memory from our consciousness. On the Huffington Post, food stylist and recipe writer Denise Vivaldo claimed essentially to have been backed into a corner to make this thing up. Needing the money to pay her staff, she researched and wrote the recipe, she claims in a story that spares no opportunity to trash Lee at every turn. (The word “disgusting” takes a star turn, and there’s some mention of blood seeping from the walls when Lee gives her a call.)

But it’s easy to throw Lee under the bus when she’s a millionaire for making food from cans. And after watching her crack open and pour a can of apple pie filling into the hole of an angel food cake for the ninth time, I had to ask, “Wait, someone ‘researched’ Kwanzaa for this cake?” Can this dish actually have something to do with Kwanzaa tradition?

I talked to Jessica Harris, a professor at Queens College, and author of dozens of books on the foods of the African diaspora, including a cookbook called “A Kwanzaa Keepsake,” and the forthcoming “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America.” During our conversation, we talked about the real problem behind Lee and Vivaldo’s cake, what foods are important for Kwanzaa, and what Kwanzaa really is, anyway.

When I first e-mailed you the link to this video, you wrote back saying, “It is just so wrong, disrespectful (and yes that was done with a full frontal Aretha-esque finger snap!)” So let’s start from the top: What do you find disrespectful about this cake?

Well, I first want to say that I don’t find the semi-homemade thing problematic. It’s called “doctoring stuff up,” and it’s fine. So the questions become: What’s the end result? And how do you attribute that cake to a holiday that is not of your ethnic persuasion?

The thing that’s potentially offensive to me is characterizing/determining a holiday about which neither the cake preparer nor the recipe designer has the first clue. When you create a recipe to be attributed to someone else’s culinary tradition, that demands a knowledge of the culture and a judicious handling of things. But this cake has no cultural relevance.

Worse, it’s just something I don’t want to put in my mouth. Much of the offense for me, personally, comes from that. You’re going to make that and call it mine? No thank you! You have to question what kind of holiday cakes the recipe writer makes for her own people.

I’m not saying the food of the African diaspora can’t be an inspiration for other people, because that’s a sign of a great cuisine. But this cake is an abomination. I wouldn’t want that on the table and be called my birthday cake, and that’s the biggest holiday I know!

So you can’t see anything even vaguely Kwanzaa-related in this cake? Did the recipe developer just make it all up?

Let’s see what there is in this thing. Angel food cake is certainly not an African-American tradition; maybe if it was pound cake. Cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon frosting — cocoa does grow in Ghana, but is that where she was going with this? I don’t know about the cinnamon, which is not indigenous to Africa, and don’t even ask me about a whole teaspoon of it! Pumpkin seeds, apple pie filling … corn nuts. Well, corn is called for in the Kwanzaa holiday.

And then there are the candles, which the recipe writer went to lengths to insist were Sandra Lee’s fault, but the candles are the only thing that give that cake any connection to Kwanzaa. Otherwise it’s just an ugly brown cake!

Corn is used in Kwanzaa? What other foods are traditional on the Kwanzaa table?

In the Kwanzaa ceremony there is an ear of Indian corn — dried corn — on the centerpiece for each child of the house. As somebody once said to me, “Corn is primordial,” because if you have corn, you have more corn in it. You can grow corn from corn, so it’s a symbol of potential.

Corn is the only thing I know that is called for. There is supposed to be a basket of fruit on the table, but it’s up to interpretation; there’s no mandated tradition. On my Kwanzaa centerpiece, I try to have black-eyed peas, yams, sugar cane, things that have significance to Africans and the places they have gone to.

But what’s a holiday with no food traditions?

There really are no specific foods attributed to the holiday, nothing that says, “It isn’t Kwanzaa if there isn’t X.”

The name comes from the Kiswahili “matunda ya kwanza,” “first fruits of the harvest,” and it’s based on East African or pan-African harvest traditions, but it’s a very new holiday. It’s only 44 years old. So there are individual familial traditions, but none that are codified.

I wrote a cookbook for Kwanzaa because there are no foods, and so all foods are possible. One of the fun things about this new holiday is that you get to create your own family tradition in a real way, based in a real framework; it’s fertile ground for the African-American talent of improvisation. Speaking of cakes, at one point, I thought, why not do a Kwanzaa cake, but with the icing made to look like kente cloth? You could do it with store-bought stuff, but it would be rooted in some form of African tradition.

It’s not designed as a religious holiday; it’s secular and about community, reflection and self-affirmation, so you can celebrate it alongside your faith traditions. It’s a seven-day event, with each day focusing discussion on a different principle; the words are very “’60s political”: collective responsibility, self-determination. [Unity, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith are the others – Ed.] Each night, the family gathers around the centerpiece and pours a libation for their ancestors before reflecting and discussing the day’s principle. And then, of course, there are gifts.

This video is 2 years old; its popularity is no doubt because of the cheesiness of Sandra Lee’s shtick mashed up with the idea that she was celebrating an African-American holiday. Why was there not more outrage?

Well, if it weren’t for you, I would have lived my life in blissful ignorance! I don’t think it was the folks celebrating Kwanzaa watching the video. I think the people who were watching it thought it was hysterical because she’s clearly misguided in her efforts. It’s the juxtaposition of that woman, that awful cake and a holiday that is attributed to folks that don’t look like the lady involved. But equally, that same trifecta probably took it off the radar of the folks who do celebrate Kwanzaa.

I have written encyclopedia articles about Kwanzaa, but I hadn’t seen this. So that to me indicates that the video phenomenon really just kind of existed in a different sphere. I mean, her Chanukah cake seems to be equally horrific, and that didn’t raise any hackles either. 

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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