Sandra Lee makes dinners on TV for people raised on TV dinners

Once mocked by foodies, Sandra Lee cooks the way real people eat

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 9, 2021 5:00PM (EST)

Sandra Lee attends Project Angel Food “Lead With Love 2021” at KTLA 5 on July 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Project Angel Food)
Sandra Lee attends Project Angel Food “Lead With Love 2021” at KTLA 5 on July 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Project Angel Food)

You know that song that was in the Billboard top ten for a year even though everyone you know seemed to actively despise it? Sandra Lee is that song.

An Emmy winner, a best-selling author, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a woman so popular she once had two television series going on the same network at the same time, Sandra Lee is nevertheless best known in many circles as that lady who makes questionable cocktails on the Food Network, the creator of that notorious, corn nut bedecked Kwanzaa cake, the apparent living antithesis of bougie farm-to-table cottage-core. I love her.

I trace my fascination with Lee right back to the moment she ascended as a television star in the early 2000's, when I was a perpetually awake new mother. She seemed to always be on the air, regardless of the hour I happened to turn on my TV, creating scenarios she called "tablescapes," marinating meat in ranch dressing mix and cheerfully glugging out very generous pours of vodka. The effect was utterly hypnotic. I was at the time enmeshed in an extremely Brooklyn, extremely mill-your-own organic baby food milieu, and Aunt Sandy was a comforting antidote. Lee didn't just open tubs of Cool Whip with gusto, she enthusiastically, audaciously served up her recipes with the message that what she was making was amazing. Imagine that — not a "store bought is fine" caveat with the subtext that, well, it's not really. Sandra was intentional about that onion soup mix.

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Of course, she was sneered at right from the beginning. A 2003 New York Times review of her first cookbook references, aghast, a recipe involving Velveeta. "With hundreds of delicious and interesting cheeses available in this country," the author writes, "many of them in supermarkets, it is difficult to understand how a responsible author could choose a tasteless, industrial cheese like Velveeta." I'll tell you why. Because Velveeta is cheap, familiar, and, in certain moments, hits the spot. Because the person who was perhaps not raised to appreciate "hundreds of delicious and interesting cheeses" or doesn't have the time or emotional energy to discover them might well appreciate a recipe that doesn't demand they understand all the subtle permutations of comté out there.

Lee also famously riled Anthony Bourdain, who referred to her as "pure evil… the frightening hell-spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker." (When Bourdain died in 2018, Lee graciously declared that "He was a really gifted, smart, articulate man and his humor will be missed.") In a cultural moment when the Bourdains and Batalis and Changs reigned supreme — and before their own reckonings — it was the easiest thing in the world for critics to take potshots at the Sandras and Emerils and Guys of the world, folksy crowd pleasers who appealed to the tuna casserole demographic. I think what infuriated them most was her guileless lack of apology. Behold my beautiful creation, she'd say, pointing to, say, a salisbury steak made with cream of mushroom soup. She didn't just refuse to be ashamed to make family feasts from humble ingredients, she seemed downright proud of herself. This is the kind of thing that tends to enrage a person's imagined betters, when someone can sincerely enjoy things, and without having someone else with more privilege telling them they're doing it wrong.

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Lee comes by her appreciation of cake frosting from the can authentically. The eldest child in her family, she grew up on food stamps and welfare, learning to care for her younger siblings while her abusive mother — who had her when she was just 16 — was in and out of the picture. Her recipes reflect the ingenuity of a latch-key kid foraging and making do with what's available in the cupboard, what's the weekly special at the supermarket.

In the past few years, there has been a kinder reconsideration of Sandra Lee. In 2015, she was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), an early form of breast cancer, and underwent a bilateral mastectomy. She now, in addition to her philanthropic work for a variety of anti-hunger charities, is an advocate organizations like the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. In 2019, she broke up with her boyfriend of 14 years — some guy named Andrew Cuomo.

The pandemic, inevitably, has brought about its own reckoning. Cooking from the stuff in your cupboards, stuff from cans and boxes, overnight went from something stigmatized to something essential for survival. And in the midst of economic chaos, her television show about "Money Saving Meals" seemed deeply relevant. In a 2020 interview with the New York Times — the same paper that 17 years earlier sniffed that Lee "gives people an excuse for feeding themselves and their families mediocre food filled with preservatives," she showcased her pantry's cans of cream of celery, cream of mushroom and cream of potato soups and called them "great bases for anything you want and they all last forever."

If, over the years, the foodie elite found her laughable, they have never been her audience anyway. Sandra Lee is instead the culinary star for the person who's made pizza bagels with ketchup, the one whose gastronomic education comes not from Larousse but the recipe on the back of the package. She doesn't benevolently lecture you on how you could, if you just tried, be economically simmering a pot of beans on the stove and roasting a chicken in the oven. Instead, she embraces food without assigning a moral judgment to it. Whenever I watch Sandra Lee, I still, as someone whose own palate was forged in Hamburger Helper, feel incredibly seen. And I find something profoundly moving about a woman who has built an entire empire around the ethos of the big sister, creating nice and pretty meals and "tablescapes" out of stuff from the bottom shelf.

From her earliest Food Network appearances to her current instagram feed, Lee keeps smiling. She remains endlessly, unpretentiously true to form — even her recipe for grilled lobster involves frozen orange juice concentrate.  "I think you just have to figure out how to do with what you have and how to make it the best you can," she told the Times last year. "You have to see what's there, not what's not there." It's a wise way to cook, and an even wiser way to live. And for a woman whose brand identity includes the word "semi," there's nothing that's ever been half-measured about Sandra Lee.

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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