What's The Deal With Sandra Lee?

We're in a recession. Talented people are laid off every day. So why does Sandra Lee have two shows?

There's a piece in Newsweek comparing Food Network star Sandra Lee (unfavorably) to Julia Child. Now, that's fish in a barrel stuff, but it did get me thinking: what the hell? With so many people clamoring for jobs like hers that there's actually a show about "finding the next Food Network star," what's her secret? The following things are frequently mentioned when people debate this question (and, if you've ever spent any time on Chowhound boards, you know they do. "Who's she sleeping with?" is the least of it.)

The Whiteness: The spotless kitchen and virginal wardrobe don't exactly suggest serious cooking. More like a Mormon temple. Nor, many would add, does her tiny figure - although I for one wouldn't find Lee's concoctions particularly hard to resist.

The faux-cooking: Lee's "semi-homemade meals" are heavy on the pre-fab, light on the local/organic/from-scratch. Eco-conscious, the woman's not. Fat-conscious? Not to much. Taste-conscious? I haven't, it's true, tried a single one of Lee's experiments in chemistry. (And I speak as someone not adverse to the occasional cake mix or batch of onion dip.) But the woman makes Rachel Ray look artisanal.

The really faux cooking:
Lee doesn't even devise her own recipes; a test kitchen in SoHo apparently does all that.

The Stepford manner: The eerie perfection of kitchen, tablescape, outfit and smile - to say nothing of the enthusiasm for the day's themed cocktail - suggests an imminent breakdown. The fact that she's dated New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for the past three years doesn't really help with this impression. Not to mention that the whole time-saving foods to trick your guests gimmick feels like a Sterling-Cooper campaign.

So, what's her deal? Well, according to the piece, Lee's come up the hard way.

As a child, Lee raised her four younger siblings on food stamps and welfare after her mother walked out. With help from her grandmother, she learned how to cut costs at the grocery store. It's a story she's not embarrassed to tell, especially when promoting the new show.

According to her Wikipedia entry, "In the early 1990s, Lee created a product called "Kurtain Kraft", a home decorating tool using a wire rack and sheets or other fabric samples to create the appearance of decorative drapery. The product was sold on infomercials and cable shopping networks." And, on the strength of this, I guess, went on to get her own show. And can she cook? She says yes, but she doesn't.

"When I was at the Cordon Bleu, things took hours and hours and hours to make...And they were beautiful dishes-and I know how to cook that way-but I was like, 'no one is cooking like this.' "

To those who feel there's something between original Mastering the Art and a can of pudding mix, this attitude feels like a betrayal of the food world: catering to the lowest common denoninator rather than expecting more of people; ignoring all the gains of the simpler back-to-the -land American Food movement; and, in the process, not doing much to help the American diet.

If I had a theory, I'd have to say it's just the thrill of the bizarre: Lee is mesmeric. There are very few public figures who are completely mysterious, and she's one. What is she thinking? Why? We don't know. Rachel Ray cooks some crap, and Ina Garten's life is pristine, but it's rare to see this bizarre mix of high and low-brow, of a world in which you have time for tablescapes and cocktail hour, but it's easier to mix a jar of relish with some dressing powder than roast a vegetable. Lee's wonder at convenience foods is truly that of another era: a world in which surface was all and you never let them see you with a hair out of place. Her motto sort of says it all, when you think about it: "70% store-bought/ready-made products accompanied by 30% fresh and creative touches, allowing you to take 100% of the credit." Because that, at the end of the day, is what it's all about.

Sandra Lee: The Anti-Julia [Newsweek]

Sandra Lee (cook) [Wikipedia]