The Semi Homemade World of Sandra Lee
By Joshua David Stein
Sandra Lee wants you to know you can count on her. Anywhere, anytime, turn on your television and she'll be there, mixing ranch dressing with tomato sauce for a Tuscan marinade and smiling knowingly at you from the fantasy floral kitchen set of her show, Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee. If you happen to need her when she's not on call, there are the 17 cookbooks Lee has published in the last four years, her 2007 memoir Made From Scratch, and the newest addition in her bid for the hearts and stomachs of the American public, the Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade magazine. And if you're lucky enough to come face-to-face with Lee, her bright blue eyes will widen in enthusiasm and empathy. A long slender hand may rest lightly on your arm. It doesn't matter who you are or where you're from -- a beleaguered housewife in Shaker Heights, Ohio, or a closeted gay in San Diego -- Sandra Lee loves you.
The cornerstone of Lee's dynasty is a life free from shame and full of ease. Her Semi-Homemade philosophy -- the foundation on which her bicoastal multimillion-dollar empire rests -- is that great meals can be made using 70% store-bought ingredients and 30% fresh ones. Not everyone admires Lee's novel approach to home cooking -- 'She seems to suggest that you can make good food easily, in minutes, using Cheez Whiz and chopped-up Pringles and packaged chili mix,' sniffed the celebrated chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain -- but for 'overextended busy homemakers' with little time and less money, Lee's approach may be a lifesaver. Call it salvation in the supermarket.
Lee came up with the idea in 1998, after attending a two-week course at Le Cordon Bleu, a cooking school in Canada. As she writes in her memoir, 'I thought there was a huge void in the marketplace for women like my sisters and my friends who found themselves with too little time to whip up tasty meals made from scratch.' So Lee headed to the supermarket. And that's when she saw the light. 'I strolled the aisles of the local grocery store to educate myself on brand names'.I stood frozen in place when I saw the bags of Toll House semisweet chocolate chips' Something clicking my head. Semisweet' Semi-Homemade. I knew the name of my book and this particular approach to cooking from here on in would be known as Semi-Homemade.' Amen.
From Julia Child to Martha Stewart, television's domestic goddesses have always had a special place in the gay man's heart. The borderline psychotic zest with which these women perform domestic duties; the exaggerated enthusiasm with which they extract a casserole from the oven or fold a napkin into a triple-peaked pyramid; the reassuring, cooing narration in real time -- surely there must be a subversive parodic current running quick underneath. They aren't the Real Housewives of anywhere. They are the idealized gestural woman, drag queens of mere mortal women.
But how does Lee stand out more than, say, Rachael Ray or Julia Child as a gay's best friend? It's not simply because she's been known to dress up as Cher for her Halloween special (and not as 'I Got You Babe' 1964'era Cher, but full-on Bob Mackie 1988 Oscars'era Cher) or because in a particularly inspired Christmas special she created a 'cocktail Christmas tree' decorated solely with items she took from her home bar, including 'whisky glasses, pint glasses, shot glasses, wine glasses, champagne flutes, and of course martini glasses!' topped with a nutcracker who -- stone facedly -- stands at attention holding his own cosmopolitan.
In the best domestic goddess tradition, Lee's manner is straightforward and approachable -- spiced up with equal dashes of camp and vamp. She's not afraid to sacrifice function for fashion in the spirit of color and thematic coordination. Why shouldn't she wear a white angora sweater to make holiday chocolates? It goes perfectly with the coconut cocktail confection she's making. (No episode is complete without a signature cocktail recipe; Lee's show is partially sponsored by Diageo, the owner of Smirnoff vodka, Tanqueray gin, Johnnie Walker scotch, and Jose Cuervo tequila.) 'I'm trying to build something that's sort of Samantha Stevens meets June Cleaver in 2009,' she says.
And though theoretically the Semi-Homemade mantra came about to help out frazzled moms, Lee doesn't belabor the point, preferring to structure each episode more like a theme party than a 'five quick fixes to make while they're at soccer practice' package. Taco night immediately becomes a full-on fiesta, and takeout pizza turns her New York kitchen into Naples, or, at least, a Vegas version of Naples.