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.
Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee is the apotheosis of this theatrical domesticity. In fact, Steve Skopick, the show's art director, explains, 'Sandra even calls herself a drag queen.' Indeed, with Lee's ever-changing blonde locks, her large yet resolutely perky breasts, and her strong cheekbones, she could pass as a drag queen. No woman is this much woman. The same holds true for her kitchen. Lee and her team change the decor every show, but it is always an aesthetic blitzkrieg. In one episode, all of the dishes are black, and a black KitchenAid mixer sits on the counter. Lee wears a black dress. In another -- a Mexican-themed one -- Lee makes tacos in a festive blue and lime green ensemble. Plates are green and pink. The KitchenAid is lime green. It functions like a metal chameleon, changing color according to its surroundings and Lee's mood.
But the coup de gr'ce comes not in the kitchen but at the end of each episode when Lee welcomes the viewer into her living room to behold her tablescape. Somehow between the kitchen and the living room, she manages to change into something a little nicer. A forest green velveteen dinner jacket, for instance, replaces a ruby red scoop-neck sateen blouse. The tablescape is where Lee turns it up to 11. In one episode -- 'Italian Topiary Garden' -- the plates are gold-rimmed porcelain in shades of mauve and dark green. Next to each there is a Faberg' egg and a small African country's worth of silverware. There's always an ornate centerpiece -- in one, a golden chair reared up on its hind legs is adorned with fake flowers, like a memorial sculpture of a chair expired in battle.
What is this vision? Skopick admits, 'You got me stumped on that one.' But, he says, 'She's a real big tastemaker in middle America. They go crazy for her.' He thinks for a moment then says, 'She has kind of, like, a gay man feel.' This isn't simply because Skopick is gay or because the majority of the men who work on Semi-Homemade are gay -- it's by design. By appealing not only to Midwestern housewives, unironically, but to coastal gays in a somewhat kitsch way, women like Stewart and Child not only established media empires, they vastly increased their personal worth. Lee wants to get in on the goods too, and she's well on her way.
'We have a huge gay following,' Lee says as we sit in the courtyard caf' of St. Bartholomew's Cathedral in Manhattan. She's just ordered a hamburger -- 'well-done, raw onion, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and a ton of mayonnaise' -- and a cosmopolitan. Lee, as she often does, has brought a gay with her. 'We have a saying,' she tells me, ' 'No Gay Left Behind.' ' Today's gay is a flouncy framer named Jeffrey Fegenheimer. 'We met at a party,' says Fegenheimer. 'I looked at her breasts, and I said, 'They're fabulous!' and she said, 'Aren't they?' and I asked, 'Can I touch them?' ' Lee finishes the sentence, 'And I let him and then we went and danced.'
Lee displays a formidable knowledge of the internecine political struggles that often accompany the courtier-like relationship between a gay and his girl. 'I had to talk to a gay last week about his girl because he was being very nice to me. I said, 'You have a responsibility to your girl, and that is not me. And my gay would freak out if he heard us having this conversation.' I said, 'Love your girl.' ' Fegenheimer laughs heartily at this. Like many of her employees -- though Fegenheimer isn't one in the conventional sense -- he belongs to a group of gay men who surround Lee known simply as the Boys. They are part friends, part workers, part walkers, and part jesters. The Boys include Lee's culinary director Jeff Parker, who prefers muscle shirts that show off his tribal tattoos, her hot Serbian makeup artist Bata Plavsic, her art director Skopick, and Russell Halley, her talent coordinator, who resembles a young Mickey Rourke. But the king of the court is her 31-year-old brother, John Paul Christiansen, better known as Johnny.
The story of Sandra Lee is the story of Sandra and Johnny. Well, of Johnny, Richie, Kimmy, and Cindy, Lee's four siblings. Lee raised her brothers and sisters like sons and daughters in Southern California and Washington state in the 1970s. Their mother was sick -- both miserably depressed and stunningly cruel -- and their fathers were absent, and Lee's childhood was a hardscrabble one, barely a childhood at all. As she writes in her memoir, 'I was 9 years old and' I became the sole caretaker of our family. By age 12 I was doing all the laundry, cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping.' On the next page she quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: 'I lie here buried alive in my loneliness.'
Lee had one way out of her loneliness: attending to the constant needs of her siblings, above all, Johnny, her youngest brother. 'The three other kids could be having a meltdown,' Lee recalls, 'and Johnny would be like, 'OK, Sandy. Back to me.' I've always been his mom and his sister.' (Johnny is the one with the mirror in the photograph.) 'He's holding it up to himself,' says Lee. 'One thing about my brother Johnny is that it's all about my brother Johnny.' As the only gay member of Lee's close family, Johnny is also a key ingredient in Lee's recipe for success with gays.
When Johnny turned 18, he moved in with Lee in Los Angeles, where she had moved in 1988. Shortly after he arrived, on one of those perfect Los Angeles days when the entire city seems like a climate-controlled set on a Hollywood sound stage, he turned to her while they were driving on Sunset Boulevard.
'I have a really horrible thing to tell you,' he said, 'This is going to be the worst thing you've ever heard.'
'You're pregnant!' joked Sandra.
'No,' he said, 'I'm gay!'
'Of course you are! Everybody knows that!' said Sandra.
When she retells this story now, Sandra lets out a hysterical touch-your-arm crack-up, but she soon grows serious. 'I think that is why I have a thoughtful sensitivity and openness and an accepting quality. I like to make life easier.' And in that moment, Lee yokes together her personal pain, her brother's gayness, and her brand into a unified fighting force.
If Johnny's coming out marked the beginning of Lee's solidarity with gays, her move to New York in 2006 marked the beginning of her political engagement with issues affecting them. 'When I moved here,' she says, 'I had to pick what was important to me. I did so much for women and children [in Los Angeles], but I hadn't focused on HIV/AIDS.' Lee became involved with Elton John's AIDS Foundation. 'I can't say he's my personal BFF, but when they asked me to co-chair [this year's gala], I said yes immediately.'
New York is also where Lee entered the empyrean of political circles. Earlier in her life, in Los Angeles, Lee had been married to Bruce Karatz, the millionaire former chief executive of KB Homes. Shortly after her divorce in 2006, Lee met Andrew Cuomo, the New York state attorney general and son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo, at a party in the Hamptons. They've been dating since. The two make a good pair, not only because they are both incredibly driven and ambitious but also because, at heart, they are both political animals.
Lee may look like a hyperbolic homemaker, but she has the agility of a candidate on the campaign trail, effortlessly hitching her brand to separate constituencies, from the power gays on the benefit circuit to the Midwestern housewives that make up the largest part of her base. Even when those interests collide, she breezily plows on. Although she received some scorn for her 2007 appearance on the The 700 Club, where she asked host Pat Robertson if she could kiss him, Lee says that she would not hesitate to do it again -- bringing her gay brother with her next time. That may have more to do with an Obama-like belief in her ability to bridge differences than cynical calculation, but it's hard to reconcile Lee's big-tent Christianity ('Jesus didn't judge, and I'm not going to judge,' she says) with a guy who attributes gay days at Disney with the awesome power to beget terrorist bombs, earthquakes, tornadoes, 'and possibly a meteor.'
The truth about Sandra Lee may lie somewhere in between. And if it's difficult to discern how much of her is fresh and how much is ready-made, that's exactly her point: It's delicious either way. So after kissing Pat Robertson on the cheek, she makes him prosciutto-wrapped figs, a Sandra Lee variation of devils on horseback -- a sly nod to Robertson's histrionic dogma that seems just a little too knowing to be coincidental. As the camera zooms in on Lee in the Christian Broadcasting Network's kitchen, you can just barely see her wink at the camera.
At least, you hope you can.