Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Like Sands Through The Hourglass, So Are The Days Of Sem-Eye-Homemade Sandra Lee

Chefography Sandra Lee

Well, well, well, it turns out that Sandra Lee, queen of the schlockfest known as Sem-EYE-Homemade, has quite a touching life story. (I don’t know about you, but I say Sem-Me not Sem-Eye.)

This is it in a nutshell. She took care of her 4 young siblings, while her mother married and divorced repeatedly and got ill too. Sandra got groceries on a bicycle. She used the old red plaid Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. Everything in Sandra’s young life was about making money to support her half siblings – she sold pairs of pot holders for a buck and gathered up daffodils to sell. Her sister, Kimber Lee, one of her young charges, sounds rather belligerent in explaining why Sandra knows so much about Bisquick. It seems to have comprised all four food groups for the family and apparently Sandra did everything but spackle the walls with it.

Ok, I don’t want to be churlish here, but this sob story is really getting complicated. Her mother has been ill for some time. We never really find out what happens to her. At 16, the children are taken away to live with their real father, who is Sandra’s stepfather and her mother’s 2nd ex-husband. Are you getting this? (It’s a good thing I have a long history with soap operas to keep this all straight.)

Anyway, at 16, Sandy’s alone and her grandmother comes to town. (I’m not sure if this is the baker grandmother or the fashionista one) and, by the way, where was she all this time? Granny gives her $500 a month to live on and apparently leaves town again and allows a 16 year old to live by herself to attend high school and work 5 days out of 7. Gosh, we spoil our kids nowadays.

She does a wonderful job fending for herself and begins college at The University of Wisconsin – Lacrosse. (I don’t actually know what the Lacrosse refers to. Isn’t that the name of a sport? Maybe she was an athlete, too.) We learn that she amazed her friends by making enormous hamburgers with bacon AND avocado, apparently the first time such haute cuisine had come to Wisconsin. PLUS she impressed them with her gourmet stylings of mac and cheese, cream of mushroom soup and hamburger. (Just read the back of the box!) Oh and her dorm room was apparently quite a stirring design statement. Her bed was in the middle of the room! They probably hadn’t seen that in Wisconsin except at the moving picture show….

She left Wisconsin in 1987 after 3 years of college, the reason for which is not made clear. You would think such a hard working industrious girl would want to to finish her degree in Physical Therapy. Instead, for some reason, she thought it would be better to go to LA and create “unique window treatments”. She twisted some wire and voila started a company called “Kurtain Kraft” – maybe you needed that extra year of college for spelling, honey. SOMEHOW, for some reason - I am more than a little confused now - Florence Henderson appears in an infomercial to sell these things; we skip a bit of time; and, by 31, Sandra has reached millions of dollars in sales for her kurtain kompany.

For no discernible reason, like much of this story, she attends Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa, Canada. Why? And why there? Really, I haven’t a clue and if we see this sister, Kimber, one more time, I’ll shoot myself. (Sissie finds ANOTHER reason to defend her. Isn’t Kimber the name of a scary character in Nip/Tuck? )

At the Cordon Bleu, we learn that SL objected to the long hours they spent making stock and doing the other things that actually makes food good. (I wonder what she THOUGHT she was going to learn in cooking school.) She says, “I’m looking at this list of ingredients and it’s the same as Bisquick, so why not just use Bisquick?” That is wrong on so many levels, that I don’t even know where to begin. I have no idea if she lasted in cooking school, but her cooking philosophy became crystallized as a result of her being there. It was a complete and total rejection of the classic tenets of French cooking. Does the notion of an antichrist seem out of place here? Why make anything from fresh ingredients, when you can buy it already packaged? My! I never actually heard anyone admit to that before.

Somehow and again the details are a bit vague, she begins to write her first cookbook. Then Granny dies, I think it was the baker one, and she travels the world and decides to pay homage to Granny by writing a Sem-Eye-Homemade Baking Book. I don’t know about you, but MY grandmother would have stroked out if she had seen all the crap Sandra cooked with. Anyway, to make a long story even longer, noone would publish the, by now, 2 books. She self-published and the rest, as they say, is history. Oh, somewhere along the way, leggy Mary Hart became enough of a friend to write the introduction to the baking book. I wouldn’t want my name within 100 feet of that book. I’m feeling squeamish after just WATCHING this show about her life.

In 2002, the Food Network began her show, Sem-EYE-Homemade. Creativity and resourcefulness (nothing about food or taste) always take center stage, we're told. She was worried at the beginning, “that she wouldn’t be able to express THE message.” I’m worried that she WAS. She addresses such topics as what to do with the top of butter dish. Whoa, that's a hot one! She's molding something in it (mold being the operative word). That couldn't possibly be a can of icing, could it? Ok, not to sound like Elaine Stritch, but "does anyone still wear a hat/use a butter dish?"

We learn that “the wheels are constantly turning.” Too bad they’re not heading off a cliff. Various people are constantly stressing that Sandra THINKS OF EVERYTHING HERSELF. Oh I get it, that’s code for “WE didn’t come up with any of this rubbishy, overdecorated, overgarnished, artificial, unnatural “food” and tablescraps. Don’t blame us. Please.

Her “mission is convincing home cooks to relax and get things done the Sem-Eye-Homemade way.” But that’s an illusion. Dealing with all these packages of fake food doesn’t save any more time than simply cutting down on the ingredient list. A wonderful alternative to this style of cooking (I’m trying to be nice by even calling it cooking) is a book by Rozanne Gold, called Recipes 1-2-3. She uses no more than 3 ingredients in each dish (water and salt don’t count). And the food is fabulous.

Ok, I think I have Sandra Lee figured out. She's pushing this old-fashioned vision of a woman's role, because she never had a fully functioning mother herself. And when SHE took on the role that she so sorely missed, THAT too was taken away when her charges were wrenched from her. Her entire adult life has been trying to make up for what she lacked as a child.

Why is that that Martha has a similar "Homekeeping" schtick, but her stuff looks elegant? Sandra's looks like it came from a deserted boardwalk store at the end of the season. Could it be that Martha comes a place of power and high self-esteem and Sandra from a place of neediness and having to make up for so much? (My office hours are over.)

One other really interesting fact: Apparently, we can hold Sandra Lee single-handedly responsible for the newfound popularity of the crockpot...sorry…slow cooker. One young friend of mine begged to come to my dinner table recently on the same day that his mother took out the crockpot. He said it’s never good news when that happens. That reminds me of when my brother thought he could avoid ever having to eat my mother’s meatloaf again (the ONLY thing she cooked that was less than stellar) by breaking the glass Pyrex dish she made it in. He never had the nerve and he had to keep eating it for years and years.

In the last few minutes, we hear about Sandra's philanthropic activities. Does the Food Network think they’re going to get a tax break by emphasizing all these folks’ charitable activities?

Sandra tells her life story in public...for the very first time. (We don't actually see that, it's movingly alluded to.) Schlocky music plays, many challenges…Oh, there’s that sister again. It’s becoming VERY clear that Sandra probably put her through college and paid for her house too. And NOW Flo is back. “I think the future is limitless for Sandra Lee.” And so we end with a pronouncement by one our nation’s foremost prognosticators.

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