I thought it would be easy to evaluate the cheflebrity of Sandra Lee, of Semi-Homemade fame. Her approach and aesthetic make her the anti-Martha, and for everyone who rolls their eyes at Stewart’s parchment-paper lined rigidity, there are plenty who will view Lee’s unnatural acts with envelopes of powdered ranch dressing mix with equal disdain. (Seriously, I think most people who cook regularly rest somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.)
So why is it that I’m suddenly feeling reluctant to dole out too much mockery on a person who has actually taken a store-bought apple pie, crumbled it into packaged whipped topping, and layered it between strips of baked phyllo? What’s not to mock about that?
For one thing, it isn’t like Lee has invented the “pimp my can” style of cookery. While James Beard and Julia Child were popularizing gourmet techniques, Poppy Cannon was dousing dubious ingredients with liqueurs and setting them ablaze in an attempt to make them more festive and glamorous. (High standards and derision for “home economists” aside, Beard himself shilled for Green Giant.)
And while episodes of her television show can inspire Mystery Science Theatre-esque home viewing, there isn’t a whisper of cynicism to Lee’s presentation.
A lot of Food Network’s programming focuses, if not actually on a gourmet standard of cookery, then at least on higher-end preparations and ingredients. Not everyone wants to work that hard or spend that much, and given the popularity of Lee’s lifestyle products, a lot of people buy into her approach wholeheartedly. So while I personally would probably never try and replicate one of her recipes at home and I watch her program with horrified amusement, I think it’s great that not everyone has to have a pot of fresh rosemary on their kitchen windowsill to play along. She believes in what she’s doing. It’s not for me to wonder how.