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When I was a youngling in the '80s, my aunt (a sexy Italian housewife with a surly Doberman and a topless Jeep) used to coerce me into watching Martha Stewart's TV specials with her. At the time, Martha wasn't yet a billionaire or even a widely recognized figure. She was merely a grim Hamptons blonde with such baroque taste in cookie decor that Fabergé himself might have urged her to cool it. Still, her fastidious kitchen technique was already legendary among DIY gourmands. While watching one episode, my aunt took copious notes as her hero demonstrated the proper way to spin sugar. Martha flung ropes of sticky syrup at a baking sheet until they were reduced to iridescent floss, then fashioned the spun sugar into darling edible bird nests. "See?" Martha said, her padded shoulders heaving with exertion. "Beautiful." My aunt nodded, enthralled. I shuddered, fearful of the future.
You see, I am the anti-Martha. I don't even like to heat soup, let alone alter the physical properties of boiled glucose. If my guests want to eat a nest, they'll have to forcibly evict a blue jay and run like hell. And forget ambiance: My table setting usually consists of a burning stick of Nag Champa, a few cloudy forks, and a roll of paper towels. That's why I should be thankful for a show like Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, which promises to transform shiftless louts like me into domestic mavens. Got a seasoning packet, a bottle of Popov, and about 15 minutes? Then you're halfway to a three-course meal--let Sandra show you how!
Sandra Lee is classically telegenic--blond, slender, and unafraid to flaunt her cookies under clingy Fair Isle sweaters. She's also the soon-to-be-ex-wife of housing mogul Bruce Karatz. Some people suggest that nepotism advanced Lee's TV career, and those people might be correct. However, to Lee's credit, she's penned a couple of popular cookbooks using her signature "Semi-Homemade" formula (70% readymade products + 30% fresh ingredients = store-bought Bundt cake disguised as Linzer torte). Also, Lee peddled a successful line of window treatments on QVC a few years ago, so she's not without credibility in the lifestyle sphere. Still, Martha's minions are horrified by Lee's unpretentious shtick. Here's this woman--this dizzy, unschooled Cheez Wiz apologist who probably doesn't even know what a caper is--polluting their precious Food Network with her cut-rate preservative-laden glop! How dare she! While I admit these elitists' scorn isn't baseless, I kind of enjoy watching them squirm. In your face, Kitchen Mafia! Finally, a show for those of us who cook with Campbell's labels and Pyrex.
Lee revels in ranch dressing, prefab crab, Cool-Whip, and those firm silos of refrigerated cookie dough. In one episode, she dumped a jar of marshmallow fluff on a bowl of canned yams and congratulated herself for making it look "professional." In another, she took cultural awareness to a new level by pouring Corn Nuts (yes, the preferred convenience store snack of Heathers everywhere) on a Kwanzaa cake. (Don't believe me? Run a search on the Food Network website.) And every meal is paired with a signature cocktail, or as Lee likes to call them, "'tinis." Most of these drinks are alcoholic enough to fuel a golf cart, and Lee samples each one with a lusty slurp. The libations seem fitting for the food. If your recipe includes a packet of "orange cheese powder," why bother consulting a sommelier? Lee's technique might not be impeccable (watch her blithely scrape that nonstick pan with a metal spatula!), but at least it's familiar. You can watch Semi-Homemade Cooking and feel decent about yourself, whereas the Marthas of the world--with their sugar work and their pastry cutters and their radish rosettes--make fledgling cooks feel gauche, clumsy, and strapped for time.
Lee's personality is even more accessible than her food. She whoops like a Tri-Delt on spring break when a recipe comes out well (it's the Girls Gone Wild version of Emeril's "Bam!"). She abuses the word "literally," as in, "I literally want you to put the ham in the oven," as if we would otherwise think the command was figurative. She regales viewers with apropos-of-nothing stories about her best friend Colleen, a single mom who apparently likes White Russians (the drink). Watching Lee cook is like watching your bubbly sister throw together a casserole after work. She's refreshingly imprecise, even a little reckless. It's like reality TV in that this is how most of America actually cooks. And Lee is a rebel: baiting her critics, bemoaning the "foodies" who have lambasted her in the press, refusing to apologize for using garlic from a jar. She's almost, dare I say it, semi-punk-rock.
I'd never attempted to replicate a cooking show recipe until I joined the Cult of Sandra. Recently, I decided to take a crack at her spicy beef skewers (flank steak + taco seasoning packet = crazy delicious) and corn salsa (canned corn in a Latin-themed disguise). My family downed the grub as if it were manna from heaven. Hell, they were pleasantly surprised that I'd bothered to fire up the oven. I imagine this is the sort of conclusion Lee hopes for: a well-fed gang, a well-rested "chef," and plenty of time left for a round of Flaming Everclear Melontinis. Maybe it's time to redefine the perfect meal.
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