Bad taste?

Pub date July 23, 2008
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

RANT Judging by Google hits alone for "I hate Sandra Lee," Sandra Lee might be the most reviled cooking show host in America second to Rachael Ray. And while Ray’s golly-gee-whiz style is the most frequent target of her detractors, few people would actually dispute that her 30-minute meals are the products of real cooking. Lee, however, tests the very limits of cooking itself. Her Food Network show, Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, runs on a calculus of deception whereby you get to take all the credit for whipping up gourmet-tasting fare out of 70 percent premade food items and 30 percent fresh ingredients. Lee is the perky, blond antichrist to the gospel of local, sustainable, capital-F Food as proselytized by Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Eric Schlosser. She knows how to package herself, and comes not bearing peace, but Cool Whip. And I love her. What follows is a brief encyclopedic list of what makes Cooking such incredibly addictive and stomach-turning television.

Brands: Lee’s pantry unrepentantly swears brand allegiance to all that is processed, preservative-packed, and additive-filled. Her online recipes name-drop Velveeta, Knorr, and Hormel at the same frequency Kanye West rattles off designer labels. There are no substitutions.

Cocktails: Lee’s menus always call for booze, and she shares her Applebee’s-worthy libations in a regular segment called "Cocktail Time." Remember, anything can be made classier with the suffix -tini — and the bluer the liquor the better.

Diction: In the world of Cooking, food or objects can be "beautiful," "delicious," and/or "easy." These words are frequently modified by the adjective "super."

"Kwanzaa celebration cake": This is Lee at her finest. Nothing screams multicultural sensitivity like stuffing angel food cake with apple pie filling, slathering it in chocolate frosting and sprinkling popcorn, pumpkin seeds, and corn nuts on top. In the words of one Internet reviewer: "An embarrassment to desserts."

Power matching: Lee performs her alchemical transformations of leek soup mix and chicken breast tenders into "chicken scaloppini" on a country kitchen set whose background wall of bric-a-brac not only changes with each show, but is frequently color-coordinated with and thematically matched to Lee’s outfit.

Tablescapes: The cliché is that we eat with our eyes first. Lee’s tablescapes (her neologism for table settings) practically blind you with their baroque density; so intense is the horror vacui of her aesthetic. They are gesamtkunstwerk assembled entirely from craft store bargain bins, with centerpieces often so cumbersome as to transform the entire table into a parade float.