Sandra Lee Drives Me #@$*&’n Crazy

I am not a fan of the food celebrity culture. I understand why it exists, mind you, and hold no ill will to those who participate within it, or even pray at the alter of it. My personal preference is fairly self-evident – I like context, something which most shows on the Food Network aren’t really all that keen on developing. But I do see value in a fair number of their shows, and even “get” what several of their stars are trying to accomplish.

With one notable exception – Sandra Lee.

It’s easy to mock her. Hell, Anthony Bourdain has already accosted her, and within the foodie culture, she has become something of a default punch line. At some point, hurling insults her way is nothing more than piling on, akin to kicking someone or something when they are already down. So to avoid having to deal with the dilemma of dealing with something so annoying, I simply avoid it, much in the same way I’ve learned to deal with Dallas, Texas. When it’s out of sight and out of mind, my blood pressure thanks me for it.

I was doing well in this regard until Friday, when I came across a news bit that talked about Ms. Lee’s recipe for lasagna, a recipe which includes ingredients of canned tomato soup for the marinara, and cottage cheese to replace ricotta cheese.

Being a fan of the many facets of Italian cuisine, I responded to this blasphemy the only way I knew how – I went apeshit on Twitter.

Okay, “apeshit” is probably a bit subjective, I’m sure. All I wrote was “Who the HELL puts canned tomato soup in a lasagne?”

The non-foodies on my twitter list called me out at my outburst. Their implied point was that food is based on resources, and if one can only get their hands on canned soup in place of marinara, then it is perfectly acceptable. After all, we (as a culture) use canned soup as a substitute for all sorts of things, from bechamel to stock. And besides, they add, Sandra Lee isn’t a chef anyways, so why the hate?

It was a good question. Why the hate? In order to get at the answer, I had to reverse engineer my reaction. My internal dialogue went like this :

She screwed up the most basic of Italian recipes!

How?

By adding canned foods, and a cheese which is nearly compatible to tofu!

So? Italian food is known for its adaptability. There are dozens, if not hundreds of recipes for lasagna out there.

Yes, but this recipe sacrifices taste in the name of…I don’t know what. She’s not saving time. She’s saving only pennies. She’s sacrificing taste for its own sake.

Again, so? Food celebrities provide crappy recipes all of the time.

But at least when most of them do it, they are at least working under the belief that they are providing something better, something of value!

And there it was.

Rachel Ray sells value in the form of quick meals easily made.

Paula Deen sells value in the form of guilt-free comfort foods.

Guy Fieri sells value in the form of accessible foods for everyday folks.

And Sandra Lee? Well she sells value in the form of shortcuts in cooking using ingredients made by the established food industry. A quick look at her recipes from her website demonstrate her philosophy quite well.

In her world, a recipe doesn’t just call for powdered sugar, it calls for powdered sugar from C&H®. They don’t just call out black beans, they call out black beans from Goya®. And when a recipe calls out for tomato sauce, it calls out for canned tomato soup from Campbells®. Sandra Lee has more trademarked items on her recipes than most NASCAR teams have on their racing cars.

This is why she bothers me so much. When most food people, from Michael Pollan to Marion Nestle to, yes, even Anthony Bourdain, are advocating for a better, stronger food culture here in America, Sandra Lee’s basic philosophy is that the status quo is just fine. From her point of view, good food could be had today with little to no thought and effort.

This by itself isn’t a sin. Many people hold this worldview. But Sandra Lee is different from most people – she has the attention of hundreds of thousands of viewers and readers. At some point, holding influence over an audience does come with a responsibility, one which she chooses to either ignore, or sells out to the highest bidder, if indeed, she gets paid by the like of Campbell’s, Goya, or C&H. And if this bit in the New York Times is true, it does look as if Ms. Lee’s ingredient list is for sale:

Around the time Ms. Lee’s cookbook containing the recipe was published, she was being paid to promote various Campbell’s brands. According to a Campbell’s spokesman, she no longer has a financial relationship with the company. (She is, however, on tour with Charlie the Tuna, promoting StarKist tuna fish and the charity Share Our Strength.)

If this is true, then it becomes clear to me that Ms. Lee isn’t keen on selling good food to the public, but rather is keen on simply selling herself. Again, this isn’t a sin, but it sure as hell isn’t my cup of tea. If writing about food over the past six years has taught me anything, good food, regardless of how you define it, requires thought and effort. Ms. Lee’s approach runs counter to that, and in fact, can be seen as the cause of several of the issues we as a culture face today.

And that’s why she drives me crazy.