Would Lee redecorate the governor’s mansion? Enliven those fusty rubber-chicken dinners with festive tablescapes? There was a touching Waiting for Guffman quality to the way the glamour-starved local press corps dubbed the prospective gubernatorial couple Sandrew. Lee fed the anticipation, telling a television audience that she looked forward to bringing “great garnishes” to Albany.
Then: nothing. In the run-up to November, Lee didn’t campaign with Cuomo once, even on Election Day. “Andrew said, ‘You can do as much or as little as you’re comfortable with,’ ” Lee explains. “He’s very kind to me that way. It’s very generous of him.” Chris Cuomo, the governor’s younger brother, affirms that Lee’s public detachment from the campaign was her choice. “Her goal was to help Andrew any way she could, and I think she kept a very low profile so as not to take away attention from him.”
But even after Cuomo was elected, Lee stayed out of sight. Whereas Silda Wall Spitzer sought Hillary Clinton’s advice on how to fill the role, Lee didn’t consult any former First Ladies. “That was offered to me,” she says, “but I didn’t do it.” She says she didn’t even talk to Matilda Cuomo about it. Since Andrew took office, she has spent only “a little” time in Albany, and she has ducked the political press. She cooperated with this article, she says, only in order to “do this once.” She and the governor have scarcely been seen together in public, preferring to spend their evenings and weekends enjoying a quiet life of domesticity. “I don’t think she sees herself in the First Lady capacity at all,” Chris Cuomo says.
Then again, Lee has made a career out of looking beyond New York, even though she’s lived here for six years. The engine of her success is her Semi-Homemade brand: “Seventy percent store-bought, ready-made plus 30 percent fresh allows you to take 100 percent of the credit.” Her recipes specify particular brands of packaged food—Green Giant corn, Knorr four-cheese sauce mix—and the entire approach is a throwback to mid-century American cuisine. After the cooking portion of her flagship show, there’s an elaborate “tablescape” craft project and “cocktail time.”
In an age when the prevailing culinary winds blow local, organic, fresh, and unprocessed, Lee infuriates some foodies. But she is keenly aware that her base is not the people she works next to at the network, or breakfasts alongside at the Ritz Battery Park, or clinks glasses with at charity galas. “She’s the real person’s Martha Stewart,” says Kathleen Finch, the Scripps Networks executive who recruited Lee.
Lee’s Food Network fans—and they are legion—are time-strapped moms and budget-conscious shoppers who are trying to bring a little elegance to making ends meet. More than anyone else, they look like the customer Lee herself was growing up, and not least among the many accomplishments of her career is that she is still able to preside over a down-market lifestyle brand while dating a pedigreed governor.
Both the focus of Lee’s business and her commitment to the cause of childhood hunger are rooted in the chaos of her California Gothic childhood. Briefly herewith, a Semi-Reported™ bio—two parts gleaned from Lee’s 2007 memoir, Made From Scratch, one part freshly harvested through interviews and other research.
It’s a genuinely heroic tale of making the best of harrowing circumstances. She was born Sandra Lee Waldroop in Santa Monica in 1966, to high-school sweethearts Wayne Waldroop and 16-year-old Vicky Svitak. Two years later, Vicky dropped Sandra and her little sister Cindy off at Wayne’s mother Lorraine’s, and for the next four years, Lorraine raised the girls. She became a figure of lasting importance to Lee, who even today, thirteen years after Lorraine Waldroop’s death, considers her to have been her mother and credits her as an early role model—a coupon-clipping cafeteria worker who created a joyful, loving home filled with the comforting smell of baking.
When Vicky returned, it was with a new husband, and the family moved to Sumner, Washington, where Sandra’s mother and stepfather soon had three children of their own. But life was different. Vicky was a physically abusive prescription-drug addict who spent most of her time in bed. Sandra had a new name—she was enrolled in school as Sandra Christiansen—and a new religion, switching from Seventh Day Adventist to Jehovah’s Witness.
By the time she was 12, her stepfather had moved out and Sandra was effectively parenting her four siblings and her bedridden mother, doing the cleaning and cooking, helping with homework. “I began biting and chewing my nails until they bled,” she recounts in her memoir. “I couldn’t stop because I had no other outlet for my stress.”