Semi-Homemade has always been more fun than Martha Stewart Living. Lee can be flirty and even bawdy. She’ll wear cleavage-framing tops. She’ll banter on-set about an inadvertently suggestive zucchini arrangement. The first time she appeared on the Today show, she reached out and touched Matt Lauer’s “fabulously fit chest,” as she described it. Off-camera, she has been known to go further, with humor that can take jarringly lewd turns. Although you won’t see anything explicit on TV, the ambient let’s-have-a-party spirit of Semi-Homemade—especially in comparison to the anal-retentive good taste of Stewart’s Westport—is surely one of the reasons that Lee has found such a passionate following.
Lee arrived at the Food Network when it was in a period of transition, broadening its appeal—going Wal-Mart, detractors would say—and beginning to move away from urbane trained chefs like Sara Moulton and toward self-taught, relatable hosts like Rachael Ray. Chef-y chefs who groan at the sight of Lee’s knifework (she doesn’t choke up on the knife as pros do) might take solace from knowing that she didn’t intend to become a food personality. “When I came to the Food Network, I didn’t want to do a cooking show,” she says. “I told Kathleen Finch for nine months I didn’t want to do a cooking show, I wanted to do a home-and-garden show. She said, ‘No, we really need you to do this. You can do tablescapes also, as long as you cook.’ I said, ‘Okay, fine.’ ” Lee’s culinary training consists of a two-week course at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa.
Despite Semi-Homemade’s obvious commercial appeal, there is something incongruous about dozens of food professionals who were drawn to their career by a love of cooking obsessing over how best to use a can of Campbell’s soup. “Sometimes it can make you a little sad,” says someone who has worked on Semi-Homemade. “You don’t need Montreal steak seasoning on everything.” Lee insists that she specifies particular brands in her recipes simply to ensure predictable results, though in her magazine, the ad-edit relationship is cozier. “You do not have to be an advertiser to have your product called out,” explains Lee’s publisher, Phyllis Hoffman DePiano. “But if you’re Swanson and you sponsor a section, of course we’re going to use the product.”
Lee is hardly the only Food Network personality to be ridiculed online, but she has come in for some of the most savage commentary. On sites like Semi-Horrible Cooking and Television Without Pity, an entire lexicon has developed: To her haters, who call themselves “shrikes,” she is “Shamdra” and “SLop” and “the Kween of Kake Mix”; her admirers, meanwhile, are dismissed as “Fandras.” The carpers have seized on the Semi- prefix and run with it, speculating on the authenticity of everything from Lee’s biography to her breasts.
Off-line, shrikes are the kind of people who wouldn’t think of carrying their organic Chioggia beets home from the Greenmarket in anything but a reusable hemp tote. You almost want to administer smelling salts to Amanda Hesser after reading her Times pan of Lee’s first book. “[S]he seems more intent on encouraging people to create excuses for not cooking than on encouraging them to cook wholesome simple foods,” Hesser sniffed, faulting Lee for using Velveeta in a recipe instead of one of the “hundreds of delicious and interesting cheeses available in this country.” Lee has become go-to material for Anthony Bourdain’s talk-circuit stand-up: His Lee is the “hellspawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker,” and “a demonic bird of prey.”
In her memoir, Lee writes of being shaken by Hesser’s Times review, until Finch reassured her that negative Times reviews had proved a reliable predictor of Food Network success. In the years since, Lee has developed a thicker skin about criticism of her cooking style. She says she doesn’t read the blogs—“I have no energy or capacity for that kind of negativity. It only bothers me when my sister calls me crying”—and brushes off Bourdain’s insults. “It’s just shtick, so I can’t even be mad at him.”
The bigotry of food snobs lies in their assumption that Semi-Homemade adherents would otherwise be cooking from scratch. (Free webisode idea for Hesser’s food52.com: Drop Hesser off in South Central Los Angeles and see how long it takes her to find an “interesting” cheese.) “I think the snarkiness of ‘foodies’ is an overplayed card,” says Mario Batali, who has credentials both haute and low (Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style). “She gets people out of fast-food chains, and that’s a good thing. At least she gets them in the kitchen, even if they are using frozen berries.”
The single most controversial Semi-Homemade creation of all time—the veritable Piss Christ of gastronomy—was Lee’s Kwanzaa cake, which appeared on-air in 2003. Partly because of its puzzling combination of ingredients (an angel-food cake stuffed with pie filling and garnished with corn nuts, which Lee refers to as “acorns”), partly because it looked funny (it was topped with candles so big they dwarfed the cake), and partly because of what her boyfriend’s counselors might call its “optics” (Aryan goddess gives advice on African-American celebration), the Kwanzaa cake was a viral sensation. Bourdain called it a “war crime.” YouTube surfers went berserk.