Lee says the Internet response to her Kwanzaa cake is the only one she has taken to heart, and that she changed how she does what she does because of it—not, mind you, because it missed the culinary mark but because of its racial implications. “I would never want to offend or hurt anyone,” she says. “I don’t care if you’re white, red, or blue, or from Mars or India. I just want you to have a nice life.” Lee says that at the time of the Kwanzaa cake, her show’s content was “dictated” by the network. Now, she says, she exercises full control over her show.
Lee is not unattuned to the politics of food. At the Elmira food bank, she made a point of asking how much of the bank’s in-kind donations were candies. She thinks Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign against salt and fat is useful, applauds Michelle Obama’s promotion of gardens as “important” and “amazing,” and says of Sarah Palin’s defense of cookies, “I have absolutely nothing in common with Sarah Palin.” After a series of e-mails from viewers, she recently made some changes to Semi-Homemade: For the fourteenth season of her show, she flipped her usual ratio and included some recipes consisting of 70 percent fresh ingredients and 30 percent ready-made.
Meanwhile, as much as she might like to forget it, the Kwanzaa cake has continued to haunt Lee. This past December in the Huffington Post, Denise Vivaldo published a cri de bouche, a scathing confessional in which she both copped to having developed the infamous confection and described Lee as having “just incredibly bad food taste.” A few days later, a New York Post reporter showed up on Vivaldo’s front lawn in California. Within a week, the blog post had mysteriously vanished, replaced by an editor’s note stating that it had violated the site’s terms of service. When I asked Lee whether she knew why the article had disappeared, she said, “Well, I don’t know.” As it turns out, four days after the article went up, the Huffington Post received a letter from Sandra Lee’s lawyer threatening a lawsuit.
Andrew Cuomo recently gave Lee a white cockatoo, and she named it Phoenix after the mythical bird that rises from the ashes. “I just thought it was appropriate. Andrew and I were both at the places we were at in our lives,” she says, referring to the summer of 2005, when they met. Cuomo was coming off a bruising divorce from Kerry Kennedy and a political comeuppance in the gubernatorial primary. Lee was going through her divorce from Karatz.
She was spending that summer in Southampton, when her friend Alexandra Stanton’s mother threw a garden party. Cuomo arrived with his three daughters attached to his arms and legs. “This huge muscle-bound man had little girls climbing all over him, and he was very gentle and kind with them,” Lee remembers. “I found that intriguing.” At first, she tried to set him up with three different girlfriends of hers, and for four months, Lee stresses, they were just friends. Finally, wearying of Lee’s deflections, he said, “I think you should look in front of you.”
They dated for a year without telling his daughters about the relationship; they wanted to make sure that they were “going to be together forever,” Lee told a small audience in December. The girls only found out when Mario and Matilda Cuomo came to visit and, thinking Andrew and Sandra were being ridiculous, spilled the beans.
“Sandy got in when Andrew was nowhere special in his life,” says Chris Cuomo, “and it was a time in his life when Andrew knew exactly who his real friends were, and she fell in love with that Andrew. And that is very cool, in my mind, because when you’re a public figure and life is good, you wonder why people are around you.”
Some Cuomo-ologists are tempted to view the union through the cynical prism of careerist power-seeking: Andrew could not have chosen a mate further removed from the American royal family into which he had married, or better qualified to distance him from the New York royalty into which he was born. But there’s no similarly easy explanation for what Lee sees in Cuomo—certainly not an entrée into politics—which suggests that they simply, genuinely, make each other happy.
Friends say that neither Lee nor Cuomo feels a need to marry again—not to validate their commitment for the benefit of outsiders, anyway. Both are homebodies. Cuomo likes to unwind by working on his muscle cars, and Lee bought him a high-quality set of Snap-On tools. Lee just remodeled the basement. “We’re very traditional,” she says of their respective roles. “I don’t like to put gas in the car or take out the garbage. He doesn’t particularly like to decorate window treatments.”