Sandra Lee will make this happen. On a Friday afternoon in early March, the Food Network star and girlfriend of Governor Cuomo is sitting on a sofa in a photo studio in Chelsea, wearing a white sweatsuit, running shoes, and no jewelry. Even dressed down, she still has the long neck and blonde polished looks of the QVC host she used to be. But todayâ€™s self-presentation is a ways from the Sandra Lee of Vogue features, inaugural ceremonies, and television fame. She is here to pursue what is in effect her second Âcareerâ€”as an antiâ€“child-hunger advocateâ€”by filming a public-service announcement for Tyson Foods. In January, after visiting nine of New Yorkâ€™s ten food banks and learning that what they needed most was protein, she made a deal with Tyson to appear in this PSA in exchange for their donation of 10,000 pounds of meat to each of the ten banks. Tyson has flown in two reps from Arkansas for the shoot. Clearly, these nice folks have no idea what theyâ€™re in for.
Before the shoot begins, Lee tells me that she will persuade Tyson to increase its donation. â€œI think weâ€™re going to end up with 30,000 pounds per bank,â€ she says. â€œIâ€™m working on it. Iâ€™m working on it.â€ Slight pause. â€œIâ€™ll get it.â€
During the filming, she recounts the heartrending story of her familyâ€™s stint on welfare. â€œIt was pretty traumatizing,â€ she says, describing a time when she stood in front of a classmate at the grocery store and had to pay with food stamps. â€œIâ€™m Sandra Lee,â€ she tells the camera. â€œI know hunger.â€
Lee has a hardwired ability to pivot from sad to sunny, and with the shoot finished, sheâ€™s soon smiling again, posing with the Tyson folks for a commemorative photograph. Thereâ€™s a solicitous, midwestern quality to Lee; her speech is celery-Âseasoned with locutions like â€œdangâ€ and â€œholy cow.â€ Sheâ€™s disarmingly quick to hug a new acquaintance or touch his arm. She says, not infrequently, â€œItâ€™s all good.â€ She also knows the levers of suasion, and with the Tyson guy trapped for the photo op, she calls me over. She wants a witnessâ€”a media witnessâ€”when she makes the ask.
â€œYou can give 30,000 pounds a bank?â€ It sounds less a question than a statement.
â€œI think we can do that,â€ Ed from Tyson says, smiling helplessly and looking, despite being an accomplished professional in his fifties, like a blinded fawn.
Lee, still smiling, spells out her understanding of the deal: If she shows up when Tyson delivers the meat, Ed can make the deliveries over the next six months.
â€œI think we could, probably,â€ Ed says, â€œif we can spread it out over six months.â€
â€œThirty thousand pounds a bank,â€ Lee confirms.
â€œWell, approximately,â€ Ed says.
â€œAnd all I have to do is show up and deliver one of the trucks?â€ Lee says.
â€œAs many as you can,â€ Ed says.
Can Ed make a 30,000-pound delivery next Friday for City Harvest? Lee asks.
â€œI can try,â€ Ed says hesitantly.
Leeâ€™s publicist chimes in that it would be a great way to â€œseed the press.â€
â€œYeah,â€ Ed says, getting with the program. â€œWeâ€™ll do it. Iâ€™ll make it happen.â€ He laughs nervously. â€œI may get in trouble â€¦ Iâ€™m gonna have to do some forgiveness-asking.â€
Sandra Lee is pleased.
The media in the state capital of Albany, a.k.a. the world capital of boring, bristled with excitement from the moment it became clear that Andrew Cuomo would run for governor. Not because of Cuomo so much as for the woman whose home he shares in Westchester. Eleanor Roosevelt aside, the First Ladies of New York have heretofore not merited inclusion on TMZâ€™s stalk list. (Quick: State a single factâ€”anything at allâ€”about Libby Pataki.) Sandra Lee was something entirely new: a bona fide famous person in her own right.
The speculation was partly political. With her cheery mass-market appeal, would Lee be an upstate asset, an electoral-map ringer in remote towns where Cuomo, the dark prince of a New York Cityâ€“oriented political dynasty, was a less-natural sell? But mainly what galvanized the Albany crowd was her raw human star power. Lee has just wrapped her fifteenth season of Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee;sheâ€™ll shoot her fifth season of Sandraâ€™s Money-Saving Meals this spring; and she oversees a 300,000-circulation magazine, Sandra Lee Semi-ÂHomemade. This week, as a tie-in to Share Our Strengthâ€™s Great American Bake Sale, which Lee is hosting at Grand Central on March 29, she will publish The Bake Sale Cookbook, her 23rd cookbook in nine years (she will donate half the royalties to charities). Itâ€™s hard to think of another First Lady, anywhere, whose Q rating eclipses her significant otherâ€™s, with the possible transatlantic exception of Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy and transâ€“space-time-Âcontinuum exception of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier.
Would Lee redecorate the governorâ€™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 â€œgreat garnishesâ€ to Albany.
Then: nothing. In the run-up to November, Lee didnâ€™t campaign with Cuomo once, even on Election Day. â€œAndrew said, â€˜You can do as much or as little as youâ€™re comfortable with,â€™â€‰â€ Lee explains. â€œHeâ€™s very kind to me that way. Itâ€™s very generous of him.â€ Chris Cuomo, the governorâ€™s younger brother, affirms that Leeâ€™s public detachment from the campaign was her choice. â€œHer 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.â€
But even after Cuomo was elected, Lee stayed out of sight. Whereas Silda Wall Spitzer sought Hillary Clintonâ€™s advice on how to fill the role, Lee didnâ€™t consult any former First Ladies. â€œThat was offered to me,â€ she says, â€œbut I didnâ€™t do it.â€ She says she didnâ€™t even talk to Matilda Cuomo about it. Since Andrew took office, she has spent only â€œa littleâ€ time in Albany, and she has ducked the political press. She cooperated with this article, she says, only in order to â€œdo this once.â€ She and the governor have scarcely been seen together in public, preferring to spend their evenings and weekends enjoying a quiet life of domesticity. â€œI donâ€™t think she sees herself in the First Lady capacity at all,â€ Chris Cuomo says.
Then again, Lee has made a career out of looking beyond New York, even though sheâ€™s lived here for six years. The engine of her success is her Semi-Homemade brand: â€œSeventy percent store-bought, ready-made plus 30 percent fresh allows you to take 100 percent of the credit.â€ Her recipes specify particular brands of packaged foodâ€”Green Giant corn, Knorr four-cheese sauce mixâ€”and the entire approach is a throwback to mid-century American cuisine. After the cooking portion of her flagship show, thereâ€™s an elaborate â€œtableÂscapeâ€ craft project and â€œcocktail time.â€
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. â€œSheâ€™s the real personâ€™s Martha Stewart,â€ says Kathleen Finch, the Scripps Networks executive who recruited Lee.
Leeâ€™s Food Network fansâ€”and they are legionâ€”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 Leeâ€™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-ÂReportedâ„¢ bioâ€”two parts gleaned from Leeâ€™s 2007 memoir, Made From Scratch, one part freshly harvested through interviews and other research.
Itâ€™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 Wayneâ€™s mother Lorraineâ€™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 Waldroopâ€™s death, considers her to have been her mother and credits her as an early role modelâ€”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 Sandraâ€™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 nameâ€”she was enrolled in school as Sandra Christiansenâ€”and a new religion, switching from Seventh Day Adventist to Jehovahâ€™s Witness.
By the time she was 12, her stepfather had moved out and Sandra was effectively parenting her four siblings and her bedÂridden mother, doing the cleaning and cooking, helping with homework. â€œI began biting and chewing my nails until they bled,â€ she recounts in her memoir. â€œI couldnâ€™t stop because I had no other outlet for my stress.â€
The family went on welfare and food stamps, and Sandra, holding it all together, learned to make do. â€œOn the way home [from the store], I had to ride very carefully so that the full plastic bags hanging from my handlebars wouldnâ€™t swing and break the eggs,â€ she writes. â€œIf we had extra expenses, or even if we were $5 short, that meant we wouldnâ€™t be eating for the last few days of the month.â€ She earned money however she could, raking neighborsâ€™ leaves, picking berries, making pot holders she priced at $1 a pair. â€œI remember her telling me sheâ€™d bring part of her school lunch home for her brothers and sisters,â€ says Colleen Schmidt, Sandraâ€™s best friend from college.
Home life continued to deteriorate. Sandra called 911 one evening after she watched her mother swallow a bottle of pills. She writes that her mother beat her until her nose bled, â€œmy eyes were swollen, and my body was covered in welts.â€ Her stepfather, who had moved back in, was sexual with her in a way that the memoir leaves vague.
In June 1982, nearly 16 and seeking a fresh start, she went to live with Wayne, her birth father, in western Wisconsin. At Onalaska High, where she was called Sandy Waldroop once again, she felt like an outsider, and she missed her brothers and sisters. She became depressed; it was â€œthe only time I ever considered taking my own life,â€ she writes. Things looked better for a time, but then, according to reports in the La Crosse Tribune, her father was arrested for raping his 25-year-old girlfriend. Sandra, returning home to find the two on her fatherâ€™s bed, became a witness. After the Tribune repeatedly named her in its coverage of the case, she showed up at the newspaperâ€™s offices to confront the reporter. Her father, 35, was convicted of second-degree sexual assault and sentenced to a year in prison.
Through all this, Sandra found ways to feel better about her life. As a little girl, she would tear out pages from catalogues and mix and match them to assemble dream bedrooms and wardrobes. In high school, she allowed herself reveries fueled by Stevie Nicks and lots of Danielle Steele novels. In Wisconsin, even as her father was on trial, she was a cheerleader. â€œA lot of people would have thrown in the towel a number of times,â€ says Birdie Rand, who as a buyer at Target would later be among the first to take a chance on Lee. â€œSandra would take the towel and redesign it and make it pretty and make it something a whole lot of people would like to buy.â€
Lee studied physical therapy and business at the local university, squeezing in classes between two jobsâ€”she waitressed breakfasts and dinners at a Ramada Inn, lunches at a Chinese restaurant. Her dorm room was done all in white, with ruffled curtains and framed prints and dried-flower arrangements. â€œShe was shabby chic before the term was ever coined,â€ says Schmidt, who recalls that in Sandraâ€™s closet, the clothes were arranged from dark to light, â€œeverything perfectly and neatly folded.â€
â€œI donâ€™t ever remember her being down or negative,â€ Schmidt says.
On a miserably inclement morning the week after the Tyson shoot, Lee is driven five hours past frozen lakes and snow-Âcovered hills, to Elmira, a town west of Binghamton. Today, the only New York food bank that she hasnâ€™t yet visited is inaugurating its expanded facility.
Lee steps out of the car wearing a hoodie sweater, her hair pulled back in a chignon, clutching a handbag and a liter bottle of Aquafina. While the local media cool their heels in a large warehouse space, Lee meets with the food bankâ€™s executives and some reps from Samâ€™s Club, who are here to donate $10,000. She lets them know about her commitment to the hunger issueâ€”about Grandma Lorraine, who ran a food pantry in Santa Monica for years; about the Great American Bake Sale, which she says Guinness has expressed interest in for possibly being the worldâ€™s biggest. She asks questions, takes notes. When it comes to this issue, Lee is not a dilettante. She knows the statistics, the logistics, the nuances of protein procurement, the economics of food banks. She can tell you the percentage of food-bank users in Buffalo who are homeless (just 6 percent). She can tell you that 40 percent are kids and 36 percent are single mothers.
Everyone moves to greet the press. Amid flashing cameras, Lee speaks briefly before ceding the podium to a Samâ€™s Club rep who presents a giant cardboard check to the food bankâ€™s director. During a tour of the facility, Lee wanders away from the group, nosing around and inspecting pallets of Wasa crackers, sacks of potatoes, frozen chickens, applesauce.
The press dutifully records all the worthiness, patiently waiting for their opportunity to interrogate Sandra Lee about more personal matters. Finally, the tour ends, and the director asks if anyone has questions for her or Lee. The reporters stare blankly. What they see and the director does not is that Lee has vanished down an adjacent hallway.
She knows what would have happened next. In January, when she visited the food bank in Rochester, reporters asked whether her connection to Cuomo would factor into her food-bank work. She appeared oddly unprepared for the question, and a squirmy televised moment followed until an aide interrupted to say that Lee wouldnâ€™t be answering any more questions.
â€œI like actually doing the work,â€ she says afterward. â€œThe media part is not what I like to do, because I know whatâ€™s coming, and itâ€™s not about any of this.â€
â€œThatâ€™s unfortunate,â€ a matronly staffer coos empathically.
â€œIt goes with the territory,â€ Lee says. â€œTheyâ€™re going to write about the food bank and what you guys do, and we got the right messages out, and thatâ€™s whatâ€™s important.â€
What the staffer really wants to talk about, though, is Semi-Homemade. Sheâ€™s a fan and has brought her copies of Desserts 2 and Money-Saving Slow Cooking for Lee to sign. â€œOne of my favorite shows is the lava cake,â€ the woman gushes, referring to a Bundt cake that somehow incorporates dry ice. â€œThat was a one-take shoot,â€ Lee reminisces, and soon sheâ€™s talking girlfriend-to-girlfriend with the staff member, telling stories from the set and passing along a baking tip and pulling a swatch of patterned black velvet from her bag; sheâ€™s considering it for some Roman blinds and asks for the womanâ€™s opinion. Before leaving, Sandra promises to send a copy of The Bake Sale Cookbook. â€œYouâ€™ll love it. Thereâ€™s a whole chapter on cupcakes.â€
Because of Leeâ€™s upbeat temperament and craftsy aesthetic, itâ€™s easy to underÂestimate her ravenous entrepreneurial hunger. She dropped out of college after two and a half years and moved back to California, where she returned to calling herself Sandra Christiansen and got work pitching 90,000-volt O-Mega stun guns and Black & Decker security systems at home-and-garden shows. Soon, after improvising a window treatment from coat hangers and fabric for her apartment in Malibu, she developed her own product to sell. Kurtain Kraft, as she called it, was a line of do-it-yourself curtain hardware (crowns, rings, lattices). Having saved $50,000, she spent it on an infomercial, and the line caught fire. According to her memoir, at the end of 1993, after just nine months, Kurtain Kraft had grossed $6 million. She was 27.
“I have no energy for that kind of negativity. It only bothers me when my sister calls me crying.”
Lee began to sell Kurtain Kraft through retailers like Wal-Mart, QVC, and Target. Birdie Rand, then Targetâ€™s window-Âcoverings buyer, says her boss first noticed Lee on a late-night infomercial and invited her to do a presentation. â€œThis woman made workaholics look like a slacker,â€ Rand remembers. â€œShe would exhaust me with the detail of the questions sheâ€™d ask.â€
The business of drapes and glue guns could be surprisingly sharp-elbowed. Once Kurtain Kraft took off, Lee was sued by a number of rivals who claimed patent infringement. She, too, filed a number of suits and obtained two patents. But after an unanticipated wave of returns at QVC precipitated a cash-flow crisis, Lee rebounded by diversifying her product line to include categories like home, gardening, crafts, and scrapbooking. She hired spokesmodels to host her infomercials (including, for a time, Florence Henderson), but Lee turned out to be adept on-camera, and soon she was flying around the world as a QVC host. In 1997, in an act that simultaneously snuffed out a vestige of her unhappy childhood and streamlined her brand, she legally changed her name to Sandra Lee.
As a comely, preternaturally contoured self-made millionaire living in Los Angeles, Lee had little trouble attracting romantic attention. According to people who knew her well at the time, she took a particular interest in men who were already attached. â€œShe felt that if a man could be had, then he wasnâ€™t committed,â€ says an acquaintance, who adds that Lee said more than once, likely as a joke, that she planned to write a book about how to steal a married man, an account Lee calls preposterous. By 1999, Lee had become a spokesperson for KB Home, as well as romantically involved with its CEO, Bruce Karatz, who was 21 years her senior. Karatzâ€™s marriage subsequently dissolved, and by 2001, Lee had converted to Judaism and married Karatz at Ron Burkleâ€™s estate in Beverly Hills.
Leeâ€™s new lifestyle with Karatz had little in common with the one she knew growing up. She drove a Mercedes SL600 and lived in a mansion in Bel Air. The couple had season tickets to the Lakers. There were parties on Diddyâ€™s yacht and vacations to St.-Tropez. Lee became close to Entertainment Tonightâ€™s Mary Hart, Arianna Huffington, and the art consultant Barbara Guggenheim, with whom she would breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel. â€œShe was a great favorite there,â€ Guggenheim says. â€œThe waiters still ask about her.â€
Through her new circles, Lee got involved with big-ticket charity work and gained a reputation for thinking fast. At a celebrity-clogged, 900-guest UNICEF gala she helped organize at the Beverly Hilton in December 2003, Mattel CEO Robert Eckert was presenting a big check for which Lee had made the ask. Whoopi Goldberg, the eventâ€™s host, jested that Mattel would never make a Barbie that looked like her. Awkwardness loomed. With Eckert about to ascend to the podium, Lee remembered that earlier in the evening, sheâ€™d noticed a Whoopi Goldberg Barbie in a display case in the hotel lobby. She rushed outside, persuaded two security guards to open the case, and passed the Barbie to Eckert, who, when he got onstage, was able to show it to Goldberg and say, â€œWell, actually, ÂWhoopiÂ â€¦â€ â€œSheâ€™s unbelievably resourceful and quick on her feet,â€ says Caryl Stern, the head of UNICEF. â€œShe connects the dots.â€
Most of Leeâ€™s early thirties, however, were focused on building her own TV show, and she launched Semi-Homemade from the garage of the house she shared with Karatz. Lee had been thinking about a concept that would help unskilled homemakers put food on the table using the kind of pantry staples she had depended on as a child: items like Bisquick and Cool Whip and condensed soup. The name was born from a supermarket-aisle epiphany, when Lee was looking at a bag of semisweet chocolate chips. She hadnâ€™t invented a new approachâ€”but she named it, formulated it, and glamorized it.
Before she even secured a publisher, Lee had completed two books. â€œSome people have blind ambition that comes first, and then they try to figure out something to do,â€ Guggenheim says. â€œShe has a belief that thereâ€™s a right way to approach cooking and life, and sheâ€™s like a missionary in her zeal. Itâ€™s not ambition for ambitionâ€™s sake, itâ€™s truly wanting to spread the word.â€
The evangelistâ€™s fervor was just as apparent to those who worked with Lee. One points out that considering the sheer volume of her outputâ€”sometimes three books a year, plus her two shows and magazineâ€”â€œsheâ€™s pretty easy to work with.â€ Others have darker memories. â€œShe was the most ambitious person Iâ€™d ever met,â€ says a female television producer who has worked with many successful small-screen personalities. â€œThe thing that bothered me was the way she treated the people who worked for her. She was very high-strung, and she leaves people in her wake.â€ According to Denise Vivaldo, a veteran food stylist who developed more than 150 recipes for Lee, when Vivaldo hinted that she hoped her recipes would lead to styling work, Lee told her, â€œHoney, I want to fuck you; I donâ€™t know if I want to put a ring on your finger.â€ (Lee dismisses Vivaldo as a disgruntled former employee and claims never to use such vulgarities.) â€œIâ€™ve worked in Hollywood for 25 years, and Iâ€™ve never had anyone say anything like that to me,â€ Vivaldo says, adding that she turned down Leeâ€™s repeated requests to continue to work with her because of â€œher lack of appropriate boundaries and her control issues.â€ (The boundary issues are difficult to evaluate; the control issues few would argue with.)
In 2001, Guggenheimâ€™s husband, Bert Fields, a powerful L.A. lawyer, introduced Lee to his client Tina Brown, who connected her with Harvey Weinstein, who pushed back a flight time in order to have lunch with her at the Regency Hotel. â€œWhen a person like Sandra comes along with an idea thatâ€™s poised to catch the Zeitgeist, itâ€™s a good idea to meet with them, so I was happy to delay leaving for the Hamptons for a few hours,â€ he recalls. Weinstein and Brown proved critical for Leeâ€™s career. She formed a publishing partnership with MiraÂmax Books, and Weinstein promoted her aggressively, landing her four appearances on Today, a segment on The View, a column in Parade, and a one-shot magazine published by Hachette Filipacchi. Her first book, Semi-Homemade, hit the New York Timesâ€™ best-seller list.
Like many of todayâ€™s familiar lifestyle personalities, Lee came on the scene when Martha Stewart was distracted by her stock-trading scandal and there was a domestic-diva power vacuum. â€œSandra always said she was going to be the next Martha Stewart,â€ says a colleague from the time, and Lee reportedly kept back issues of Martha Stewart Living in binders next to her office. But Lee also believed that while people want â€œthe beautiful outcome,â€ they donâ€™t have the time or energy for it. â€œI think that some people wish they could,â€ she says now, â€œand feel a little defeated that they canâ€™t.â€ Lee was offering a more realistic approach.
Semi-Homemade has always been more fun than Martha Stewart Living. Lee can be flirty and even bawdy. Sheâ€™ll wear cleavage-framing tops. Sheâ€™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 Lauerâ€™s â€œfabulously fit chest,â€ as she described it. Off-camera, she has been known to go further, with humor that can take jarringly lewd turns. Although you wonâ€™t see anything explicit on TV, the ambient letâ€™s-have-a-party spirit of Semi-Homemadeâ€”especially in comparison to the anal-retentive good taste of Stewartâ€™s Westportâ€”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 appealâ€”going Wal-Mart, detractors would sayâ€”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 Leeâ€™s knifework (she doesnâ€™t choke up on the knife as pros do) might take solace from knowing that she didnâ€™t intend to become a food personality. â€œWhen I came to the Food Network, I didnâ€™t want to do a cooking show,â€ she says. â€œI told Kathleen Finch for nine months I didnâ€™t want to do a cooking show, I wanted to do a home-and-garden show. She said, â€˜No, we really need you to do this. You can do tablescapes also, as long as you cook.â€™ I said, â€˜Okay, fine.â€™â€‰â€ Leeâ€™s culinary training consists of a two-week course at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa.
Despite Semi-Homemadeâ€™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 Campbellâ€™s soup. â€œSometimes it can make you a little sad,â€ says someone who has worked on Semi-ÂHomemade. â€œYou donâ€™t need Montreal steak seasoning on everything.â€ 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. â€œYou do not have to be an advertiser to have your product called out,â€ explains Leeâ€™s publisher, Phyllis Hoffman DePiano. â€œBut if youâ€™re Swanson and you sponsor a section, of course weâ€™re going to use the product.â€
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 â€œshrikes,â€ she is â€œShamdraâ€ and â€œSLopâ€ and â€œthe Kween of Kake Mixâ€; her admirers, meanwhile, are dismissed as â€œFandras.â€ The carpers have seized on the Semi- prefix and run with it, speculating on the authenticity of everything from Leeâ€™s biography to her breasts.
Off-line, shrikes are the kind of people who wouldnâ€™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 Leeâ€™s first book. â€œ[S]he seems more intent on encouraging people to create excuses for not cooking than on encouraging them to cook wholesome simple foods,â€ Hesser sniffed, faulting Lee for using Velveeta in a recipe instead of one of the â€œhundreds of delicious and interesting cheeses available in this country.â€ Lee has become go-to material for Anthony Bourdainâ€™s talk-circuit stand-up: His Lee is the â€œhellspawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker,â€ and â€œa demonic bird of prey.â€
In her memoir, Lee writes of being shaken by Hesserâ€™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 doesnâ€™t read the blogsâ€”â€œI have no energy or capacity for that kind of negativity. It only bothers me when my sister calls me cryingâ€â€”and brushes off Bourdainâ€™s insults. â€œItâ€™s just shtick, so I canâ€™t even be mad at him.â€
The bigotry of food snobs lies in their assumption that Semi-Homemade adherents would otherwise be cooking from scratch. (Free webisode idea for Hesserâ€™s food52.com: Drop Hesser off in South Central Los Angeles and see how long it takes her to find an â€œinterestingâ€ cheese.) â€œI think the snarkiness of â€˜foodiesâ€™ is an overplayed card,â€ says Mario Batali, who has credentials both haute and low (Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style). â€œShe gets people out of fast-food chains, and thatâ€™s a good thing. At least she gets them in the kitchen, even if they are using frozen berries.â€
The single most controversial Semi-Homemade creation of all timeâ€”the veritable Piss Christ of gastronomyâ€”was Leeâ€™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 â€œacornsâ€), partly because it looked funny (it was topped with candles so big they dwarfed the cake), and partly because of what her boyfriendâ€™s counselors might call its â€œopticsâ€ (Aryan goddess gives advice on African-American celebration), the Kwanzaa cake was a viral sensation. Bourdain called it a â€œwar crime.â€ YouTube surfers went berserk.
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 itâ€”not, mind you, because it missed the culinary mark but because of its racial implications. â€œI would never want to offend or hurt anyone,â€ she says. â€œI donâ€™t care if youâ€™re white, red, or blue, or from Mars or India. I just want you to have a nice life.â€ Lee says that at the time of the Kwanzaa cake, her showâ€™s content was â€œdictatedâ€ 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 bankâ€™s in-kind donations were candies. She thinks Mayor Bloombergâ€™s campaign against salt and fat is useful, applauds Michelle Obamaâ€™s promotion of gardens as â€œimportantâ€ and â€œamazing,â€ and says of Sarah Palinâ€™s defense of cookies, â€œI have absolutely nothing in common with Sarah Palin.â€ 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 â€œjust incredibly bad food taste.â€ A few days later, a New York Post reporter showed up on Vivaldoâ€™s front lawn in California. Within a week, the blog post had mysteriously vanished, replaced by an editorâ€™s note stating that it had violated the siteâ€™s terms of service. When I asked Lee whether she knew why the article had disappeared, she said, â€œWell, I donâ€™t know.â€ As it turns out, four days after the article went up, the Huffington Post received a letter from Sandra Leeâ€™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. â€œI just thought it was appropriate. Andrew and I were both at the places we were at in our lives,â€ she says, referring to the summer of 2005, when they met. Cuomo was coming off a bruising divorce from Kerry Kennedy and a political comeÂuppance in the gubernatorial primary. Lee was going through her divorce from Karatz.
She was spending that summer in ÂSouthampton, when her friend Alexandra Stantonâ€™s mother threw a garden party. Cuomo arrived with his three daughters attached to his arms and legs. â€œThis huge muscle-bound man had little girls climbing all over him, and he was very gentle and kind with them,â€ Lee remembers. â€œI found that intriguing.â€ 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 Leeâ€™s deflections, he said, â€œI think you should look in front of you.â€
They dated for a year without telling his daughters about the relationship; they wanted to make sure that they were â€œgoing to be together forever,â€ 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.
â€œSandy got in when Andrew was nowhere special in his life,â€ says Chris Cuomo, â€œand 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 youâ€™re a public figure and life is good, you wonder why people are around you.â€
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 thereâ€™s no similarly easy explanation for what Lee sees in Cuomoâ€”certainly not an entrÃ©e into politicsâ€”which suggests that they simply, genuinely, make each other happy.
Friends say that neither Lee nor Cuomo feels a need to marry againâ€”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. â€œWeâ€™re very traditional,â€ she says of their respective roles. â€œI donâ€™t like to put gas in the car or take out the garbage. He doesnâ€™t particularly like to decorate window treatments.â€
As for Lasagna-gateâ€” the tabloid controversy sparked when Matilda was quoted as saying of a Semi-Homemade recipe, â€œThatâ€™s not how you make lasagnaâ€â€”Lee says, â€œWe laughed about it.â€ She thinks the press shouldnâ€™t have asked about it at a mentoring event. â€œBut I have to say, if youâ€™re going to have a scandal, Lasagna-gate is genius.â€
Lee, who has chosen not to have children of her own, has been extremely generous with her siblings and nieces and nephews, buying homes and cars, paying for hockey lessons and college tuition. And by all accounts, she has also embraced Cuomoâ€™s children, whom she calls her â€œsemi-homemade daughters.â€ Before the inauguration, she went to lunch with Anna Wintour, seeking her advice on what the girls should wear for the occasion. While there, she wangled an internship at Teen Vogue this summer for Michaela, Cuomoâ€™s 13-year-old daughter. â€œI thought she was going to hit her head on the ceiling she jumped so high,â€ Lee says.
Lee is at pains to portray her life with Cuomo as nothing fancy. â€œWe do not have full-time help,â€ she says. â€œWe are normal people. Our basement flooded this morning. Two weeks ago, the snow melted and came in between the floors, and we had buckets in the living room.â€ Still, Lee has traveled an almost unthinkable distance in her 44 years. She has changed names and religions and coasts. She has scaled steep socioeconomic heights and done so by eking wealth from her woes. So far, she has managed to remain sensitive to the nettlesome realities that press in on an overÂextended working mother, even as she now employs many people, attends glittery parties, and makes her home with a governor. As Lee sits one afternoon in stylish Tory Burch boots on a sofa in the corner office of her publicist, surrounded by mementos of his superstar clientsâ€”Leonardo DiCaprio, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlakeâ€”I ask if it has been difficult to stay in touch with the hardships of her audience. â€œIâ€™m still a semi-homemaker,â€ she insists. â€œI still go to the grocery store. I still shop price.â€