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Sandra Lee is a television personality. A tall blonde with icy blue eyes, Sandra Lee has the faded good looks and slightly rubbery features of a 1960s television comedienne; she would not seem out of place playing a conniving gold-digger on the Beverly Hillbillies. She has made a career out of her semi-homemade concept including two popular shows on the Food Network and a battallion of cookbooks. Charitably, her recipes can be seen as a way for harried, busy people to provide a meal for their family that doesn't come in a grease-stained paper sack. More cynically, the semi-homemade method, which consists of roughly 70% pre-processed and packaged ingredients and 30% fresh, is a way for people who hate cooking, but can't be bothered to do all their eating at restaurants, to tart up heavily processed, unhealthy food and pretend they slaved over a hot stove all day (at least, until someone tastes the meal).

 

Lee is also famed for her "Tablescapes," elaborate arts and crafts projects that decorate each of her themed meals, and devotes a considerable amount of time on both shows creating and setting these up. Lee seems to have an actual talent for decoration. Unfortunately, cooking does not seem to be among her talents. Lee received no small amount of infamy for introducing the Kwanzaa Cake to the world, a semi-homemade creation consisting of a store-bought angel food cake iced with canned frosting, bolstered with apple pie filling, and garnished with corn nuts and heavy candles. While this "recipe" is generally considered the nadir of Lee's offerings, even a cursory viewing of her show will acquaint viewers with others nearly as terrible, including a cocktail made with heavy cream, lemonade and vodka. There is internet video of a slowed-down Lee visibly gagging as she attempts to quaff the foul mixture, which I imagine curdled in her mouth.

Lee's persona on her shows is gratingly cheerful, and she seems to espouse a manic can-do attitude, despite offering her fans multiple excuses to not do any actual cooking and instead craft packages for Santa's sleigh made from Starbursts. I would compare her negatively to another relentlessly cheerful Food Network personality, Rachael Ray, who for all her faults, frequently instructs viewers on making uncomplicated, simple meals in a short amount of time without resorting to much in the way of pre-packaged ingredients. Lee's meals are generally both unhealthy and unappetizing (she once turned pre-made ice cream into a "baked potato" with icing for butter; billed as a great idea for kids, the dessert clocked in at over 1000 calories) and some of the time she devotes to making the table look fantastic could have been used to chop an onion or blanch a vegetable.

In the interest of science, I prepared two semi-homemade meals alongside recipes made the old-fashioned way. First up was the King Cake, a popular Mardi Gras treat. Lee's recipe called for twisting Pillsbury breadsticks into a loop, baking them, covering them with a glaze made from a mixture of pre-made frosting and heavy cream, and decorating the outcome with colored sugar. This was an unmitigated disaster. If you squinted and looked at the result from across the street through heavily tinted windows, it did bear some cursory resemblance to an actual King Cake, but the flavor was completely wrong. It bore almost no resemblance to the fluffy, cinnamonny flavor of a New Orleans King cake, and instead was a sudden, lumpy mess of cloying sugar over tough, chewy pre-processed bread, after a few bites I gave it up as inedible and threw the thing into the trash. Her Steak Diane recipe fared a little better. While markedly inferior to the admittedly complicated and time consuming recipe I used from my French cookbook, here some of the shortcuts are sensible (such as using canned stock instead of homemade) and don't greatly detract from the final product. If more of her offerings were of this quality, I wouldn't find the semi-homemade concept so horrifying; as it stands her Steak Diane is the exception rather than the rule. Even a cursory search of her website reveals that she remains pretty firm on keeping her meals 70% processed, 30% fresh. Unfortunately, 70% processed food isn't a great deal better than 100% processed, and at least if you open a Swanson dinner, there's no pretense that care and love went into making the meal.

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