Right before author, QVC home-crafts maven, and unabashed Cheez Whiz booster Sandra Lee is introduced to 100 or so members of the Junior League of Pasadena, she gets a case of the jitters. Sitting at an umbrella-shaded table in the pristine backyard of a private estate here, she shuffles the palm-dampened pages of her speech. “I looked up the Junior League on the Internet,” Lee confesses nervously. Her postcard-blue eyes quickly scan an audience largely composed of wealthy, middle-aged women in sleeveless silk dresses and floppy garden-party hats. “I thought this would be a younger crowd.”
You can’t help thinking that Martha Stewart would have known what to expect. The comparison springs to mind because at this stage in Lee’s career, “Stewart” is practically a part of her name. At 36, she has been called “the next Martha Stewart,” “the down-to-earth Martha Stewart,” “the anti-Martha Stewart.” “Our Martha Stewart” is the pet descriptor preferred by Miramax Films’ Harvey Weinstein, whose book division published Lee’s 2002 New York Times best-seller Semi-Homemade Cooking: Quick Marvelous Meals and Nothing Is Made from Scratch, as well as her second book, Semi-Homemade Desserts, which goes on sale next month.
Stewart and Lee could certainly be filed under the same general categories (“Cooking,” “Home Decorating and Entertaining,” “Blond Hair”). But the gospel Lee is preaching this afternoon is aimed at the trying-to-do-it-all wife and mother who lacks the money, hand-eye coordination, and huge swaths of time necessary to tackle Stewart’s ambitious projects. (The coordination issue alone could earn Lee the anti-Martha label, given the way she repeatedly extols to the Junior Leaguers the relaxing virtues of wine, wine, and more wine—or Margaritas—at the end of every day.)
Very early in her talk, Lee announces the secret to her trademarked Semi-Homemade philosophy: 30 percent fresh ingredients, 70 percent prepared foodstuffs available on any supermarket shelf. Not only is her method quick and foolproof, she says, but four-star restaurants surreptitiously subscribe to it as well. “We go to the grocery store and we all feel guilty because we’re not doing it from scratch,” says Lee. “Can I tell you something? These big kitchens buy the exact same product with a different flavor and they call it a commercial line.” Then she pauses dramatically. “They’re not making bouillabaisse, either. They’re not. None of these guys are doing it. Not the most recognized chefs in the world.”
The all-gal audience nods in amazement at this oversimplification of the truth. In front of each woman is a version of Lee’s Raspberry Trifle with Rum Sauce. Resting at the bottom of a wineglass is Sara Lee pound cake that has been cut into small cubes, topped with a couple of large yellow scoops of vanilla Jell-O pudding, and garnished with fresh raspberries. My serving of trifle, though, has been mistakenly rushed out before the addition of pudding and fruit. I am staring at a glass of chunks of store-bought cake. Even in its fully embellished form, though, is this a recipe or just a serving tip?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Lee’s message is directed at “people who want the illusion of cooking when they don’t have the time or are too intimidated,” says Marion Nestle, the head of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, who believes that Lee’s 70-30 principle isn’t the beginning of the end but perhaps the beginning of the beginning. “Thirty per cent is better than none,” says Nestle. “That’s a start. Maybe if they put in forty percent, it’ll taste better and you’re on your way. Maybe it’s a slippery slope in the right direction.”
No one would be frightened to attempt Lee’s Golden Mushroom Soup recipe, which appears on page 149 in her first book. In it, she has the reader open a can of Campbell’s Golden Mushroom Soup, then lightly doctor it with three quarters of a cup of heavy cream and a chopped portabella mushroom that has been sautéed in Bertolli olive oil with a teaspoon of McCormick minced garlic. She swears the stipulating of brands isn’t paid endorsement. “There’s a difference in taste,” says Lee, whose cookbooks are virtually polka-dotted with the ® symbol. But what’s wrong with mincing fresh garlic? “Blech! It’s messy and it smells!” she tells me, dismissing the suggestion with a dazzling smile and a good-natured wave of her hand.
Classical training isn’t for Lee, either. Back in 1998, she took a two-week course at the Cordon Bleu in Ottawa, Canada. And that was when she had her Semi-Homemade brainstorm. “I was scraping beef tendons and I thought, ‘I’m outta here!’ ” she says. “When you look at a recipe you want to know that at least four of the ingredients are available at your grocery store. It’s more cost-effective and less time-consuming.”
It’s easy to trace the path from Lee’s childhood to her love of instant cooking. When she was only nine and living in Sumner, Washington, her mother was too ill to do much more than commute between her bed and the living room couch. So Lee cooked, cleaned, and watched after her four younger siblings. What kind of menus does an inventive grade-schooler dream up? “I used a lot of Bisquick,” Lee tells me a week after her Pasadena appearance, sitting at a rooftop table at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills and dressed in a white T-shirt, sparkly Sonia Rykiel jeans, and navy blue Belgian loafers.