Cocktail Time

On Sandra Lee and the Intimidating Politics of Food

Navigating the politics of food is an unholy nightmare. For one thing, we eat more regularly than we do just about anything else—we can avoid reading articles about fracking or refuse to watch the GOP debates, but there’s simply no avoiding food, and no separating it from its harsh and multifarious systems of ethics. Then, there are a thousand ways to express our political selves by means of what we eat, a thousand opportunities to align ourselves with the anti-cruelty vegans or the weight loss vegans or the anti-GMO camp or the somewhat baffling yet fairly prominent fuck-political-correctness-eat-this-bacon-out-of-my-beard people. Every meal becomes its own individual minefield.

The entire food world is aware of this, and fiercely so. Our parents couldn’t confidently expect even a basic vegetarian option in restaurants twenty years ago, but the ugly epoch of the McDonald’s Salad Shaker hit while we were still in short pants; constant hyper-awareness of food was the norm by the time we started buying our own groceries. Foods that we never would have suspected of containing gluten are now careful to note that they are gluten-free (when was there any doubt in the celiac community that Vlasic Pickles were safe?). New buzzwords emerge all the time, followed by rules for how to use them, followed by food companies’ tricky sidestepping of those rules (there are strict regulations in the US for classifying a product as “organic” or “fair trade,” but basically none guiding the use of words like “natural” or “fresh”). Our parents went to the store with a much simpler set of food regulations in mind: greens were good, lard was bad, and for anything remotely ambiguous it was easy enough to shut your mouth and go with God. When we shop, we juggle politics, morals, and health in our tired brains like so many chainsaws. Even picking a grocery store at which to shop is a process fraught with internal conflict: are we shopping for quality, convenience, or some loftier goal? It’s exhausting.

I would never argue that it was better to live in an era of less information, shadier practices, more obscure ethics; it’s just that when we knew less, we were forced to make fewer choices. How many different types of peanut butter have I talked myself into trying these past few years, the reduced-fat and the all-natural and the no-sugar-added, when the only peanut butter that has ever made sense to me on a soul level is basic Jif Creamy? How many strange vegetables have I bought, vegetables I didn’t know how to cook or even peel, because some food pundit hailed them as cheap and healthy? How many absurd, esoteric cuts of meat have I attempted to braise in how many complicated marinades? Christ alive, how much fucking kale?

It is when I begin to consider the food vortex into which I have been sucked that I remember Sandra Lee and feel warm, relaxed, and secure. Sandra Lee has no truck with the food politics of urban liberal enclaves. She does not source her ingredients locally. She has not ever worked with gluten-free flours or dairy-free milks. Cooking the recipes on her infamous Food Network spectacle Semi-Homemade With Sandra Lee requires no prior knowledge or skill, not just in the realm of cooking, but in any conceivable area of life: you need never have known or accomplished a single thing to follow Aunt Sandy’s recipes.

Semi-Homemade is more than just a cutesy title for a much-despised program. It is a philosophy, a lifestyle, an ethos. Semi-Homemade means no worries for the rest of your days. You don’t have to worry about kneading complicated doughs or chopping obscure vegetables into a fine, time-consuming dice. You just open a can here, a dried spice there, and a half hour later you have your meal. “Doesn’t that look duh-lllllicious?” she coos, leaning into that glottal L and smiling kindly. She is Glinda the Good Witch; she likes the pretty and the tacky.

The food she makes doesn’t look like it tastes good, though given the amount of alcohol that’s in the cocktails she serves alongside it, the taste probably doesn’t matter much. She is responsible for much of the world’s most hideous cooking. Her recipes tend to resemble not so much recipes but craft projects, in which the hot glue gun and construction paper have been replaced by store-bought cakes and vanilla vodka. (This makes sense if only because she got her start selling homemade curtains on QVC, which also helps to explain her attachment to “tablescapes,” or elaborately tacky table centerpieces.)

Aunt Sandy’s fellow Food Network celebrities don’t care for her or her approach to food. Even gentle, unflappable Ina Garten took a break from failing to notice that her husband is gay to make a crack on the air about how much she hates “tablescapes.”  Alton Brown, widely believed by his fans to be a worthy candidate for sainthood, said that Sandra Lee’s idea of cooking was nothing more than opening a can and having a cocktail. Here’s the thing: he’s right! But who cares? After a long day at work, which is more realistic: the idea of whipping up a flavorful batch of boeuf bourguignon, or the idea of changing into stretchy pants and melting pre-shredded cheddar cheese on pre-made flour tortillas?

The Food Network is not an elitist institution, even if it does have a few legitimate haute cuisine bona fides to its name. It’s called the Food Network, not Basic Cable For Uppity Wine Snobs. Great chefs can try and try to get the rest of the country cooking well and eating fresh and evangelizing the farm-to-table philosophy in their homes, but it’s simply not a reasonable expectation, not on a large scale. People with full-time jobs often harbor a certain degree of resentment toward their kitchens and their basic human appetites. For great chefs, cooking is a calling; for me, it is a chore, and an unavoidable one.

Some chefs want me to compromise, to make an effort. They want me to learn knife skills and labor-intensive cooking techniques. That’s noble of them, but they needn’t bother; Aunt Sandy doesn’t need me to do any of that shit. Drink this sugary cocktail, Aunt Sandy says. Put this canned corn on top of ground beef for some reason, Aunt Sandy says. Sit in your easy chair and pass out in front of the ten o’clock news, Aunt Sandy says. This will all be okay. And it will.

Art by Jun Joestar. 

Alex King

Alex King

Alex King, a culturally irrelevant Jew who still listens to the Bee Gees without a touch of irony, is also Empire of Loathing's food correspondent. If you don’t like them or their writing or their opinions on the Food Network, you’re right.

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