December 04, 2005

The Decline and Fall of the Food Network, or, The Horror of Sandra Lee

I've long been a Food Network addict. And for years now, I've noticed how the channel has strayed from its original mission. Once upon a time, the TV Food Network (as it was then called) actually focused on cooking shows. These were the sort of shows that you might have seen on PBS, with a genial host showing you how to prepare the sort of dishes that were generally within the range of the reasonably proficient home chef. This seemed like a winning formula, one that could draw decent ratings decades into the future.

But Food Network execs, displaying the same creative thinking that brought the world New Coke, decided that this wasn't good enough. Thus began what I like to call the Era of the Celebrity Chef. The chef, rather than the food, was the star of the show. This meant that outsized personalities, obnoxious catchphrases, and behavioral tics that would have landed anyone else in a psychiatric ward were now the order of the day. (This culminated in the Cult of Emeril, in which the dangerously unstable Boston/Louisiana/Portuguese chef/lounge lizard Emeril Lagasse was given a studio audience who cheered his every move and shouted his every catchphrase like a roomful of zombies. Lagasse's ego eventually swelled to the point where it required an extra seat on airline flights.) Also, because they were star chefs, they scorned the idea of making dishes that home cooks could emulate. Instead, they offered a healthy dose of professional snobbery, as if anyone who did not maintain a minimum of 15 different truffle oils and a full set of copper mixing bowls should not be allowed into the kitchen. This attitude reached its apotheosis with the show "Chocolate", in which Jacques Torres spent each episodes producing delicacies so stupefyingly intricate and complex that I felt unqualified even to watch the show, much less invest the month and a half that reprducing any of his creations would undoubtedly require.

Eventually, some bright light at the Food network figured out that some people liked to watch cooking shows to learn how to cook, not to watch overpaid egotistical professionals show off, and they began to replace some of the celebrity-chef shows with something more like the original model. And yet they decided that we still wanted hosts with "personality," so they've given us zany southern-fried mental patient Paula Deen, who spends her Thanksgivings playing poker with her family, and giggling schoolgirl Rachael Ray, who seems like the kind of person who would have starred in a "Girls Gone Wild" video back in college.

More insulting yet, they seem to have decided that the home chef can't handle anything more complex than opening a couple cans and dumping things into a pot. "30 Minute Meals" comes in for frquent criticism on this score, but Rachael Ray looks like Julia Child next to the woman who inspired this piece, the mockery of all that the Food Network once stood for, the horror that is... Sandra Lee.

Sandra Lee is the star of a show called "Semi-Homemade Cooking," which I'd seen a couple of times before. I was never a fan of the show, given that most of her "cooking" seem to involve finding ways to make packaged food taste like like it hadn't come straight out of a box and that she devoted more time to preparing the cocktail than to any other part of the meal, but it didn't really bother me that much. Lee seemed like an unremarkably vapid bottle-blond, but she didn't really stand out in my mind. I did, however, find something unsettling about her, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

Last night, though, I found myself at home on a Saturday night (again) with an hour to kill before the codeine kicked in, and so I tuned in "A Semi-Homemade Christmas." This featured Sandra spending an hour in a rented house in Canada preparing dinner for a motley crew of family and friends. Having nothing better to do, I decided to settle in and figure out what exactly was so unsettling about Sandra Lee.

In the end, there were a number of things that bothered me, chief among them one salient fact: During the entire one-hour program, her eyebrows did not move once. Any semblance of a facial expression she might have formed, in fact, had clearly been Botoxed into oblivion. Say what you will about Rachael Ray: that her makeup gets glossier every year, that the highlights in her hair look like a desperate attempt to recapture her 20s, that she is increasingly developing the glazed look of a too-dedicated party girl. Granted, on all points. But at least she has facial expressions! She is capable of displaying enthusiasm, and she does. All too frquently, perhaps, but she does. Poor Sandra clearly lost the ability to display recognizable emotion on her face several cosmetic surgeries ago.

Not that I'm sure she has any emotions to display. Every once in a while, her raccoon-rimmed eyes would lock onto the camera, and I saw the vacant stare of a person who regards Prozac as a between-meal snack. Given her all-too-obvious fondness for intoxicating spirits, one might assume that her deadened expression was caused by alcohol, but it looked more like a booze-and-pills combo to me. God knows what demons she's fighting, but they must be awfully fierce. (Between the vapid stare and the numb expression, what I assume was intended to be a charming anecdote about how her nieces and nephews called her "Aunt Sandy Claus" came off as insincere and disturbing. It didn't help that none of the kids called her that later on, when they appeared on the show.)

To make matters worse, she was wearing an off-the-shoulder sweater that she clearly did not have the shoulders to pull off. It struck me as a little racy for a holiday dinner, particularly one at which children were to be present. Koo-koo-ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson...

Watching this desperate domestic diva careen around the kitchen, chattering endlessly while slapping together too-cute decorations and mixing sickly-sweet cocktails who sugar content appears intended to mask an obscene quantity of alcohol, was pathetic. It only got worse when her family and friends showed up. I'm not sure if, or how much, they were paid to appear on the show, but I felt sorry for them the moment they appeared on screen. The kids' expressions ranged from the kind of forced smiles you see on hostage videos to outright avoidance of the camera. I felt sorry for nephew Bryce, who appeared to be too old to appreciate being called "Brycer," as Sandra insisted on doing throughout the show. I felt sorrier still for nephew Austin. Toward the end, poor Austin visibly winced after "Aunt Sandy Claus" demanded that he kiss her on camera. These kids have years of therapy awaiting them from this show alone.

The adult family members didn't look much more comfortable than the kids, none more so than Sandra's best girlfriend Colleen (or "C'leen," as Sandra kept calling her). Sandra seems to mention C'leen in every show (at least every one that I've seen), and most of her mentions seem to involve stories about how much they like to drink either or patronizing praise of C'leen's single motherhood. ("Bless her little heart, she works so hard! She's a single mother, you know. So brave. Bless her heart.") Well, C'leen didn't appear too happy to be there generally, but when Sandra asked, "Another cocktail, C'leen?", her old pal shot her a seriously perturbed look, captured for posterity on camera. I'm not if C'leen was more upset about the intimation that she was a lush, or about the constant pats on the head for being such a brave single mother and all.

Speaking of marital status, Sandra had a wedding ring on her finger, and yet her husband was nowhere to be seen at this "family gathering." At best, this is odd; at worst, it's really, really sad. Although if my speculation is correct, it would explain a lot, including her dead expression and the obvious discomfort around the dinner table.

One can't help but wonder why the Food Network chose to broadcast this sad spectacle. One tends to assume that sexual favors were involved, but it's possible that it was intended to give hope to those whose holidays (and families) are less than perfect. "Cheer up," the Food Network says to these viewers. "No matter how dysfunctional your family is, your holiday dinner couldn't possibly go worse than this!"

Whatever the reason, I've decided that the Food Network and I are through until this trainwreck of a woman is off the air. I'll miss Alton Brown, sure, but this woman has to be stopped. Take a stand with me, won't you?

P.S. I debated scrapping this entry, on the grounds that it was awfully mean-spirited toward a woman who is clearly in need of professional help. But this I saw that she refers to herself on her Web site as an "internationally-acclaimed Lifestylist," and I decided that, screw it, she deserves anything I can dish out.

UPDATE: The Sandra Lee drinking game! I personally don't think I have the liver for this, but if someone is brave enough to try, let me know how it turns out.

Posted by Mediocre Fred at December 4, 2005 07:17 PM | TrackBack

LOL--This is too funny. She is seriously scary! I love the Food Network (but hate so many of the obnoxious chefs) that I haven't watched it much. I loved Iron Chef, but can't seem to get into the American version, even if I like Mario Batali.

Posted by: ensie at December 5, 2005 10:25 PM

I commented on Sandra Lee long ago. It is a curious dichotomy, the food-snobbery shows and a food-idiot show on the same network.

What's happened to Food Network doesn't bother me quite as much as what's become of Bon Appetit. Very similar track--it used to be a magazine full of solid, enjoyable recipes, with the occasional over-the-top feast and useful introductions to new ingredients. Now every freakin' recipe has fresh vanilla beans, pea tendrils, and lobster in it. Where I used to open a new issue and find a dozen dishes I can't wait to make, now I find two if I'm lucky.

Posted by: Carl at December 6, 2005 06:45 AM

Carl, I know I'm late to the party on this one, but I have only recently become acquainted with the full scale of atrocity being committed here. As for Bon Appetit, I haven't read it regularly in years, so I can't really comment. Your description is consistent with what I have seen, though.

Ensie... I neglected to add this observation in my original post, but see if you agree: Between her booze-and-drug-addled expression, her addiction to pre-packaged food, and the achingly dated theme song to her show, I believe that Sandra Lee was cryogenically frozen in about 1965 and thawed out to do this show. It would certainly help explain why the song "Mother's Little Helper" keeps popping into my head every time I see her leering at me on the screen...

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at December 6, 2005 01:31 PM

I watch the Food Network for just one reason: Giada Delaurentis and the soft-core porn that is Everyday Italian. Oh yeah, give me the money shot...grilled ahi! Woo Hoo!!!

Posted by: Brandon at December 7, 2005 12:02 AM

Ms. Delaurentis has a definite appeal, but for my money, the all-time queen of food porn is Nigella Lawson. Why can't the Food Network get her? It's an unjust world, I tell you.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at December 7, 2005 06:52 AM

I miss the old Sandra Lee; her show used to be sassy and fun,but it seems forced lately and especially on that Christmas special you noted. Mr. Lee's absence duly noted there. Her pantry fixin's ersatz recipes have a place on FN as surely as Emeril's over-garlicked, over-spiced ones do. It would be fun to see some specials with the old "Yan Can Cook" or "Galloping Gourmet" characters. And I agree with Fred about getting Nigella Lawson in the lineup--I would be setting the DVR for that show!

Posted by: Jeanie at December 7, 2005 07:21 PM


Ah, yes, I loved both Yan Can Cook and the Galloping Gourmet (though I've seen GG's more recent shows, and he's very different since he quit drinking), and either of them (and Nigella Lawson) could run rings around almost all of the current Food Network chefs. Not having followed Semi-Homemade Cooking for very long, I don't know whether Sandra Lee has gone downhill lately, but I believe it. Wonder if it's in any way connected to Mr. Lee's absence from the Christmas special?

(For the record, I'm no particular fan of Emeril either... all theatrics, little substance.)

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at December 8, 2005 08:38 PM

giggling schoolgirl Rachael Ray, who seems like the kind of person who would have starred in a "Girls Gone Wild" video back in college.

Or would pose for FHM now...

Posted by: PG at December 14, 2005 02:30 PM

I'm a reasonably adept home chef, and spent many years in restaurant kitchens. I used to love the food network when it had people better than me showing me dishes I hadn't ever tackled. Over the past 3-4 years, just as Gourmet magazine has gotten dumbed down by Ruth Raichl, so has the channel. Now, we've got idiots like Rachel Ray, Tyler Florence, Sandra Lee - basically, most of them except Mario - showing us how to open cans, pre-heat skillets, measure flour, etc. These guys have lowered the bar so much that I can't watch them.

My wife and I guessed that it all has to do with expanding their appeal to the mainstream of the country who actually eats deep-fried Snickers, argues about the best fried chicken and thinks it's cool to call olive oil "EVOO". (for the record, most real chefs will generally NOT use olive oil for every day cooking as it has a strong flavor; simple corn, canola, etc., are just fine).

So, I've gone from watching show after show (Two Fat Ladies, Naked Chef, etc.) to tuning in only because nothing else is on.

My favorite all-time cooking series: Great Chefs; used to be on PBS, and still the only one that helped me to understand how basic, fundamental techniques translate into sublime recipes.

Posted by: dck at January 8, 2006 11:02 PM
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