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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Wednesday, December 7

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Feature Sun Sep 14 2008

Sandra Lee's Best Foot Forward

When I told the Drive-Thru editors last week that I wanted to take them up on their last-minute offer to interview Food Network celebrity chef Sandra Lee, creator of the Semi-Homemade television and cookbook empire, their response was instructive: "You're not going to shred her, are you?"

Sandra Lee Promo CoverWhile it's true, this blogger does not suffer fools gladly, in my estimation, Sandra Lee is a pretty savvy gal. In fact, we both have something in common. When I first moved to Chicago in 2003 and promptly went broke, I knew I had to learn how to feed myself from my own kitchen or live in a box beneath the Michigan Avenue Bridge. I started with the "special preparation methods" on the back of several boxes of Zatarain's Rice and proceeded to work my way through my cupboard, night after night doctoring every ounce of pre-packaged food I could find.

My own personal semi-homemade introduction to my kitchen inspired me to become a (now quite accomplished) home cook, saved me a bundle of money, and allowed me to enjoy a good quality of life at a time when life's pressures seemed bent on making sure that wouldn't happen. On those terms, I applaud Sandra Lee. Her rubric of "70% ready-made products with 30% fresh and creative touches" has empowered many American moms--and anyone else with a surfeit of kitchen fear who's cared to listen--with a confident ability to navigate a week's worth of family meals and feed themselves and their loved ones. All without breaking the bank or losing their cool.

Lee was in town over the weekend to host Saturday's unfortunately rainy Children's Memorial Hospital Peapod Project Pounds the Pavement 5k Run/Walk and promote her three most recent cookbooks. I spoke to her by phone on Friday, after the tropical rains finally allowed her plane to make it here from LaGuardia.

DRIVE-THRU: You sit on the board of Los Angeles UNICEF and have been involved with that city's Project Angel Food [a charity that feeds homebound people with HIV/AIDS]. Here, the Peapod Project is aiming to preserve for parents the memories of children who have passed on by creating a collection of mementos at a time when parents are too grief-stricken to do so themselves. How did you become involved?

SANDRA LEE: A friend who's also involved shared with me the history of the Peapod Project and its connection to Children's Memorial Hospital and I was touched. We're here in Chicago for the day tomorrow, and the walk is going to be a heartwarming event. When you're going through the trauma of losing a child, no one thinks what life will be like afterwards for the parents and siblings. To have a collection of memories in journals, blankets, clothing that speaks of these lost children helps keep them here with you in a comforting way. It helps families heal. It's incredible that Ted and Annette [Stenstrom, whose loss of daughter Moreland Grace inspired them to start the Peapod Project] thought of this.

DRIVE-THRU: Last year, you shared your background in a Food Network Chefography and many people were surprised to learn how from a young age you had to raise and feed your brothers and sisters on your own with very little money. How does your past inform the charity work that you do today?

SANDRA LEE: I think I have a greater understanding of the hardships that affect families because of going through what I and my family went through. When I first heard about Peapod, I started welling up because of what it would have been like if I had lost one of my brothers or sisters. But like the families in Peapod, you pick yourselves up by your bootstraps, move forward as best you can, and find these projects that help you give back. I think it's most important to support charities involving women and children across the U.S. By this I mean charities that help women and children not just through illnesses, but also that feed them, help them to survive, and help create for them warm, loving, sustainable environments.

DRIVE-THRU: You've just released three new cookbooks (Semi-Homemade Desserts 2, Semi-Homemade Fast-Fix Family Favorites and Semi-Homemade Money Saving Meals). What prompted you to write your first budget-conscious cookbook?

SANDRA LEE: At Semi-Homemade, we try always to focus on being ahead of trends and identifying the needs of overextended, budget-conscious homemakers--I call them "home heroes" because of the heroic job that they do every day. A family of four can have an affordable meal at Applebee's without the shopping or the cleanup time of eating at a home. But that doesn't really create the kind of environment you want your family to have every night. I wanted to write a cookbook to show home heroes how to put special meals on the table at home, saving time and money, and creating a family environment.

DRIVE-THRU: The idea of Semi-Homemade cooking has been panned by some food critics as being potentially unhealthy due to the pre-processed nature of many of the basic ingredients you call for in your recipes. What thought was given to the health-consciousness of the ingredients on the basic pantry lists for the books?

SANDRA LEE: When you're shopping, there are hundreds of different items you can buy. Almost everything you want comes in low-sodium, low-fat, and organic formats. It's your choice. Upcoming books will include sidebars for low-sodium and low-fat conversions. However, my job is to look at what is in everybody's pantry. If most moms have Campbell's chicken and rice soup and canola oil in there, why shouldn't they use that? I'm here to help my viewers put food on the table with the items that they have already, not to dictate to them, change them, or judge them in any way.

DRIVE-THRU: How did you come up with the Quick Scratch recipes in Semi-Homemade Desserts 2?

SANDRA LEE: The Quick Scratch dessert recipes happened because of pie crust, first and foremost. What do you do if you run out of the frozen pie shells that you bought or you drop one on the floor? I wanted to help people figure out how you can make up for that. So I came up with recipes that go back to basics to help you learn how to improvise solutions in the kitchen.

DRIVE-THRU: You're also releasing Semi-Homemade Fast-Fix Family Favorites, a sort of greatest hits of your recipes. Does the book signal a swan-song for you show or is this just a mid-stream collection of goodies?

SANDRA LEE: Baby, how old do you think I am? We are nowhere near being finished. We've shot all of our shows through May of 2009. Two weeks from now were shooting the Christmas holiday special. And I'm already working on my next seven books which will be put on the shelf as soon as they each are done. I'm using the time now to work on them or they'll never get done. No, we're really busy.

As for Fast-Fix Family Favorites, I wanted to create a book that if my fans could only have one of my books, this could be it. All of my favorite recipes are in it. It's really a Semi-Homemade must-have.

DRIVE-THRU: You're in one of America's food capitals this weekend and I know you don't cook while you're traveling. Are there any eateries or local foods you intend to sample while you're here?

SANDRA LEE: You know I attended college in Wisconsin and Chicago is where we would come to sample the big city. But I know you live a few blocks from my hotel, so I was actually gonna ask you for some local recommendations, honey.

DRIVE-THRU: What would you say to Chicagoans who are afraid they don't have the skills or the time to feed themselves and their families from their own kitchen?

SANDRA LEE: Anyone--even someone who thinks they can't boil water--can become a stellar home cook and be proud of what they create. Anyone. It just takes passion, a few minutes, and a few dollars. That's all.

DRIVE-THRU: Deep-dish or thin-crust?

SANDRA LEE: Thin-crust, honey. Sorry.

Note to Streeterville's Gino's East and River North's Café Iberico, if by any chance a certain celebrity chef came to call over the weekend, I have two words to say to you: You're welcome.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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