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Pop Torture: The Sandra Lee Dinner Party
Our writer prepares and serves the cake Anthony Bourdain called "a war crime on television."
By James Brady Ryan
Welcome to Pop Torture, a biweekly column in which I embrace my pop-culture masochism and search out the most painful ways to experience the movies, TV, and music that fill our lives with such ecstasy and agony. (Needless to say, I’ll mostly be focusing on the latter.) Each week I’ll take on a new challenge, and each week I’ll share my adventures with you, provided I survive them.
The Challenge: To prepare, eat, and survive a meal made exclusively of recipes from Semi-Homemade With Sandra Lee.
Sandra Lee is the host of not one but two shows on the Food Network, famous for making meals that, by design, cut as many corners as possible. Anything that can be purchased pre-made is tops in her book, which has led to a less-than-stellar reputation among other cooks, foodies, and anyone with eyes/taste buds. (She's also known for coming off as an unrepentant lush — half of her airtime seems to be spent throwing back cocktails.)
But Lee does have qualifications, as her unintentionally hilarious Wikipedia page points out: "Lee's official Food Network bio states that, 'Lee then attended the world's leading culinary art institute, Le Cordon Bleu.' Lee enrolled in a recreational two-week course at the school's Ottawa outpost, which she acknowledges that she did not complete." I've spent a decent amount of time laughing at Sandra, but I'll admit I'd never tried any of her recipes. If I actually put her food where my mouth is, would I have to stop laughing?
Cocktail Time (Gin thing & Lush Lagoon): Because misery loves company (and because all of her recipes serve four), I invited a few friends over for a three-course dinner, preceded by a cocktail hour. I had a selection of two: one was some kind of gin-based fruit concoction without an official name. The other was an electric-green mixture called the "Lush Lagoon." (Possibly named after Sandra's favorite rehab center.) While the gin-and-juice was generally confusing (so many juices), the Lush Lagoon sounded reasonable — crushed kiwi, vodka, melon liqueur — until the final touch: a dash of juice from a jar of jalapeno peppers.
The group reaction was best summed up by my guest Megan: "The gin drink actually doesn't seem so bad once you've tried the other one." But if you've ever sipped down a refreshingly cool summer cocktail and thought to yourself, "This is missing a certain burning in the back of my mouth," then the Lush Lagoon is for you.
Appetizer (Spicy Cashew Dip): In the interest of saving time (a Sandra Lee commandment if ever there was one), I went with a dip — something simple my friends could enjoy with bread or crudités. I chose the ominously named Spicy Cashew Dip. In what would turn into the running theme of the evening, this recipe seemed to go one ingredient too far. You might sign on for cashews, peanut butter, cream cheese; it's when Lee gets to the chili paste and cumin powder that you begin to wonder.
The dip tasted, unsurprisingly, like warm peanut butter and cream cheese. But we couldn't get much of it down, because... well, there's no delicate way to say this: the dip looked like crap, literally. "I can't get over how much this looks like a turd," my roommate said, as she gingerly scooped up some dip with a piece of celery. "It's... well, it's surprisingly... warm. And there are... chunks. Uh, like a turd."
Main Course (Smoked Turkey, Brie, and Apricot Quesadilla): After about an hour of enthusiastically not eating the dip while chugging the gin cocktail (only one Lush Lagoon ever sputtered into being), we were tipsy enough to imagine that the entree could be good. After all, the word "quesadilla" was in the name. And who could say no to two flour tortillas sandwiching some sliced deli turkey, brie, apricot jam, and monterey-jack cheese? While you might be thinking to yourself, "Everyone. Everyone could say no to that," I have to tell you that we were so hungry by this point we'd gladly have thrown in some fish sticks and pancake batter if Sandra had asked. The truth is, these quesadillas were not bad. Yes, we were hungry and a little drunk. And yes, we had the same issues with this dish as we had with the others — namely that Sandra Lee could really use an editor for her food.
Dessert (Kwanzaa Cake): And finally we came to the dish for which Sandra Lee is infamous. Not so much a dessert as a sugary confusion. The Kwanzaa Cake. This was actually the first dish I prepared — oh, how young and naive I was then, four hours previous — and let me tell you: this cake did not want to be made. The pre-made angel-food cake would not come out of its container. The icing refused to stick to the oddly plastic surface of the cake once I did pry it out. (Megan questioned the wisdom of buying plain frosting and then adding cocoa powder to it when chocolate frosting is readily available, a point which Sandra might want to consider.) And then, as I poured apple pie filling from a can into the center of the dish (really), the can actually attacked me, slicing open my middle finger, presumably enraged by its forced participation in a crime against contemporary African-American culture, good taste, and nature. Sandra Lee suggested I garnish with acorns. My mother suggested that acorns are not edible.
As I sliced into the cake, my guests all uttered a collective prayer. Then we dug in, trying to capture each element in that first bite. This was the cake that Anthony Bourdain famously said would set your eyes on fire, but if only Tony knew what it would do to your mouth! It's like being orally sodomized by the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Result: Perhaps twenty minutes after we had finished, my friend Joe texted me from the safety of his own home asking if any of us weren't feeling so hot. As it happened, the three of us still at my apartment were lying on the couch clutching our stomachs in pain. I concluded that something in the meal was responsible for our gastro-intestinal problems. Was it the mix of so many different flavors? Was it the jalapeno juice in the Lush Lagoon? Was it the sugar from the cake? I contemplated these things as I ran to my bathroom to vomit. (Seriously.)
In conclusion: fuck you, Kwanzaa Cake. If you ever find yourself seriously considering a trip into Sandra Lee's food fantasia, perhaps due to a lack of time or a lack of energy, let me give you the greatest corner-cutting tip of all: pizza delivery exists for a reason.
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