Sandra Lee was horrified by the contents of my pantry.
“Girl, you’re in trouble,” she said, after demanding that I send her photos of every shelf. “What I love the most is how many beans you have,” she said. (I’m allergic, which is probably why they’re still there.)
But Ms. Lee, the former Food Network personality and cookbook author, is the queen of making something out of nothing, and assured me she would find a way out of my cupboard quandary. After all, she built a brand on “semi-homemade” recipes that rely on affordable, store-bought products — the same ones we are now dusting off and defrosting in the face of a global pandemic.
Ms. Lee, 53, recalled a time when she and her former partner, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, were watching football at their home in Westchester County during a snowstorm. There was nothing in the fridge, so she insisted they go out. “He looked at me and he said, ‘You’re Sandra Lee. Just go whip something up,’” she said. She made garlic knots.
Her present circumstances are a bit different. She is in Los Angeles now, under shelter-in-place orders, so going out isn’t as viable an option. She is also caring for her ailing aunt and uncle, helping to direct shipments of ventilators and other supplies to New York, coordinating with a girlfriend who runs an animal shelter in which she is a partner, and filming a new cooking series for the “Today” show from her kitchen. Keeping busy has helped her structure her days somewhat in a time when time itself can feel boundless.
“You know, nobody has a daily routine right now,” Ms. Lee said. “I get up and I see what the latest news is. Of course I watch Andrew live” — on the governor’s daily coronavirus briefings, which have drawn a captive audience — “and then share with him my thoughts.” She said she and Mr. Cuomo still communicate nearly every day. (The governor was unavailable for comment. In a statement sent through his office shortly after publication, a spokesperson said: “The Governor wishes her well in her next endeavor and we’re sure it will be a success.”)
Ms. Lee’s companion at home is a majestic white cockatoo named Phoenix, a gift from Mr. Cuomo when they were still a couple. “He’s getting bored,” she said of the bird. His main preoccupation these days has been chewing on wooden clothespins.
Humans, at least, can cook to pass the time, and Ms. Lee would like to show them how. Her new series is called “Top Shelf,” which, to be clear, isn’t about fancy ingredients. “Nobody’s eating Wagyu,” she said. Rather, it’s that stuff some Americans may have forgotten about in their pantries, practically unreachable, waiting for the end times that seemed to arrive all at once just weeks ago.
In a sense, Ms. Lee is the perfect guide for this moment. She will change the way you think about a package of $2 Peeps (they can be used on cakes, to garnish cocktails or hidden in eggs in the garden), explain that if you separate two-ply toilet paper into single ply it lasts twice as long and pour you a heavy vodka and fresh grapefruit when it’s all over, which is what she was drinking during one of our calls.
(Pro tip from Aunt Sandy, as she often calls herself: If you chop the used grapefruit into fourths, you can throw a chunk of it down the garbage disposal and toss another in the bottom of your trash can. “They keep everything fresh,” she said.)
“She loves to problem-solve, so she’s a great person to call when the stuff hits the fan,” her longtime friend Dr. Rosemarie Ingleton, a dermatologist in Manhattan, said over the phone this week.
Sandra Lee grew up on food stamps, bouncing between homes after her mother dropped her and a younger sister off at her grandmother’s house when Sandra was 2 and didn’t return for several years. She learned to be creative with cooking in part to stretch her family’s welfare checks and help care for three more siblings who arrived.
“We made simple bargain cuisine, not because we wanted to, but because we had to,” she wrote in her 2007 memoir, “Made From Scratch.”
Eventually, Ms. Lee turned that thriftiness into a business: first with a curtain line started in the bedroom of her aunt and uncle’s house and later with a QVC show, and eventually, a cooking empire.
Her first show on Food Network, “Semi-Homemade Cooking,” ran for 15 seasons, showcasing recipes that were accessible, attainable and affordable, using 70 percent store-bought ingredients and 30 percent homemade. When the recession hit, in 2008, Ms. Lee introduced a second show, “Money Saving Meals,” which taught parents how to feed a family of four for $4. (Leftovers were called “round two” recipes.)
“I mean, the beautiful thing about being raised Jehovah’s Witness is always in the back of your mind, Armageddon is coming,” Ms. Lee said of her childhood, in which her mother became a follower of the millenarian Christian movement. “So your pantry’s always stocked.”
(Ms. Lee converted to Judaism when she married Bruce Karatz, a businessman, in 2001, but has since returned to Christianity.)
In more recent years, Ms. Lee, whose 25 cookbooks have sold more than a million copies, has maintained a relatively low profile. As New York’s “first girlfriend” (which made Phoenix the “first first bird,” she said) she rarely appeared at political events and managed to keep her family affairs private, though friends say she was often working behind the scenes.
“People always call her Dolley Madison because she was sort of behind the scenes orchestrating,” said Dr. Ingleton, alluding to the wife of President James Madison, who was known for her social and political talents.
“She and Andrew accomplished a lot together,” said a sister, Kimber Lee, noting that she had been an advocate for marriage equality and the legalization of medical marijuana.
In 2015, Ms. Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer and opted for a double mastectomy. She chronicled the experience in the 2018 documentary “Rx: Early Detection, A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee,” and became an outspoken proponent of early cancer screening. (She said that she remains, thankfully, cancer-free.)
Ms. Lee and Mr. Cuomo announced their split in September, after 14 years together, but remain close. (“He’s still my guy,” she said. “Neither one of us, well as far as I know, has had a date.”) She has a good relationship with his daughters, and has been directing prospective donors of P.P.E. and hand sanitizer to 25-year-old Cara, who is helping her father with relief coordination. “They’re my family, and they always will be my family,” Ms. Lee said.
“We share a home, we share children, we share friendship,” she said of Mr. Cuomo. “I will protect him and be there for him until the day I die.”
Ms. Lee was long Mr. Cuomo’s defender when New Yorkers on both sides of the political aisle were critical of his record. But these days, many have warmed to him as a leader, and in sometimes surprising ways. Last week a theory spread across the internet about a photo of the governor in which … something could be discerned beneath his white polo shirt.
“A nipple ring? What did you just say?” Ms. Lee said, eyes wide.
Later she appeared in a video on Facebook alluding to “nonsense” online and telling body-shamers to “knock it off!”
Pivot to Comfort Foods
There have, and always will be, Sandra Lee detractors, including those who have scoffed at her use of artificial ingredients as well as her particular combinations of them.
“It is difficult to understand how a responsible author could choose a tasteless, industrial cheese like Velveeta to prepare what she calls ‘gourmet-tasting’ food,” wrote the former New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser as Ms. Lee prepared to release her second cookbook.
Anthony Bourdain famously called her “Kwanzaa cake,” which called for angel food cake, vanilla frosting, popcorn and corn nuts, a “crime against humanity.”
“I’m not sure that some of the food purists are in touch with what really goes on in American households,” Ms. Lee told The Times in 2012.
These days, Ina Garten is making oversize quarantine cocktails. Food Network is offering quarantine recipes, and Americans are flocking to familiar processed foods, like SpaghettiOs, Spam and Cheetos.
Even Mr. Cuomo is delivering lengthy monologues about the comfort of spaghetti and meatballs.
“I think there’s been an immediate shift for all of us in what we think of as ‘enough,’” said Samin Nosrat, the food writer and Netflix host, who recently created a podcast about how to cook with what’s in your pantry.
Ms. Nosrat, the author of “Salt Fat Acid Heat” (and an occasional New York Times contributor), said she has noticed herself become much more conscientious about rationing, and less snobby about, say, which brand of canned tomatoes she chooses.
“I’m first to admit, I always denigrated that style of cooking,” she said of Ms. Lee’s brand of prepackaged goods. “But I have to say, doing everything from scratch in these circumstances is bananas.”
Ms. Lee said that, right now, food is about survival, not luxury. “I think you just have to figure out how to do with what you have and how to make it the best you can,” she said. “You have to see what’s there, not what’s not there.”
In her own home, what’s there is cans of cream of celery, cream of mushroom, cream of potato: “great bases for anything you want and they all last forever,” she said.
There is also popcorn, nuts, stacks on stacks of tomato sauces, a variety of canned soups. “I like chicken noodle soup just because I like it, and I like it with saltines, especially when I don’t feel well,” she said, pointing to the saltines.
There are artichokes. “My favorite, my favorite thing,” she said. Pasta, vegetable stock, Bisquick, Red Lobster brand cheddar biscuit mix. “I only have that because my aunt loves it,” she said.
And she is well-stocked for Easter, with chocolate bunnies, toy bunnies, marshmallow bunnies, bunny cookies, jelly beans, licorice, fresh-cut lilies, and of course a whole ham, which she plans to roast for dinner.
The ham leftovers, she said, she will make into a “decadent, cheesy casserole” — a perfect round two recipe.