Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Yin and Yang of Food Network

"Simple Sandy Says...F.U. Food!" Sandra Lee in action

I love food. I love television. Give me a creamy polenta simmered with cheese, drenched with mushroom sauce, sprinkled with garlic mashed artichoke and drizzled in olive oil. Let me eat it in front of a television set, satisfyingly savoring each morsel as I watch The Food Network's Barefoot Contessa, hosted by Ina Garten, culinary proprietress of the now defunct Hamptons eatery of the same name. She's the grand doyenne of metropolitan simplicity and elegance who embraces the beauty of food, atmosphere, and the interaction of good friends. Then let me clean my plate in time for a DVR installment of Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee before I lose my appetite and hate food forever. Sandra (aka - "Semi-Ho", "Simple Sandy" and "Sandy Ho") is the antithesis of Ina and her thought provoking, satisfying approach to cooking.

The Food Network, once a channel featuring professional chefs with straightforward non-sexy but fun-filled cooking instruction, has evolved into a platform for culinary competition and new found sex appeal. It is book ended by two polar opposites of the cooking spectrum - the Yin and the Yang, the good and the bad of the Foodie universe.

Barefoot Contessa's Ina Garten

The Good: Ina Garten is a breath of East Hampton fresh air. She uses local, fresh ingredients, incorporating good sense, thorough information, and recipes that are tantalizing and unintimidating to prepare. When she makes her famous chocolate ganache cupcakes, angels weep in heaven. Want to make Coleslaw? Just shred some red and white cabbage, add some blue cheese, and you have a fabulous side dish for the Reuben sandwiches you've made to take on that picnic by the beach. Want a lovely finish to an amazing holiday meal? Try roasting S'mores in the chill of a Christmas Eve on your back porch while sipping mulled wine. Everything from presentation to Ina's home kitchen is a Williams Sonoma dream, all clean lines and warm linens, fresh ideas and good comraderie.

Mmm, cake! And pretty table settings from Barefoot Contessa

Ina's table settings are organic and rustic with no major expense or fuss. She makes viewers feel at home as she kindly and calmy discusses the rational way to cook, and suggests easy methods of decor. Her vibe is "don't sweat it."

Also, I love her home and property. She has an orchard in her backyard. An orchard! That's like surreal heaven.

The Bad: Sandra Lee is like the evil not-at-all twin sister of Ina Garten. Seventy percent store bought, thirty percent fresh is her motto. Although the idea is admirable, the implementation is horrendous. This is a woman whose favorite trick is to add vanilla extract to Cool Whip to kill the chemical taste. Her food is a mixture of high sodium, chemical infested seasoning packets, pretend desert toppings all to be guzzled down by the sweetest alcoholic concoctions off her wet bar. She shows the viewer how to make food look high maintenance so you look good. You see, it's all about the host looking good, not the guests feeling comfortable as they munch on Frankenstein food harvested from the color coordinated chemistry lab she calls a kitchen. During a recent holiday show, she took a package of store bought chocolate muffins, cut the tops off, filled them with cherry pie filling, topped each one with fake whipped cream and placed it in crushed aluminum foil with a fruit strip for a bow. It looked unappetizing. It was wasteful. It would have been easier and less expensive to have gone to a bakery and bought something prettier and just left it alone. You can still lie and say you made it. Throw some flour on your face like the lady in that old Rice Crispies Treat commercial.

My favorite disaster is her Kwanza cake, a white woman's patronizing celebration of an African American holiday. Grey icing, big fat, waxy candles, a glop of canned apple pie filling and nuts.

What does she have against Africa?

Her aesthetic is overwrought and over the top. Sandra's wardrobe and her kitchen must always match. If Sandy is talking about a lemon recipe, she'll dress for the part: Yellow top, yellow hair band, yellow window curtains, yellow accents and her yellow Kitchen Aid Artisan mixer will be in view. An Asian dinner? She'll wear a Chinese red silk dress, change the window curtains to red, red Artisan mixer, red, red, red. And it goes on and on depending on her mood. So cute. So fun. So silly. Her "tablescapes" and room decorations must keep Michaels Arts and Crafts in business. She incorporates mind boggling, space cluttering scenery props into her table designs. It would make a television/film property master cry. Funky table clothes, bizarre glasses with dice (for poker night!), baskets and bushels of hay for that fun Autumn hoe down! How much money goes into being like Simple Sandy? You need to rent a storage unit for all the crap she shows you in the name of "party ideas".

How about a Harley Bike Party!

I'm sure there are people who would love this idea. If you love bikes, it could be fun. But, if you can figure out this mess, please let me know.

The photos above and recipes from Barefoot Contessa can be found at Information on broadcast of her show can be found at

To find out broadcast information on Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade - check out I swear, sometimes it's great to watch it for a good laugh. Maybe you can pick up a good point or two...or not.

So I am part of Team Contessa. Sandy, please take your MSG headache inducing recipes and insulin overload drinks and sit in the corner. Somewhere in cooking heaven Julia Child is pushing pins into a Sandra Lee doll.

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