Sandra Lee didn’t invent convenience cuisine, despite all evidence to the contrary:
Her appearances on NBC’s "Today" show and Fox’s "Good Day L.A." The glowing stories about her in Newsweek and Parade magazines.
The sizzling success of her cookbook, "Semi-Homemade Cooking — Quick Marvelous Meals and Nothing is Made from Scratch."
No, she didn’t invent convenience cuisine, also known as speed-scratch cooking, but with her classy blond good looks, down-home techniques and savvy marketing skills, she’s become the high-profile ambassador for it.
"Speed-scratch cooking has been done all along," says Jim Eber of Workman Publishing Co., publisher of several speed-scratch cookbooks. "This may be the first time that there has been such a strong link with a personality."
Speed-scratch cooking uses storebought convenience products, like jarred pasta sauce, coupled with a few of the cook’s own touches to doll up a dish. Anne Byrn used the concept in her 1999 cookbook, "The Cake Mix Doctor," dressing up basic cake mixes to create more elaborate sounding — and looking — desserts.
But timing is everything. Lee, who established herself in the home-decorating business in 1992 with a line of home, garden and kitchen products, came out with her cookbook last year as that maven of perfection, Martha Stewart, was battling accusations of insider trading.
"Just when Martha Stewart’s pedestal is shaking, Sandra Lee has bounced onto the culinary scene," says Bonnie Tandy Leblang, who tests new grocery products for her syndicated column, Supermarket Shopper. "She is the Martha Stewart for the masses."
Almost overnight, Lee went from being a culinary unknown to a celebrity chef. Her book raced to the top of the Los Angeles Times’ best-selling cookbook list when it came out, and it’s still No. 9 and holding strong.
But her success has more to do with modern lifestyles than any "we hate Martha" movement. According to research from ACNielsen, half of all heads of U.S. households say they are too weary to put much time or effort into preparing an evening meal. For those aged 18 to 44, the fatigue factor is even higher: 60 percent say they’re so busy and in such a hurry during the day that fixing dinner had better be a no-brainer.
Lee’s prescription for them: Her 70 percent/30 percent solution.
"You purchase 70 percent of ready-made products, add 30 percent of your own ingenuity, personality and inspiration, and then take 100 percent of the credit! That’s what my Semi- Homemade lifestyle brand is all about," she says.
She came up with the concept while while attending culinary school at the Cordon Bleu in Canada about five years ago.
"After spending a week stripping tendons from veal chops, I decided I’m too busy for this and I think others are, too. Why not find other ways to make flavorful food in half the time?"
But speed isn’t the only appeal of her cookbook. It’s beautifully produced, with eye-appealing photos of every recipe that make a statement: Quickto-fix foods can look like they took all day to make.
"Her cookbook has made convenience cooking more sophisticated," says Jane Kirby, food editor of Real Simple magazine. "This type of cookbook used to be spiral bound, community-style looking books. It has the upscale look of a Martha Stewart cookbook with the simplified recipes. It gives permission to use convenience foods and be proud of it."
Call it what you may — halfhomemade or semi-scratch or convenience cuisine or dinner doctoring. Bottom line is, home cooking is not what it used to be.
And that’s a good thing.