Sandra Lee, 42, has become a household name by teaching viewers of her hit Food Network show and readers of her nearly 20 cookbooks how to create "Semi-Homemade" masterpieces in very little time and with more store-bought than homemade ingredients. She considers her paternal grandmother, Grandma Lorraine, the force behind her empire and her love of cooking.
"When I was 2, my mother dropped my younger sister, Cindy, and me off at my grandmother's to be babysat...and didn't come back. It wasn't until I was 6 or 7 that I realized Grandma Lorraine was not my mother. Since my father was her only child, it was great fun for her to have two little girls around.
"During the holidays Grandma Lorraine decorated every nook and cranny of the house. She was on a tight budget and very careful with money, so she often used food to decorate. For instance, she would create centerpieces consisting of a bundt cake with a bouquet in the middle. Using food is a great way to make something more beautiful without being wasteful. When she was home she probably spent 50 percent of her time in the kitchen. So we did, too. She'd put us up on a stool and let us mix and pour -- even though it would have been faster for her to do everything herself. I felt like a little sous-chef.
"She made a lot of cakes and the Wilton cake-decorating books were always around. As a little girl I loved leafing through those cookbooks, which were filled with page after page of ornately styled cakes. For our birthdays Grandma Lorraine would take an aluminum pie pan, flip it over, put a one-layer cake on it and decorate. To us, that pie pan was a beautiful, fancy pedestal. My grandmother was the original Semi-Homemaker! I still have a photo album of her baked goods. One picture shows a princess cake with a doll sticking out of it -- that was the hot cake the year Wilton came out with it. Other photos are of the big Santa Claus that she made for the holidays and a Yule log with iced red-and-white poinsettias. There's even a picture in the book of a cake shaped like a woman wearing a bustier. I saw that after Grandma passed away and thought, Oh my goodness, my grandma decorated a bustier!
"I remember coming into the kitchen once when she was preparing a wedding cake for someone in her church. She never shooed me out, but I could tell it was really important to her. I watched her load this beautiful creation into the back of a car -- she was very worried that someone was going to bump into her icing and ruin her work of art.
"Even after we moved out of Grandma's house, she made every visit special, from waking me up by stroking my hair to having fresh sliced peaches waiting in the kitchen. I wanted to crawl into my grandma's skin -- she was it for me. Anything she did, I wanted to do. That's undoubtedly why I have such a passion for food."
-- As told to Lisa Gerry
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2008.