Chef, author, and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain was a person of many things — a stalwart critic, an incisive storyteller, a creative culinary force, and an adventure-seeker who used his television fame and his platform to raise awareness for political and social justice issues through something as deeply universal as food. As the author of more than a dozen books, Bourdain was also famous for wielding the power of words, for better and for worse — and when it came to “worse,” Bourdain’s weapon of choice was, suffice it to say, downright lethal.
Even after his tragic death by suicide in June 2018, Bourdain’s vicious appraisals of other culinary giants such as Paula Deen, Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay, and myriad others are not just practically iconic — they’re almost as poetic as they are brutal. Among that pantheon of gourmands Bourdain disdained in the most memorable of fashions is none other than Sandra Lee. In fact, Bourdain’s opinion of Lee might be the most indelible out of the entire lot. But why?
It all boils down to a pretty egregious faux pas involving a store-bought angel food cake and corn nuts. (You read that correctly — just trust us and read on.)
Sandra Lee's gastro gaffe invoked Anthony Bourdain's rage
Unlike garlic, Anthony Bourdain wasn’t one to mince words when it came to how he felt about fellow celebrity chef Sandra Lee. In a 2012 roundup of Bourdain’s most scathing remarks compiled by the Observer – which included his hot takes on everything from Paula Deen to the entire Food Network — Bourdain’s extensive commentary on Lee could be summed up in two words: “pure evil.” But he didn’t stop there.
The Parts Unknown star dubbed Lee the “frightening Hell Spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker” and declared that she was “on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time.” In this case, the “meal” — or rather, food item — Bourdain was referring to was Lee’s infamous “Kwanzaa Cake,” which was featured in a 2003 episode of her first Food Network show, Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee. Consisting of all store-bought ingredients, the now-notorious foodie flop included an angel food cake topped with icing, apple pie filling, pumpkin seeds, cinnamon, and corn nuts. Needless to say, that dessert didn’t go over well. The “Kwanzaa Cake” caused a continuous, years-long backlash both in and out of culinary circles. Its virality went far beyond its supposed inedibility, but you don’t have to take our word for it. We’ll let Bourdain do all the talking…
Sandra Lee's cake made Anthony Bourdain 'mad for all humanity'
Criticism of Sandra Lee’s infamous dessert disaster took many forms over the years. Some despised its bizarre supermarket ingredients. Others loathed its purportedly “disgusting” taste, and there was general consensus that a “Kwanzaa Cake” made by a white woman was a cookie-cutter example of offensively inaccurate cultural appropriation. In a 2010 retrospective on the cake published by Salon, Professor Jessica Harris — an academic at Queens College and expert on the study of food from the African diaspora — didn’t sugarcoat her critique: “When you create a recipe to be attributed to someone else’s culinary tradition, that demands a knowledge of the culture…[this is] just an ugly brown cake.” As incisive as Harris’ commentary is, Anthony Bourdain took a more extreme route, and his commentary became the stuff of legend.
In addition to referring to Lee as “pure evil” in a 2009 interview with the now-defunct publication Eat Me Daily, Bourdain used the cake as a launching pad to rip apart his culinary cohort’s general approach to cooking (via AV Club). “Her death-dealing, can-opening ways will cut a swath of destruction through the world if not contained,” Bourdain insisted, before ripping into the cake itself. Describing it as “eye-searing,” he added that “instead of [the clip featuring the “Kwanzaa Cake”] simply being the unintentional hilarious viral video it should be, [it] makes me mad for all humanity.” Oof.
Sandra Lee harbours no ill will toward Anthony Bourdain
Despite invoking Anthony Bourdain’s unmitigated ire over a poorly-thought-out dessert item, it seems that Sandra Lee, to her benefit, took it in stride. In New York Magazine‘s 2011 profile on the “Semi-Homemade” chef, she disclosed her regret over the decision to feature the now-infamous “Kwanzaa Cake” on her former Food Network program. Lee said she found the “racial implications” of the cake to be tone-deaf and offensive in retrospect, adding she “would never want to offend or hurt anyone.” In the same interview, Lee also addressed Bourdain’s continuing criticism of her culinary style and approach, remarking at the time that “it’s just shtick…I can’t even be mad at him.”
After Bourdain tragically completed suicide in June 2018, Lee was one of many to publicly mourn his passing. “Anthony was a larger than life personality with so much talent and even though he could be incredibly critical of others somehow that was part of his charm,” Lee told People magazine. “The food entertainment family is just that, a family, and every member has [their] place and unique personality with a specific place within our family.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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