Celebrity chef Sandra Lee went from being raised on food stamps to starring in her own TV show, Semi-Homemade Cooking, on the Food Network. Her powerful new memoir chronicles that journey.
Lee's book, "Made From Scratch," will be in stores in November. Read an excerpt below.
I was two years old when my mother, Vicky, dropped my younger sister Cindy and me off at Grandma Lorraine's house in Santa Monica, California, one beautiful sunny afternoon in 1968, promising to return shortly. We didn't see her again for several years.
Grandma Lorraine was the mother of my birth father, Wayne. Vicky and Wayne were typical high school sweethearts. They filed for divorce about two years after they said, "I do," somewhere around Cindy's first birthday. I started calling Grandma Lorraine "Mommy," and Vicky became a distant memory.
Grandma Lorraine loved being in the kitchen. Some of my fondest memories are of baking with her. Grandma's vanilla cake with butter cream frosting was my favorite. She also knew how to stretch a dollar better than anyone, mostly because she had to. She taught me to save money at an early age, opening my very own savings account when I was four. I could barely spell my own name, but filling in the dollar amount on the deposit slips was easy for me. These were important lessons that would come in very handy a few years later.
Grandma Lorraine reminded us what a gift life is and how important it was to embrace the joy in each and every day. She'd talk about all of the possibilities that tomorrow could bring.
Not long after my sixth birthday, Vicky came back into our lives. She arrived with her new husband, Richard. Vicky and Richard tried to explain that they were our mom and dad, but I wondered why these strangers wanted to take us away. Slowly I adjusted to my new life in Marina del Rey. It was a short distance from Grandma Lorraine, but Vicky and Richard stopped allowing us to see her. Soon after my sister Kimmy was born. She was the most beautiful baby, and the first child Vicky and Richard had together. It was the happiest time we shared, but then Richard was transferred to Washington State for his job as a computer programmer, and everything changed. Vicky's mood was becoming unpredictable and more volatile.
Three years later Richard left Vicky, and at age 11 I became mom, sister, caretaker and homemaker of our family. There were six of us in the house -- Richie and Johnny were born after we moved to Washington State -- but I was the one looking after everyone. Vicky spent her days lying on the couch, taking pills and screaming at us. When the welfare check arrived, I'd bike to the bank to deposit it. Then I paid our bills to ensure our gas and electricity weren't shut off. Next I'd use the food stamps to stock the kitchen as best I could. I was so glad Grandma had taught me how to cook and be frugal, because there was no other way for us to make it through.
There were many scary moments when life felt completely out of control. Like the time Johnny was three and wandered onto a two-lane highway. One of our neighbors found him on the side of the road. Or when Richie lifted the heat vent from the floor leaving a hole that he fell into. The vent's metal side was so sharp that it slit open the inside of his calf and he needed several stitches. I daydreamed of being a normal kid, but that wasn't the reality I lived in.