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.
One morning before school, when I was fifteen, Vicky looked me in the eyes and said, "You are going to be so much more than I am when you grow up." It was the only compliment I can ever remember her giving me.
As usual I said nothing, but I couldn't help thinking that I was going to be so much more than she was in ways she couldn't possibly imagine. I wanted to be the opposite of Vicky -- kind, generous, supportive and nurturing, thoughtful and disciplined.
I stared at her in disgust until I could no longer contain myself and said, "You're right. I am going to be more than you."
The words stunned us both.
She flew into an uncontrollable rage and grabbed me. Her punches were landing fast and hard -- I could barely catch my breath. I lay there thinking this had to end or I would die. She beat me until she was done.
I called my boyfriend, Duane, and when he arrived at the house, he took one look at my battered face and said, "Go pack. You are not coming back."
I moved in with Duane's family until I could decide what to do next. I contacted Grandma Lorraine and she told me that Wayne and his girlfriend Patty were moving to Wisconsin and would love to have me live with them.
I left for Wisconsin on June 30, 1982, three days before my sixteenth birthday. After I settled in, I actually had free time on my hands, which I didn't know what to do with. I didn't have to work, didn't have kids to take care of and wasn't responsible for keeping the house in order. I hadn't experienced that type of peace or freedom since I'd lived with Grandma Lorraine.
One of my most vivid memories about Wisconsin was that there was always lots of food around the house. I indulged my every impulse. When you're not used to having food readily available, it becomes an obsession.
A "$100,000 Bar" became my favorite treat. It represented so much more than chocolate to me -- the dollar figure on the candy wrapper represented financial freedom. It meant wealth and having a rich and meaningful life.
The following year I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse. Going to college was like starting over again. I discovered I had a knack for putting together business outlines and marketing plans and decided to pursue a business degree. Sophomore year I was living with five other girls, working two jobs, getting good grades and enjoying every moment of my life, but by December of junior year I had decided I wanted to move back to California to be near my Uncle Bill and Aunt Peggy, who was Vicky's sister. They had tried to adopt Cindy and me when Vicky first left us, and had always been kind and generous.
I moved into a house in Malibu where I rented a room. I decorated it using billowing pink shearing fabric and coat hangers that I bent and twisted to create hooks and loops that I wove fabric around. Everyone who saw my creation loved it, and Uncle Bill encouraged me to sell my window dressing. At the time, I didn't take him seriously.
I started working at an import-export company, and one afternoon my boss asked if I wanted to attend trade shows for him as a way to earn extra money and as a new outlet for his products, which were personal protection devices such as home security systems. Kimmy flew to California to help, and together we worked sixteen-hour days every day for three weeks. Our hard work and perseverance paid off and we made enough money to take space at three other fairs and pay off my student loans. Eventually I was exhibiting and selling product at various home shows and county fairs full time.
At these home shows I loved walking around checking out the beautiful decorating products, and I began to rethink what Uncle Bill had said. What if other people liked my invention as much as he did? I devoted myself to my project and less than one year later Kurtain Kraft -- the name of my new company and product—was on its way to becoming a million-dollar enterprise. It was then followed by Euro Kraft, a do-it-yourself system for creating half-moon canopy beds at home, which previously could only be achieved through a professional home installation.
Starting a business is like climbing Mt. Everest. You either prepare and train for the journey or you fail. There were months of heavy cash flow and months of being completely strapped waiting for customers to pay. I always rolled my profits back into the company so it would continue to grow.
Still, by the end of 1995 Kurtain Kraft was struggling. Swallowing my pride wasn't hard compared to finding the courage to ask people I once had a nice and lucrative relationship with for a leg up when the chips were down. Business is always personal. Success is predicated on the quality of your relationships. Those relationships can break you or build you.
By age 27 I had to start over. I decided to create a total lifestyle company. I diversified the product line, creating everything from crafts to gardening products, floral preserving and flower arranging kits along with a new generation of Kurtain Kraft products. I wanted to design solution-based products that would make women heroes in their home.
I noticed that one group not being served in the marketplace was women who didn't have enough time to whip up tasty meals from scratch. My grandma's hard-learned lessons could serve many who were trying to figure out ways to save time and money while still making every meal special. I decided to refocus my energies by closing down the lifestyle company and writing my first cookbook, which would include easy-to-follow recipes using specific brand-name products combined with fresh ingredients. Every recipe had to taste as if it were made from scratch. In creating the recipes, I strolled the aisles of the local grocery store to educate myself on brand names and the ingredients of each. I made lists of pantry staples as well as the ones that are purchased for simple pleasure. I decided to name my cookbook and approach to cooking Semi-Homemade.
I was so passionate about the idea that I risked my savings and self-published my book. I primarily sold Semi-Homemade Cooking through television shopping channels and small booksellers. It was an instant hit. I then began writing Semi-Homemade Desserts, as a tribute to Grandma Lorraine, who had recently passed away.
During this time Project Angel Food, an organization that helps feed people who are homebound with severe illnesses, approached me. They were trying to put together a special children's initiative to provide meal service for local underprivileged kids. Their timing was perfect because I was looking for a charity to donate a lot of the proceeds to from the sale of Semi-Homemade Desserts. Since it was created in honor of Grandma, it was only fitting that the money generated from the success of my book go toward community services and helping children.
I had found a publisher for Semi-Homemade Cooking and was doing TV appearances when I received a call from the Food Network about having my own show. At first I was hesitant, but then they said I could develop any type of show I desired as long it was based around food, and I realized it was a dream come true. Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee launched in October 2003 as one of the highest-rated new shows in Food Network history.
When I first started doing the show it took all day to get a single episode shot. Today, four years later, I can complete nearly three shows in a day. I taught myself to talk to the camera as if I were speaking to Kimmy or my best friend Colleen. It's more intimate and conversational, and allows me to just be myself. I knew I had so many things I could share, tricks I had learned and tips that could cut any task in half. Although much of my knowledge had been born of a horrible childhood situation, I found a way to use those skills to make life easier and fulfilling for my viewers, who are the real stars, the real heroes of the show.
The only way to move forward is to live an authentic life and be true to who you really are. I was dealt a hand that might have had a very different outcome if I ever allowed myself to feel like a victim. Resilience is key. Learning to stand strong in the face of challenge and adversity is my secret to survival. Picking up and moving forward is the only thing we can do. And making your life matter is the most important thing.
Excerpted with permission from Meredith Books. Copyright 2007.