Mocha Moms on Cooking with Style, Halloween

This week's Mocha Moms, are joined by Food Network star chef Sandra Lee to talk about cooking with style. Lee's new memoir, Made from Scratch, chronicles her journey from an abusive childhood to the national spotlight for her talents.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

If you're a fan of the Food Network - as I confess I am - and if you're pressed for time - and who isn't - you probably know about Sandra Lee. She is the host of the Food Network program called "Semi-Homemade Cooking." The premise: You take your canned or frozen goods, spice them up with fresh ingredients, and viola, quick and healthy family meals.

But there's another side to Sandra Lee, which she lays out in a new memoir of her life called "Made from Scratch." It offers up a shockingly different side of her perky-can-do persona, an upbringing marked by abandonment, abuse and a hard-scramble fight to become the success story she is today.

We'd like to bring Sandra Lee together with our Mocha Moms, the mother support group we hear from every week. The Moms are here with us in the studio, Mocha Moms Cheli English-Figaro, Divina McFarland and Jolene Ivey, along with author and television host Sandra Lee.

Welcome to you all.

Ms. CHELI ENGLISH-FIGARO (Co-Founder; President Emerita, Mocha Moms): Hey, Michel.

Ms. DIVINA McFARLAND (Member, Mocha Moms): Hello.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Co-Founder; President, Mocha Moms): Hello.

Ms. SANDRA LEE (Host, "Semi-Homemade Cooking"; Author, "Made from Scratch"): Hello.

MARTIN: Sandra Lee, you've got something - what is it, like, 10, 12 books in the "Semi-Homemade" series now? How many is it now?

Ms. LEE: I have 13…

MARTIN: Thirteen.

Ms. LEE: …cookbooks in the "Semi-Homemade" series. I have almost five years under my belt at the Food Network. And it's really been incredible, but I have to tell you that the Semi-Homemade philosophy really started when I was much younger.

It started when I was probably about 9, 10, 11. My mother, I say she became very ill, but it was mental illness. And she did a lot of prescription drugs, and that kind of put her out, literally, either in bed or on the sofa for most of every day.

So I had to do a lot of the cooking, a lot of the cleaning and a lot of taking care of my four brothers and sisters, who were all younger. And it was a really taxing time. And what you realize and what I know painfully well is how overstressed and underserved the everyday homemaker is, whether she works inside the home or inside and outside the home. It's a full-time gig, just the home part.

MARTIN: Some kids having had that much responsibility early on would run from anything domestic, you know, the cooking, the home decorating, any of that stuff. I just wondered if you ever had those feelings, like, I don't want anything to do with this family business.

Ms. LEE: No, my brothers and sisters and I are very, very close. We talk to each other every day - every day, even though three live in Seattle, one lives in Arizona, and I live in New York. I think that it could certainly go that way, and I think you have to be very, very solid in yourself and thoughtful about what is the type of life that you want, because if you go that other way, you're going to wind up very alone.

MARTIN: Any advice for other kids who may be going through what you went through? And I also wanted to hear from the other moms on this, if I may. Many of you may know kids who are in this situation. I know, Jolene, we've talked about sometimes seeing kids in your community who you feel are taking on too much responsibility at too young of an age and not always knowing how to help, how to intervene.

So I wanted to ask, Sandra, if you have any advice, if there should be a young person listening to you now, who is experiencing your experienced, a parent who is an addict who sometimes behaved inappropriately towards you, beat you. You know, I don't want to be melodramatic about it, but it's all there in the memoir.

Ms. LEE: Well, one of the things that I think you always have to stay focused on is what even though it looks like you're not getting something - for instance, I didn't get a lot of direction. I didn't get a lot of guidance. I didn't get anybody telling me I couldn't, which turned out to be such a blessing because I didn't know I couldn't, so I just did everything. In your life, you're responsible for your life. And right now, if you're just a kid, you're just a kid. Wait till you grow up. It's all about you when you grow up, and you get to make the decisions on how you move forward. And when those forks come in the road, you don't want to perpetuate bad behavior that you may have saw in family members.

You choose to be the person you want to be. And I don't believe in disrespecting your parents and I don't believe in talking back and I don't believe in hitting back or any of those things. So you have to decide the person you want to be, and you have to live that person.

MARTIN: Any thoughts from the other moms about this? Divina?

Ms. McFARLAND: Well, the truth is, you know, you can do exactly what was done to you or you can do something different. If you don't feel like the way you were raised was great, then you have a choice. But don't ever ignore the fact that the way you were raised does shape you. It does shape the choices that you make, and you should think about what you're doing and not just kind of go through life willy-nilly.

MARTIN: Hmm, I see your point. You're saying you need to make conscious choices about - if you're raised in a situation where you realize that this is not what you want. Any other thoughts? Anybody? Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: I would say that if you're a kid in the middle of a crisis like this, look around you to what other adult might be around that you can reach out to and share your experiences with. Maybe they can help you.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: School counselors, people like that.

Ms. IVEY: Neighbors.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Teachers.

Ms. IVEY: Relatives.

MARTIN: I think, Sandra, your story is inspiring, because one of the things you point out is that, first of all, I think sometimes people have stereotypes about who is experiencing this kind of behavior.

Ms. LEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I think one of the things you do is defy the stereotypes, that this could be going on in lots of households where people may look on the outside to be all fine and dandy. But I have to tell you, Sandra, that having bought a couple of your books before and having used them, I never knew until I read the memoir why it is that you've got family recipes in the back. I always wondered if you have - I never really even noticed it before that you have grandma's recipes and you've got sister recipes and you've got best friend recipes, but you don't have any mom recipes. And it wasn't it until I read the memoir that I understood, you know, the painful backstory that led you to this point.

Ms. LEE: And I've really been on both sides of the gamut when it comes to not having money or having money. My mother was so sick, we had to go down and sign up for welfare. So we went down, we got on food stamps, which was very traumatic. And in using those, you figure out what you can and cannot buy.

So at the beginning of the month, we would have great fried chicken meals, you know, pork chops, normal food. By, you know, the last 10 days of month it was literally what can you make out of corn meal. So you really learned how to manage not only that budget, but all those foods. And then what is in that grocery store that can work for you? I got enough work to do. Can somebody please help me? The grocery store is full of things that are already done for you to buy you back time, and that's why "Semi-Homemade" has been so successful and is so important.

MARTIN: It's interesting to see just how you turn that lemon into lemonade. You know, having to cook at such a young age and having to take responsibility at such a young age, and you turned it into a business, saying, you know, showing other folks who haven't gone through those trials how to cope. So I think all of the moms here congratulate you on what you've been able to accomplish, and we thank you for it.

Ms. IVEY: Absolutely.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Absolutely.

Ms. McFARLAND: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Jolene, I wanted to ask you - obviously, you know, this isn't your story, but you got a big family. How do you get that dinner on the table? I mean, and you're one of these like bake-bread-from-scratch-every-week people, which is we kind of really don't like her that much, but we let her be here because, you know - but…

Ms. IVEY: Well, you should like me more now than my old self where I really did bake, like, every Tuesday I baked bread. I mean, there's no way I would have used Sandra's books before, because I had the time and it was really important to me to cook everything from scratch, and I did it. You know, I even put up jam in the summer and, you know, apple butter in the fall. Ha, ha, ha. When's the last time I've done that?

Last week, I actually baked chocolate chip cookies from scratch, and it was a several-day process because I really didn't have time to do it, but I was really determined to do it. And everybody was stunned. It's been like two years since I've baked cookies, and I, you know, packaged them up and mailed them to my oldest son who's off at college.

MARTIN: Where are ours? I'm looking around. Where are my cookies?

Ms. IVEY: You know, that I mailed them all to Alex.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. IVEY: But these days, just the idea of this book is fabulous.

MARTIN: What are some of the other tricks that the moms use to get dinner on the table? Divina?

Ms. McFARLAND: Oh, gosh.

MARTIN: Since - I'm going to you because I understand you had to tell Cheli how to turn her oven on, so we'll go to Cheli last.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Ha, ha. Ha, ha.

Ms. McFARLAND: True. But it is true. You know, I use the Ragu or whatever's on sale but, you know, my kids love chicken Alfredo or shrimp Alfredo, and they think I've did - done something really fabulous when I open that jar and put some shrimp in there and some pasta and they're like, whew, this is great.

So, you know, all kinds of tricks like that. And, you know, I love Sandra's show. I watch it often, and I actually have tried some of the things like, you know, when you see the people with the TV on while they're cooking - I've done that, actually. So I am a full-time stay-at-home mom. You know, Cheli and Jolene are lucky. They get to do other things, but I am all the time at home, so…

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: You are lucky.

Ms. McFARLAND: …boo-hoo for me, I know. Thank you for the tears, I appreciate it. But being full time at home, it's hard to find time to take people to soccer practice or to lacrosse or ballet or ice skating and cook dinner. That is something that is very important. And you want to make sure you give your kids a decent meal. You don't want to go to McDonald's or Taco Bell or whatever is on the way, wherever you're going. You want to actually feed them something nutritious.

MARTIN: Do you feel more pressure in a way being full-time, stay-at-home to put that fresh-from-scratch meal on the table?

Ms. McFARLAND: I used to.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: Cheli, what do you want to say?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I mean, absolutely. I mean, she said that she had to teach me how to cut on my oven. I actually knew how to cut on my oven and my stoves. Thank you very much.

Ms. McFARLAND: She just didn't know how to cut it off, but that's okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I mean, I love Sandra, because she made box cooking respectable. And I was an at-home mom, you know, and I felt bad because everyone around me, like Jolene was baking from scratch, and I just didn't want to use my time like that. It's okay if you wanted to, but I didn't want to, and I felt a pressure because I was a, quote/unquote, "stay-at-home mom," I should be doing that. And so I was a fan of Sandra long before there was a Sandra, okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Because I was using those boxed brownies and the boxed cake mixes and all that stuff all the time, and I made a really good cake with that.

Ms. LEE: Well, you have to be careful, though, because a lot of those pre-package mixes have a lot of sodium in (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Okay. We're going to talk about that. If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Mocha Moms and special guest mom, Sandra Lee, host of the Food Network's "Semi-Homemade." And she's also talking about her new memoir, "Made from Scratch."

Jolene, you raised a point that I think we want to get to, Sandra, which is that one of the reasons I think people hesitate to use these prepared products is there's a concern if that there's too much…

Ms. IVEY: Sodium.

MARTIN: …sodium, perhaps too much sugar, and for…

Ms. IVEY: Too much fat…

Ms. LEE: Trans-fat…

MARTIN: …and before everybody got excited about trans-fats and became more aware that there's trans-fat, so I'd love to hear from you on this. How do you make sure that you're not, you know, overdosing your family with sodium and -what else?

Ms. IVEY: Trans-fat and sugar…

MARTIN: And sugar…

Ms. IVEY: …all kinds of bad things, chemicals…

MARTIN: …that, yeah.

Ms. LEE: And "Made from Scratch," which is a memoir, when I talk about my life and just growing up and trying to get it done for those four kids and myself and managed that household and being overwhelmed, you're not thinking like that. You're not thinking, oh my gosh, there's too much fat. There's too much salt. There's too much of this or too much of that. You're too overwhelmed.

As I got older and my nieces and nephews started coming, my sisters and I have gotten very aware of organics and about what we're buying at the grocery store. You should read labels, investigate what's on the shelf. There are a lot of different products available in the grocery store that are very, very thoughtful.

"Semi-Homemade" does focus on those things in certain sections. It's not the way people live 24/7 or Middle America lives 24/7. In every single one of my cookbooks, there are whole sections in the front of the book before this - the chapters even start to talk to you about how to stock your pantry, how to be smart in the grocery store, what to purchase…

MARTIN: Good.

Ms. LEE: …what not to purchase. So I'm thoughtful about the aisle. And by the way, your grocery store is laid out the exact same way that the Semi-Homemade philosophy is: 70 percent store bought, ready made, 30 percent fresh ingredients creates 100 percent scratch-like flavor, gourmet presentation. I…

MARTIN: I want to switch gears just a minute, ladies, in the couple of minutes that we have left and I wanted to raise the whole question of Halloween. Halloween is tomorrow. And I know that it's become, in some places, parents are becoming more reluctant to let their kids celebrate Halloween for, I guess, a whole bunch of reasons. So I wanted to ask the moms, I mean, some of it's religious and some of it maybe some others. I wanted to ask the moms, are you going to let your kids celebrate Halloween? How do you celebrate Halloween?

Ms. IVEY: We love Halloween. It is so much fun. My husband and I fight about whose turn is it to take the kids out. So please, I hope he's not listening, because I know I took them out last year, but I'm planning on taking him out again tomorrow.

MARTIN: So the other person has to stay home and hand out candies…

Ms. IVEY: And hand out candy.

MARTIN: What do you like about it?

Ms. IVEY: It's just fun. It's fun getting dressed up. I don't get dressed up, I'm not good like Divina, but, you know, I - the kids love to do it. And I don't know, it's just fun walking around seeing all your neighbors, saying hi to people. There are certain houses where you know they're going to do a big production and it's a big deal to go them. It's just fun.

MARTIN: Okay, Cheli. What about you?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Well, I love Halloween. I love being - I love it. I'm just like Jolene. I used to homeschool, though. And in my years of homeschooling, a lot of the moms were Christian, and heavily Christian I would call it, and so it was really not P.C. to talk about Halloween. The fact that I trick or treated with my children, I had to keep it a secret because I didn't want to be banned. And they were very serious about the Halloween celebrating the devil. And I didn't agree with that, but I also knew that I had to deal with these ladies on a regular basis and I wanted my kids to still be friends with them. So we trick or treated in the neighborhood, and we had a blast.

MARTIN: You don't trick or treat anymore?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Of course, I do.

MARTIN: I was going to say…

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Yeah.

MARTIN: I was going to say…

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Yeah. And my 14-year-old loved it.

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah, get those popcorn balls together out there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Divina, what about you?

Ms. McFARLAND: Well, my children and I celebrate Halloween. We trick or treat. We decorate our house. We do the whole bit. We love to visit the, what my kids call the Spooky House on the corner. There's a retired family who lives there, and they love to do it up and they do something crazy every year.

One year, there was a person in a gorilla costume on the porch, and, of course, the gorilla was very still, so we didn't realize it wasn't a stuffed gorilla until it started talking to us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McFARLAND: So if you wanted to see some people running around the yard screaming, we…

Ms. IVEY: That's fun.

Ms. McFARLAND: But it was a lot of fun. I mean, we always had a lot of fun. I do, though - I understand some people's religious reservation in celebrating Halloween because, you know, whatever they think it may be celebrating, the devil or whatever, I don't agree. I'll tell you, I was raised by a good bit of the time by my grandmother, who is the person I would say is the most Christian religious person upstanding who used to wear a mask that kind of look like Freddie Krueger on Halloween.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McFARLAND: So I'm going to say if she could do it, I think we're safe. We're okay.

MARTIN: We're okay. We're okay. Well, we - we're big into Halloween, I have to tell you. I do have friends who don't celebrate it and - but we kind of have a don't ask, don't tell policy in our friendship. We each agree to not proselytize the other. I think that's a good way to handle it.

So Sandra, so close this out. Tell us, give us some "Semi-Homemade" tips for celebrating Halloween.

Ms. LEE: Well, I think the first tip is that the parents have as much fun as the kids, because the kids will absorb all that energy, and they're going to know when you're having a good time. And it's about you as much as it is about them and sharing something with them. So if you have to come home from work and have a, you know, a golden margarita before you go out, then do that. And…

Ms. McFARLAND: I love Sandra.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We really seriously have to hang out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEE: But come - you know, come home early if you're out work. If you're not at work, stop your day at three. Get dressed up even if that means putting on that eyeliner a lit bit thicker and, you know, wearing a black dress out and get a little witch hat from the Carlton store, you know, the Hallmark or whatever. Get a little witch hat, just have fun.

But with the kids, make them something special when they come home. Do little like mummy pizzas or something like that that's easy. Eyeball cupcakes - you can buy store-bought cupcakes and put a little, you know, wiggly eyeball in them if you don't have time to make them. I mean, it's really about enjoying yourself in the moment and not stressing out about getting it all done, having it all perfect and making it from scratch. It's supposed to be enjoyable for everyone.

MARTIN: And scoring as much candy as your little fists can hold. Our Mocha Moms Jolene Ivey, Divina McFarland and Cheli English-Figaro joined us from our studios here in Washington, as usual. Our guest mom, Sandra Lee, is the host of "Semi-Homemade Cooking" on the Food Network and author of the new memoir, "Made from Scratch." It'll be released in major bookstores in early November. She joined us from our bureau in New York.

You can find links to the Mocha Moms and Sandra Lee at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

Ladies, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. IVEY: Thank you.

Ms. McFARLAND: Thank you.

Ms. LEE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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