*Before Duncan Hines came along with their controversial “Hip Hop Cupcakes,” Sandra Lee introduced her “Kwanzaa Cake” several years ago on her Food Network show “Semi Homemade” — a recipe one critic called “an edible hate crime.”
Denise Vivaldo, the woman who actually came up with the recipe for Sandra Lee’s now-infamous Kwanzaa concoction – an angel food cake with chocolate and cinnamon flavored vanilla icing, corn nuts, popcorn, pumpkin seeds and apple pie filling – has come forward to explain how she could make a cake that tasted so incredibly bad. Another reviewer at the time mentioned taking the cake to a party only to have her guests gag and spit it out.
Food critic Anthony Bourdain said of Sandra Lee at the time: “The most terrifying thing I’ve seen is her making a Kwanzaa cake. Watch that clip and tell me your eyeballs don’t burst into flames. It’s a war crime on television. You’ll scream.”
Vivaldo also made a Star of David cake for Chanukah that brought so many complaints that Food Network took the recipe off the episode guide. The recipe called for an angel food cake filed with marshmallows – which are not Kosher. They contain gelatin and most readily available marshmallows are made with pork gelatin. [See this cake sitting in the foreground of the Kwanzaa cake video below.]
Vivaldo, whose title is “Seasoned Food Professional,” wrote a rather long piece on The Huffington Post to explain how she came to create the recipes for both The Kwanzaa Cake and the Star of David Cake. Here’s a hint: she had bills to pay.
Below, Vivaldo’s column in its entirety:
The Making of the Infamous Kwanzaa Cake
Okay, I’m only going to say this once and then I’m leaving the country. Seriously, by the time this post is up, I’ll be in Thailand. I think it’s better for everybody.
Here’s the truth. I wrote and sold the recipe for the Kwanzaa cake to Sandra Lee and, while I’m confessing my soul, yes, for Christ’s sake, the Chanukah cake, too. There, I said it.
Forgive me Father.
I can honestly say Ms. Lee had nothing against African Americans or Jews. She just has incredibly bad food taste. She was not discriminating about who would be harmed from her culinary “creations.” Think what your taste would be like if you came from carnival or circus people. Did I just offend Paris Hilton?
When the Angel Food Cake Collection came to life, Ms. Lee was converting to Judaism herself for her new husband and she seriously wanted to bring her new “cuisine” to an entire nation. Well, let’s put it this way, she wanted to sell a shitload of books. And she did. She wanted fame and money. And she succeeded. I believe that’s often thought of as the American dream by many, isn’t it? Note to all American Dreamers: This may be a good time to take a look inward.
I think I hear the audible gasps. I’m wondering how long before the angry mob will be gathering on my front yard. Crap, will they bring torches? Will my neighbors call the fire department?
In my defense, I must start at the beginning. I’ve been developing recipes for cookbook authors and food companies for over twenty years. At least twenty of the fifty cookbooks I’ve ghostwritten or contributed to have ended up on the New York Times Best-Seller List. Many celebrities or TV chefs hire me because they are too busy to write their own recipes. This is not unusual.
In some cases, the “talent”, as they are known in the business, have no talent. They do not know how to write a recipe or even cook, for that matter. Therefore, as a trained chef, food stylist and recipe writer, I come in handy.
I sell recipes from $100-$400 dollars apiece plus the cost of groceries. I love it. Not only is it fun, creative and challenging, I get to study all kinds of food. Most projects are just plain terrific. I’m humbled by the amazing people I’ve gotten to write and work for.
But (isn’t there always a but?)…wait for it…wait for it.
One night in my office, at least 10 years ago, my phone rang. I answered it. If only I had noticed that my dogs started to howl and blood mysteriously started seeping from the walls. Alas, I did not. So excited to close the sale, I made an appointment with a personal assistant to meet “the next Martha Stewart, only bigger.” I was happy to think about this latest project that would help feed my assistants.
It turned out that the premise of this cookbook would be “delicious desserts with nothing made from scratch.” This book would be the second in a series. The first book was almost done, but apparently the writer, food stylist and recipe tester from that first book had all gone sailing in the Bermuda Triangle to celebrate and had disappeared. The books were being self-published by Ms. Lee, unless she could find a publisher, ASAP. She really, really wanted a publishing partner.
I ‘m not sure if it was because my head was spinning 360 degrees and my retinas had become burned by some horrible smoke that seemed to fill the room whenever she moved, but I wasn’t grasping the concept. “No fresh food. Just canned food. Nothing fresh, do you understand me? All food out of cans or boxes, so it’s easy for the homemaker …and write the brand name of the cans or boxes right in the recipe.”
I assumed it was the ten years of smoking dope in my formative years that was making me stupid. Then I thought, okay, this is another slant on The Cake Mix Doctor, by Anne Byrn. A book that had been wildly successful. I can do this.
Before you say a word, let me say one more thing in my defense.
I have people that depend on me for their livelihood. Assistants, designers, photographers, and especially my American Express Platinum card. I sign the checks, so I have to bring in the money. To make my small business work, I took the job. First time I ever signed a contract. Of all the truly big stars and real celebrities I’ve worked with, it was always just a handshake and my reputation for getting the job done that created the deal. To put it simply, I deliver what I say I will.
Ms. Lee insisted on a contract. Her attorney at the time also sold Mexican art.
Please, I can’t make this shit up.
Fuck me; of course I should have seen the writing on the wall.
Thirteen months past and after exactly 151 recipes, I tried to fake my death.
Ms. Lee called and though we were done with the book, she needed at least ten extra angel food cakes for “fun” sugary holiday times to sell to a magazine. Just a reader’s note, it wasn’t Gourmet, but the magazine I designed those “adorable cakes” for is still in business.
Read it and weep.
Please ask yourself, what would you have done in my place? See how that Kwanzaa cake is looking better from my perspective? I will tell you truly, the candles were her idea.
I guess I imagined something more refined. And I know the Corn Nuts were disgusting, but she didn’t. As a matter of fact, the more tasteless the recipes got the more she liked them, the faster she approved them, and I could get home and drink some medium-priced wine after our meetings. She’s not a good role model for abstinence.
The last words I’ll speak, before I board my plane and go to a land where nobody knows Sandra Lee, is that I had to fill the cavity of the Chanukah cake with marshmallows so it wouldn’t collapse under all that frosting, and so that much-discussed pearl Star of David “crown” wouldn’t topple. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I’ve never watched any of the videos on YouTube. My priest says, “Never call the devil.”
And to think, Anthony Bourdain was afraid of her. Crap, he was never even close.