“When I Don’t Feel Like Cooking, I Remember Canned Tuna” reads the headline of recent Bon Appetit op-ed by Carla Lalli Music. It’s one of many pieces from food media that grapples with cooking with pantry staples and canned goods instead of unlimited ingredients. Some are excited over the challenge, others are more resigned, but either way, it’s treated as new and novel. Music joked her pantry of canned goods was the result of panic shopping in the early days of the pandemic, not her everyday choices, and soothed readers by assuring that using canned tuna “is not a surrender.”
Perspectives like these are certainly useful! Millions of people who are used to fresh meat and vegetables suddenly find themselves with pantries of goods they’re unfamiliar cooking with. But for millions more, cooking with canned, frozen, and processed foods is not new, not novel, not a fun experiment but just what cooking looks like.
Sandra Lee never forgot canned tuna, and her show, Semi-Homemade Cooking, might be the perfect way to cook through quarantine.
My college years coincided with the Food Network boom, and my friends and I worshiped at the counters of Alton Brown and Giada DeLaurentiis. In every other Food Network show, everything, even the black pepper, had to be fresh. But Semi-Homemade Cooking was always a joke. Anyone who’s seen Lee’s Kwanzaa Cake knows that sometimes she’s perfectly deserving of ridicule, but we buttressed her true mishaps with derision at the entire concept. This wasn’t cooking, we harped, and we had Anthony Bourdain on our side, who in 2007 said, “her death-dealing can-opening ways will cut a swath of destruction through the world if not contained.” As students subsisting on Easy Mac and SlimFast, her world was one we were trying to escape. How dare, we thought, she reflect our reality back at us?
Sandra Lee was raised on welfare. A profile in Westchester Magazine (back when she was dating Austerity Master/New York governor Andrew Cuomo) notes she, as the oldest of five siblings, was often responsible for feeding everyone with food stamps, and in her memoir she writes “we made simple bargain cuisine, not because we wanted to, but because we had to.” Her show grew out of the tricks she learned as a child — how to stretch a pound of ground beef, how to make a can of corn exciting. And Semi-Homemade became such a mainstay because it promised you didn’t need bunches of swiss chard and fresh prosciutto to make something good.
In Semi-Homemade, she shows us how to make beef stew with frozen vegetables and powdered flavor packets, how to jazz up boxed cake mix, or how to make a “fresh herb” pasta salad with jarred peppers and salad dressing. She has thickened soup with pureed baby food, and never once suggested you make your own mayonnaise. Now, she’s back with her “Top Shelf” series, where from her home kitchen, she guides home cooks in quarantine through casseroles with leftover ham and sweet bread with canned fruit. Yes, her persona is often bonkers, but you get the sense she’d roll her eyes if she heard someone refer to “tinned” sardines, and that she’d never turn down a Zoom happy hour.
Lee’s ethos dovetails with what The Goods’s Meredith Haggerty calles “novel frugality,” an embrace of certain cost-cutting and supply-stretching moves that plenty of people just call normal, even outside of quarantine. It’s the kind of thrift where you grow scallions and herbs on your windowsill and use every scrap for stock, and the kind where canned goods are, well, good. The “semi-homemade” spirit can be seen everywhere there’s someone who, maybe for the first time, realizes dinner comes every night, and while cooking an elaborate meal once a week is fun and makes for certain cultural signals, cooking daily is literally a chore. When we come up with 100 ways to use frozen potatoes and dollar ramen packets, that’s semi-homemade. When we save packets of duck sauce to make a glaze, put new cucumbers into used pickle brine, or use those fresh windowsill scallions to garnish chili made of canned beans and tomatoes, Sandra Lee is shining her blessings on us.
No one knows how long novel frugality will last. Maybe in a year those who adopted it will go back to tossing out leftovers, or maybe everyone will be launched into a permanent scarcity mindset. But it’s good to know how much can be achieved with a can of tuna. Even when this passes, it’s good to remember how to make something semi-homemade.