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June 30, 2005

Annette on Martha

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Annette left a comment on a posting I wrote earlier about Eatin' and Cookin' that I can't resist copying and pasting into its own posting. It's mainly a lovely appreciation of Martha Stewart. But Annette raises a number of other, more general questions I find hyper-interesting too.

Here's Annette:

I know, I know...Martha Stewart is a "joke" in some circles, and may in truth be a difficult woman in private. BUT...Stewart belies some of this---everybody can access cooking as an art but not others. If one ignores the publicity and personality, and JUST looks at the actual suggestions her TV show made---she really did teach how to plant flowers in big planters for your patio, and how to set a table, and how to arrange pear trees, in a very comprehensible fashion with an outcome it was hard to argue with.

Her homes are beautiful, her tables are beautifully and warmly set. One man who knew her back in the late seventies when she was actually running her own catering business and doing her own cooking, and using her own recipes, said "Martha really did have the best recipe for apple pie. She really did make the best chicken salad sandwich you have ever tasted."

See--there is substance there, not just hype.

And I would argue she could make a TV show about painting or architecture that is more accessible. Not perfectly accessible---nobody ever argued that to live like Martha you don't have to be well-financed. But everybody can take some suggestions from her, and you don't have to a sultan. Her K-Mart housewares line has some of the very best (and prettiest) copper cookware I've ever seen, and at reasonable prices.

And part of that is she actually knows---how long does the handle on a frying pan really need to be, how heavy can it be before it doesn't work for you? What is the best size and heat conducting material for a saucepan?

For all the ego---Martha really is an artist, too. (Nobody ever said Picasso was a modest guy).

Maybe I'm not addressing your point, but I wanted to clarify---the thing Martha forgot, is that sometimes laughter makes food taste better, sometimes graciousness includes politeness and non-judgementalness, too. Sometimes, it's great to slather some mustard on a hotdog and just have it be good enough.

What's the relationship between art and quality-of-life issues? Art is often presented and discussed as though it has only to do with heightened moments of intense transcendence -- with being swept away into some other dimension entirely, one that's conceived of as superior to day-to-day life.

We've probably all had a few such experiences and -- goll-ee -- aren't they something? Still: that's asking a lot, no? What do we make of the 99% of life when intense-transcendence isn't occurring, let alone the 99% of art that doesn't visit such experiences on us? Also: Well, sheesh, these experiences are kinda subjective, aren't they? You may "transcend" while at a Black Sabbath concert, while your buddy may "transcend" while reading Walt Whitman. And -- fun as it can be to rhapsodize about them -- these transcendent moments are hard to discuss, let alone learn something from.

By contrast, quality-of-life questions are often discussable. They concern matters that are semi-objective, or at least based in common and widely-shared experience.

Quality-of-life discussions -- and the tips, advice, and ideas that arise from them -- can be useful to a broad spectrum of people. Spend a few extra bucks. Take a little more time. Give your choices a moment's extra thought. Compare notes with a few people who know a little something. Swirl that wine around your mouth for a second or two instead of guzzling it. (Or, if you're going to indulge in the pleasure of guzzling, then take the trouble to enjoy it -- if the moment's appropriate, of course.) Do all that without killing yourself -- make an effort without overdoing it -- and you're likely to find that life is a bit more rewarding than it'd be otherwise.

I don't know about anyone else. But -- as fun and valuable as wipeout experiences of transcendence can be -- if art in a more mundane way isn't contributing to a more (rather than a somewhat less) rewarding experience of life generally, then I ain't interested.

Many thanks to Annette.



posted by Michael at June 30, 2005


I am a male about to turn 50 who became interested in cooking 20 years ago and have ever since devoted a good portion of my leisure time to planning and cooking meals for my family and friends.

Early on, there were two cookbooks I found to be simple and extremely reliable (in terms of turning out slightly memorable meals.) One was the NY Times' "60 Minute Gourment." And the other was one of Martha Stewart's early books on "Entertaining."

This was before Martha become an icon. And I would agree entirely with Annette's comments. If you ignore the haze around Martha, and look objectively at the utility of what she has offered consistently over the years, your views of her might soften.

I do have one problem with Martha Stewart, however, and that is that she seems hyper-utilitarian, with ever-escalating material requirements.

If she were more interested in the speaking about the occasionally transcendent experience that resulted from following her directions, and less interested in expanding her brand, maybe it would be easier to like her.

But, if she wants to be one of the standard bearers for the bourgeoisie, that's fine. It's a free country. I'll still use her recipes.

Posted by: heron543 on June 30, 2005 11:21 AM

In terms of art being a transcendant experience: I discovered (actually rediscovered recently) a writer, Wallace Stegner, whose novels celebrate (awful word) the mundane, the quotidian, at least as much as the heroic or climactic aspects of living. He's dead now and probably not much read. I recommend him to you: Crossing To Safety; The Spectator Bird; All The Live Little Things.

Posted by: ricpic on June 30, 2005 11:55 AM

A close friend believes that Martha Stewart is the devil. But she still has Martha Stewart colors of paint on the walls of her home.

Posted by: missgrundy on June 30, 2005 2:54 PM

Dunno about Martha's pie/poultry/ recipes (I use my grandma's), but as decorator (not designer, sic), she's the most trivial, unimaginative, cold, mediocre fake.
A good example of what Ayn Rand called "second-hander" in Fountainhead

Posted by: Tatyana on June 30, 2005 4:19 PM

Another point to add:

Martha Stewart's magazine is a work of art as well. Pick one up, thumb through it, and take note; The typography and layouts are amazing.

Posted by: DSR on July 5, 2005 6:05 PM

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