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March 4, 2008

The Weary Epicurean—March 4, 2008

[img id="80394" align="alignleft"] Recently, a friend of mine turned me on to a camp classic called Martha, Inc.: The Story of Martha Stewart. It’s a made-for-T.V. biopic of the life of Martha Stewart, starring Cybill Shepard—actually, it’s the first of two appearances by her in that role in recent years, the other being the more poorly received flick Martha Behind Bars, which was also made for T.V. I haven’t seen Martha Behind Bars yet, but Martha Inc. was just excellent. I highly recommend it; it’s crisp, kitschy entertainment at its best.

Martha gets a tough rap nowadays, but I have to say, the movie really won me over to her cause. Time and again in her career—I’m getting all this from the movie—she’s overcome stodgy, old-boy chauvinism to introduce revolutionary methods of marketing, advertising, and media. So her television show is one long commercial cross-reference to her magazine and her K-Mart product line—so what? That’s the point; that’s the genius of it. You must at the very least acknowledge that she is a genius at her chosen profession.

And then there are her recipes. I mean, wow. I borrowed the Martha Stewart Living Cookbook from another friend, and I was absolutely blown away. From the precision of her measurements to the geometry of her tarts, from her histories of herbs to her buttermilk-battered fried chicken, I have not seen a more encyclopedic or anal-retentive cookbook since Ma Cuisine. This is a tome, a masterpiece of Connecticut compulsion, and a testament to elegant, suburban suppression. I’m not sure exactly what I learned by reading it, but I know one thing for sure: I am very, very impressed.

Take, for example, her instructions for boiling water: “Cover and bring a pot of salted water to a boil.” Are you getting this? Every time she tells you to boil something, she tells you how to boil the water first. There’s a joke that at stiff old French cooking schools, your first lesson is on how to boil water, but it’s just a joke. This is an editorial and stylistic decision: that there is a right way to boil water, and that Martha knows it. This means there is now a bible of homemaking perfection, a rulebook, a standard. The American post-war suburban dream has been codified, even down to how you ought to boil water.

And, you know, it may be silly, and it may be obsessive-compulsive, but by God, she’s right about almost everything. You really should cook the dark meat and white meat pieces separately when you make fried chicken, to avoid over-cooking the white or under-cooking the dark. Green peppercorns are more appropriate for mustards and chutneys than black peppercorns. She’s really not making this stuff up—I swear by the blessed memory of Marie-Antoine Carême. It’s all true; it only ever errs on the side of being too true.

An example of Martha’s perfection: At my christening, my mother tells me, they made use of a Martha trick—the flowered vodka ice pitcher. You drop a vodka bottle in a square half-gallon milk jug, drop flowers into the space between the bottle and the box (roses are best), fill the square part with water, and freeze it. Then peel off the cardboard, and voilà! Function and form all in one. (You’ll need a little waiter’s napkin to hold it with, by the way, and enough guests to kill the bottle before the ice melts.) Thanks to Martha, there’s even a correct, elegant, and girlish way to serve straight hard liquor. That’s quite a contribution to society.

It’s a far cry from what we are left with now in the post-scandal Martha void: Rachel [epithet] Ray or, as I like to call her, The Sultan of Sloth. I think I read the words “open a package of frozen” on her website’s “recipe” section more often than both the word counts for “tablespoon” and “season” combined. Her ingredients lists are an exercise in haphazard prodigality that bring to mind the Temple of Solomon, or perhaps an early-’90s Britney Spears concert-rider. Combine these typically 20-or-greater-item lists with a vagueness about measurements, portion sizes, and techniques that borders on psychosis, and you’re left with the vague, stinking mess that most of her recipes apparently aim for.

What precisely is “grill seasoning?” From what culinary tradition was birthed the “fire-roasted tomato,” the “PB&H sandwich,” or the poblano pepper stuffed with leftover takeout rice and ground chicken? What television producer in his right mind would give a talk show to someone with a voice like a stuck-up Fran Drescher?

Who really cares whether Martha took a stock tip, or whether Rachel Ray had it tough as a kid? The whole point of the Martha personality, with her blowsy blouses, perfect hair, and soft speaking voice, is to effortlessly overcome the limits of mere socioeconomic conditions (and occasionally physical ones). Rachel Ray, on the other hand, is all about lowered expectations. I protest! Let them eat little cakes—and let the cakes be regular octagons, and let them be flavored lightly with lime leaves. At least the standards of our fantasy lives shouldn’t fall over the years.