Another ode to Martha Stewart (and another reason to love Joan Didion)

A decade ago, Martha Stewart came into my house every morning and taught me to craft or cook. It was the summer time and watching her show was a ritual, probably borne out of my family's tradition of watching Julia Child on the weekends, and my instilled craving for domesticity. But even then, I noticed how the lifestyle Stewart projected was a fantasy, and how easily positioned she was for parody. I always laughed at the way that she was bossy and confident enough to even interrupt and correct segments with her role model, her mother. When her mother embellished a step in a recipe with a factoid about a cooking technique or a recipe, Martha would cut in, her mother mid-sentence, with a detail of her own.

After the show finished at 11:00 a.m., I would run upstairs and try making something of my own. Martha had inspired the courage to take on making my own picture frame, centrepiece or pastry. More than that, she had convinced me of the sense of accomplishment it would bring and pleasure it would give guests when the project was finally done.

Of all the things I made that summer, I distinctly remember concocting a batch of scones. The recipe wasn't Martha's. It was pulled from one of the dog-eared books in our house. Or it could've been from our a family "cookbook," a collection of inserts my mother had cobbled from Homemaker's magazine--baking specials sponsored by Robin Hood flour or Baker's chocolate .

As I cut the butter into the flour, I felt the easy satisfaction of baking. An hour or two later, my brother and I tasted what I had made: bites alternately had the bite of baking soda or were overwhelmed by bulky pockets of butter. Far from a success, the pastries still gave me a deep sense of pleasure to have even approximated making a recipe that the day before was a complete mystery to me. What goes in a scone? No one has a real reason to know until they try to make one themselves.

Years before that, I took piano lessons from a gifted music student from UBC. Her mother kept a beautiful house. The mantle above the fireplace changed seasonally. It always held objects that can only be described as decorative: rattan balls, porcelain figurines, silver candlesticks, which displayed impeccable taste. And on special occasions, I was offered perfect cookies fresh from the oven after ear training. Of course, when I peered into their magazine folder or onto the coffee table, there was always the latest issue of Martha Stewart Living.

Being Martha, even emulating or following Martha, is connected to a certain level of affluence. She is elite. And yet, she is accessible. She prudently makes herself approachable by hitting the note precisely between being a friend and a master, always ensuring she cannot be touched, or worse, matched. Still, she invites her audience to model her absolutely singular brand of femininity. She is someone whose success and character is completely defined by how she can serve others, but above all she is an woman of independence, often to the point of self-elected seclusion.

The portrait that defines Martha better than another other photograph is one by Annie Leibovitz in her book Women. Leibovitz's late partner, Susan Sontag, while a skeptic of truth in photography, was a believer that there is a spirit that escapes the materiality of prose but is plainly a part of a photographic image. Sontag surely would've have seen a great deal of truth in Leibovitz's portrait. In the photo, Stewart is made minute against a golden, fall landscape. She rests her arms and head on a pick-up truck; her blonde hair, her light skin, and her khaki jacket recede into the scenary. But the focal point of the image is Martha's expression. It easily draws your attention. It's one of repose and focus.


While I was making scones, Martha had reached a milestone as an entrepreneur: Her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, went public. That year New Yorker asked Joan Didion to write a piece as Critic At Large: a profile of Martha Stewart. This was well before Stewart's jail sentence in 2004 for securities fraud and obstruction of justice. On the surface, Stewart's phenomenal success today is notable because she managed to recover her company from public scandal. Nonetheless, Didion, characteristically perceptive, foretold that Martha's failings weren't likely to lose her any admirers. In fact, they are part of her attractiveness as a brand:
The “cultural meaning” of Martha Stewart’s success...lies deep in the success itself, which is why even her troubles and strivings are part of the message, not detrimental but integral to the brand.
Reading Didion's piece lends one a profound understanding of who (and what) Martha Stewart is elementally. The last sentence of the article, which describes the genius of the personality and brand, is one that floors the reader, partly because of the way that Didion has quietly led you there and presented--with stunning diction and faultless timing--her one-sentence rendering of Stewart:
The dreams and the fears into which Martha Stewart taps are not of “feminine” domesticity but of female power, of the woman who sits down at the table with the men and, still in her apron, walks away with the chips.
Lately, when I clumsily attempt fluted pie crusts or ambitious multi-stepped recipes involving elaborate equipment and much patience, the paradigm, the measure of success, is still Martha. Didion's interpretation of this complicated woman, itself a piece of perfection, exemplifies and illustrates how few people achieve excellence. Writing this, though, is proof that many of us will try.


John maxwell said...

What an awesome little essay! You rock, Megan. Hope you'll share some scones with us someday :-)

ML said...

Thanks, John. I'll have to figure out that recipe! Lau v. Scone, round 2.