I am a veteran Martha Stewart watcher. Back in the pre-prison days, I would obsessively watch Martha’s cooking show on The Food Network. I loved it for two reasons: (1) the information was great–in her matronly way she taught me about Silpat, how to arrange a cheese platter, the way to make a perfect omelet; and (2) the show bristled with under-the-surface tension between Martha and her guests. The highlight would always be when her mother was on. “Mother,” she would say (and how perfect was it that she addressed her mother as “mother”), “I think you’re stirring that too rapidly.” Martha was campy perfection.
Then, as you may well remember, Martha went to prison.
Let’s bring in a Morgan Freeman voice over to set the transition:
“The first night’s the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing shit they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell… and those bars slam home… that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”
All the time in the world… is that what allowed Martha Stewart to reinvent herself? For the Martha Stewart of the Food Network as desribed above is no longer in existence. She is now the cheery, friendly, salt-of-the-earth host of “Martha!” during the day and the stern but lovable CEO on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.”
Let’s start with the first.
I need to disclose something here. What I am about to disclose has no bearing on my objectivity, it’s just a neat fact. My mom doesn’t like me telling you where I live, so let’s just say I live on X street. And when I go to Whole Foods I walk down X street to 7th Ave. Well on a walk to Whole Foods a few weeks ago I made a huge realization. It was promped by a giant turquoise and orange banner draped across a building right where I was standing. The banner said: “Martha!” The building was, I soon learned, Martha’s studio. Martha tapes her show ON MY BLOCK!
Over the shock yet? No? Take a deep breath. Ok. Let’s talk about “Martha.”
I’ve seen just a few episodes of “Martha.” I watched her make polenta with some Italian lady, I saw her interview Russell Simmons, and today I watched her cook with our foodblogging godmother Julie Powell of “The Julie/Julia Project.” In all three cases, Martha was virtually unrecognizable. Where was her mincing perfectionism? Ok, perhaps it shone through a bit when properly pronouncing the recipes (in French) from Julia Child’s cookbook, but only after Julie Powell did the same. But with Russell Simmons, the conversation was just eerie. They talked about leadership and Martha’s “inspirational” book. They decided that passion, in whatever form, is what leads to greatness.
I actually agree with that last sentiment but I don’t watch Marthavision for sentimentality—I watch it the way someone watches a volcano. When’s that lava gonna pop? Or has prison cooled her volcano to the core? [Please, no sexual innuendo. Let’s not talk of Martha’s volcano or her core.]
You’d think things would get juicier on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.”
And there are certain nuggets of laughability that make TA:MS slightly Martherrific. Like tonight on the salad dressing episode when, on her video message to the contestants she said: “This lettuce is from my very own garden here in Connecticut.” Martha’s entitlement and the pride she has in her possessions is certainly mocakble. But where’s the rage? Where’s the fire? Where’s the passion she and Russell Simmons were jamming about?
You’d think it would all spill out in the board room, but not so. Martha’s so contained it’s scary. Sure, she does things like switch the teams around or call in the players she thinks are really deserving of dismissal. But here it’s all about manufactured drama. You can virtually hear the producers whispering in her ear: “Do this… choose this one…”
Tonight’s episode was so agitating. This guy Jim is the most irritating person in the history of reality television. He so needed to be voted off it’s not even funny. He sold salad dressing by telling women “it’s good for bunions” and great “to massage your husband.” At one moment, I thought I saw him slap a teammate on the ass. He’s totally obnoxious and yet Martha didn’t fire him. She fired the cute Asian team leader because she couldn’t control Jim. “When you’re in charge,” she instructed, “you’ve got to be the boss. You can’t be bossed around.”
Then she wrote her signature farewell letter (which, as the weeks go on, gets shorter and shorter) to the “fired” contestant and the show was over. When a commercial came on immediately after for the Wishbone salad dressing created on the show (“Romemary Lime Vinaigrette”), I rolled my eyes and turned the TV off.
Martha Stewart became an icon because she was truly passionate about what she did: she wanted everyone to have the “best in class,” not just any spaghetti and meatballs but the best spaghetti and meatballs possible. And that passion, that zeal, made her unusual–she really cared about the things that for most people seemed arbitrary. In that way, she was a lot like her predecessor, Julia Child, who wanted to bring a deeper sense of living to middle class America.
In her quest for the largest reach possible, Martha had to be a very savvy business woman. And it’s that savviness that allowed her to build her billion dollar empire, to make herself a brand name with her visage on buckets of paint at K-Mart. It’s also what led her to jail. But beneath that savvy businesswoman was always a jubilant, curious, creative mind with a real thirst for knowledge and a genuine desire to share that knowledge with the world. It seems that prison has dulled that side of her persona. Maybe prison makes it so the perfect spaghetti and meatballs does, in fact, seem a bit arbitrary.
But then again. On today’s show with Julie Powell, Julie was making Boeuf Bourguignon. After the beef was browned and the pan deglazed with wine and stock, Julie added tomato paste and then some thyme.
“Is that fresh thyme?” asked Martha.
“No,” said Julie. “It’s dried.”
There was a silence. And in that silence, I believe, the old Martha–the one I know and love–blistered through. Come on, Old Martha, don’t be shy. We like your crass perfectionism. Tell Julie that fresh thyme’s the only way. C’mon, Old Martha, we really really miss you. Please, for the sake of the children: bring it on.