Whatever, Martha

Last week, Martha Stewart caused something of an uproar in the blogger community when she said, in an interview with Bloomberg TV: “Who are these bloggers? They’re not editors at Vogue magazine…I mean, there are bloggers writing recipes that aren’t tested, that aren’t necessarily very good, or are copies of everything that really good editors have created and done. So bloggers create kind of a popularity, but they are not the experts.”

She’s since backtracked; a wise move considering that her empire includes an entire network of bloggers with MARTHA STEWART plastered prominently on their pages. At first I was offended by her off-the-cuff remarks, now I’m mostly amused. This was a telling, unguarded moment for Martha and one that reflects the vintage, bespoke bubble she’s living in with her dogs in Connecticut.

To be clear: I don’t think Martha’s entirely wrong. We bloggers are a scrappier bunch than the magazine editors at Vogue. In fact, I think I may be the living embodiment of everything Martha’s criticizing: I’ve posted disgusting inedible dishes like this disgusting inedible curry; and when I do post a successful recipe, it’s usually my take on someone else’s work. My original recipes would never make it into a magazine. If Anna Wintour saw me walking on to an elevator, she’d probably exit and wait for the next one.

So how do I live with myself? Why do I think my work is good?

The answer has everything to do with the distance between myself and my readers. When an article is published in a food magazine (like Martha Stewart Living, for example), the work begins months–sometimes a year–before you read it. A roomful of editors sit around a table and toss around concepts for stories. Most are rejected, some get through. The ones that get through are assigned to writers and those writers then spend weeks–sometimes months–developing their stories. The recipes attached to those stories are tested over and over again; the words that make up the stories are scrutinized by editors, who often get the writers to rewrite their work, and then copy editors who question every period, comma and semicolon. By the time the article goes to press, that original notion for the story–which happened a year ago early in the morning over coffee and stale bagels–has morphed into something so heavily polished, it’s barely recognizable. The resulting work may be excellent, but here are the things it’s not: spontaneous, exuberant, unfiltered, raw.

Those adjectives describe the work of the best bloggers. We’re not trying to emulate magazines; we’re doing something very different. We have the ability to react to things–like your blogger-bashing–with immediacy and a level of truth-telling few mainstream publications could allow. While you’re worried about offending advertisers, we only have to worry about one thing: alienating our readers. It’s that pact with readers that make bloggers such a powerful force and why a plug from a popular blogger can do more to sell a cookbook than a mention in your magazine. We may not be experts by your definition, but if an expert is someone that audiences trust to guide them in the right direction, we meet that criteria handily.

We also run on intimacy. People who read blogs feel so connected with bloggers they sometimes know more about us than they do about their own families. (OK, admittedly, that can be kind of creepy.) But that fact explains why a post about getting engaged can inspire a bigger reaction than the most heavily-tested risotto recipe. We’re not guarded by publicists, image consultants, brand-builders and corporate executives; we offer up our lives to our readers and our readers reward us by supporting our work passionately.

Which explains how Deb Perelman wrote a bestselling cookbook and how Ree Drummond scored a show on Food Network and how David Lebovitz has inspired a whole religion of cult followers. True, you’ve built an empire that no blogger could ever emulate; but, on the flip side, we enhance people’s lives in ways that are far more personal. And while you’re there on T.V. for an hour or two a day (mostly in reruns), we’re there with people at their desks while they’re at work or in their homes while they watch their kids: engaging through our blogs but also Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. Our presence is far more constant in people’s lives. We’ve become like family.

Which doesn’t erase the fact that our work sometimes lacks polish and/or originality. I’ll give you that. Also, we lack the pedigree that gets you through the door at places like Vogue and/or Martha Stewart. Again, we’re a frumpy bunch. But bloggers couldn’t support ourselves if audiences didn’t like what we were doing. And they do. The funny thing is, if you were starting today, I have a feeling you’d begin with your own blog instead of taking the traditional route. You’d be podcasting about potpourri and vlogging your instructions for folding a fitted sheet. True, you’d probably hire teams of minions to churn out posts at a higher frequency to increase your traffic, and maybe you’d fire someone for misspelling “quiche” but the point is the only thing separating you from the bloggers you disdain is about 50 years.

Face the truth, Martha: you’re really one of us.

68 thoughts on “Whatever, Martha”

  1. I love, love, love this post and this reaction. I thought the same thing when I saw her flippant comment: how else would Martha become Martha in this day and age? She hates us about like I’d imagine she hates it when some celebrity comes on her show and doesn’t know how to paper mâché. But she keeps inviting them.

    Thanks for an honest and well-written post!

  2. Also I love her “backtrack” … “Martha Stewart loves most bloggers who are great friends” … so even of the bloggers that are great friends, she only loves some of them? And Martha Stewart talks about Martha Stewart in the 3rd person now? Priceless.

  3. Great post! I personally don’t read any food/lifestyle/whatever magazines but I love your blog – especially for posts like the disgusting inedible curry. Also I am far more likely to try out one of your recipes (will be making that squash risotto real soon) than one that I found in a mag or a book because with your step-by-step posts/photos I can see so much better whether that recipe is something I’d like to try than with some highly polished recipe from a magazine.

  4. I didn’t know that there were recipes in Vogue. I’ll have to pick up a copy next time I’m near a newsstand…now, where is the nearest newsstand…?

  5. I’ll take you (Deb, Clotilde, Ree, etc.) over Martha any day. You also write your own posts, don’t bash others for their hard work, and engage with your audience (without being insulting) on occasion.

  6. I just kept thinking so you mean to tell me nothing matters unless you’re an editor for a magazine? I get she was the first to do these things but i’ve seen plenty of ppl complaining under her recipes that don’t see to be tested properly. I know that people make a living coming up with ideas and working hard for magazines but I know some bloggers who truly do their research as well, they spend a lot of time playing every role of a magazine. (Creative Director, tester, photographer, editor, finding sponsers) Some blogs aren’t that serious some copy recipes and tweak them and some are simply those “testers” of recipes. I raelly love your response though! I don’t comment often but this was worth putting my two cents in.

  7. I think that attitude might be the secret to her success. Not many people get as rich as her by being nice to people (I don’t think). I might be able to understand her getting annoyed at bloggers for using her company’s recipes and just modifying them slightly. Although, I heard the 1 pot pasta wasn’t so good. (And I liked Deb’s farro.)

  8. Whatever Martha is right, uh what about her blog and blogs related to her “empire”? If they gave egotistical awards she’d win everytime. And deservedly so! IMHO, when she came along her goal was not that much different than what bloggers do today, and that is to engage people in good homekeeping! And you can bet your last dime that if she started today, she’d be a blogger!

  9. I look at blogging as a new age form of sharing recipes and a story to go with them like our mother’s, grandmother’s, aunts, co-workers. Those recipes written on 3×5 cards were never tested. Someone baked a cake or potatoes au gratin, served it at a baby shower, and the guests who indulged, asked for the recipe.

    What qualifies as “testing” a recipe. Does Elise Bauer (Simply Recipes) send her recipes out to 25 people asking them to “test” and afterwards, Elise publishes? When Deb Perelman published her book, the recipes were tested, but they weren’t in the beginning when she started blogging. People take a blogger at their word the recipe is good. Readers have to take responsibility to copy the recipe accurately.

    I believe it is extreme elitism when people trod on bloggers. If it wasn’t for people like bloggers, Miss Martha wouldn’t be where she is today. Deb Perelman and Elise Bauer would not either.

    Quite frankly,Adam, I’d read your blog before I would waste the money on Martha’s magazine. Those writer’s never provide the interesting columns you provide your readers.

    Off my soap box.

  10. LOVE. Aside from the fact that Martha totally would have been a blogger, as you say, the accessibility for me is key.

    I’m not a foodie. Most meals I throw together come from cans. I’m picky as hell. But I’ve tried several of your recipes because your tone and approach feel so accessible. I like the voice behind your blog. I love much of what Martha Stewart does, but I have never once tried any of her recipes. I own one cookbook, and it’s not a great one (it was a gift). But I never miss one of your posts.

  11. Ina Garten blogs. Just sayin’ But, in all honesty, I’ll bet no one at Martha Stewart’s early morning creative department meetings eats STALE bagels! :)

  12. Cough. Cough. When I worked in cookbook publishing in NYC in the late 1980s, Miss Martha already had something of a reputation for recipe appropriation. You can’t really copyright recipes — all you have to do is change one ingredient a little bit, or rewrite the instructional text, but the unwritten rule was that you didn’t borrow from the Big Names. And well, let’s just say, Someone had gotten herself a name for doing just that. Pot. Kettle. etc … As someone downthread noted, Martha didn’t get to be Martha by playing nice.

  13. I don’t think that Martha does much that is unique and new. Like her home dyed Easter eggs. Um… pretty sure that the Native Americans and other people of olden times did the same thing only with cloth. I love blogs. They are so much more comfortable and accessible than the cold glossy pages of a mass market magazine with a mass market “talent.”

  14. So how is it so many MS food recipes don’t work? You’d think that level of polish would weed out mistakes but after many years of appreciating her aesthetic the one thing I can’t count on is the recipes consistently working. Like any publications, some blogs are more consistent than others, and of course, so are some cooks. I, for one, reach more for blog post recipes than the majority of my cookbooks these days.

  15. “…writing recipes that aren’t tested, that aren’t necessarily very good, or are copies of everything that really good editors have created and done.”

    The interesting part to me is that my chef friends used to say the same thing about her recipes.

  16. Yowza big Fella’! Take that Martha! Boom, down she goes! (The left hook gets them every time).

    P.S. “…bespoke bubble she’s living in with her dogs in Connecticut.” Let’s not forget the beautiful black steeds and her desire to be accepted into the Connecticut horsey set. #NoEquestrienneThere.


  17. Adam, this is so perfectly written, I have a hard time commenting. I admire what Martha has built, but I do not admire Martha, if that makes sense. I read your blog daily; I haven’t read MSL in YEARS. I have tried many of your recipes, & because of one you posted from Deb Perlman, I am a devoted fan of Smitten Kitchen also. So keep on blogging, because if I had to pick between having you or Martha as a dinner guest, you would win every time. (And of course, you can bring Craig, too!)

  18. Well said Adam!!
    You’re right, if Martha was starting now, she’d definitely be blogging.

    Aside from that, although she’s created an empire, I find her (let’s face it – it ain’t her anymore, it’s her minions) recipes have lacked a lot of substance for years now. When I first started cooking, i used to always go to martha. She was the Queen of cooking & crafts. Now, I’d much rather go to a blog of someone who I not only have a sense of their cooking, but of them as well.

    Sorry Martha, but you’re reign of the cooking world hasn’t float this boat in a long time.

  19. Ingrid@TheCozyApron

    Adam, I thought this “open letter” to Martha was incredibly well-written—not scathing (because frankly, that would be too easy), but an honest and touching description of what it is to be a blogger, and why we love to do what we do. At first I was surprised that Martha, being as in-control of her image as she is, would let her tongue get away from her as it did during that now-famous interview; but then I realized that she was only giving words to what clearly is an inner frustration and irritation. We bloggers provide our posts, recipes, and all the other good stuff that we share, free of charge to our readers. And who knows? Perhaps revenue is down over at OmniMedia; perhaps folks are not paying to get all those great tips & recipes found in Martha’s mags the way they used to before all of us came along. And for that, darn us “scrappy” bloggers.

  20. Touche, Adam. What I love about reading blogs and social media is precisely what makes it delightful: a slice of another’s life, culture, successes/so-so experiences, and insight into their perspectives. Fond memories of places visited, “good bones” recipes with the author’s riffs, and additions to my bucket list. Let free speech rule and vote with your own dollars/time. Thanks, a great fan.

  21. So well said. I was just saying to my husband that, while I peruse many blogs’ archives for recipes, yours is the only one I read faithfully. That’s because I love your voice and your sensibilities – it feels like reading stories from a friend. A friend who won’t judge me for having imperfectly plated dinners and failing to own a gravy boat.

  22. Martha, Martha, Martha...

    Over the years I (well, really my wife) have purchased several of Martha Stewart’s cookbooks and I have made many recipes from them. Whether it’s baked goods, main dishes or finger food, her recipes uniformly fail to perform (and taste good) are overly fussy for what they are and require the skills of a good cook to rescue them.

    I am an very accomplished cook and baker and long ago gave up on the Martha Stewart empire’s recipes. She is light years behind Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and countless other authors in providing recipes that taste good and turn out the first time if you make them exactly as written.
    Her team of editors might spend a lot of time up on Turkey Hill to make beautiful looking food and magazine layouts but Martha should probably stick to making her mother’s perogies and I’m not sure the Martha Stewart team couldn’t F-up simple peasant food.

    The Martha Stewart Omnimedia produced empire of magazines and TV shows might look good but really haven’t contributed anything of substance to serious cooking. I vastly prefer the creative ideas I get from the many talented bloggers that I follow. At our house all of the Martha Stewart magazines and cookbooks have long ago been tossed in the bin.

  23. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Adam! (although ease off Connecticut, it is not only a land for MS!) What I love about accomplished bloggers (I say that word because many people consider themselves bloggers, but posting basic pasta after basic pasta after boring cookie recipe doesn’t really count.) like yourself is your voice, your creativity, admittance to failure and approachability. I almost always try recipes exclusively from bloggers, even if they did originate from magazines, because you are the real testers, as I trust your palates and cooking skills and know if you can do it, and you like it, so can/will I. The same cannot be said for a recipe published in a magazine.

  24. Great post. Martha Stewart and her mags are for browsing and fantasizing.

    *ordinary* blogs are for real life cooking in real life kitchens for real life families.

    Different animals for different purposes.

  25. Every time I see minions in a news piece, I always think of the minions in Despicable Me. They are truly the best minions ever.

  26. Natalie Luffer Sztern

    Indeed Martha Stewart, at her outset, made her way up the ranks w/o the internet but nonetheless was a home-trained cook, whose ‘design’ background came from the love of, and whose artistic side came from an innate talent she had. To that extent she created her empire; had bloggers been around at that time she could very easily have been in the same context as David Lebovitz or Deb Perelman. Her fortune came from being diverse in what she brought about to create that empire whereas blogging takes so much time and energy I doubt that she would be where she is today if she concentrated on just one function.

    That being said, you are absolutely right on blogging; there develops an ‘in-touch’ with readers which in this day and age is vital. I think she missed the point on this and is out-of-touch with the new way of getting yourself out there.

    PS I love that there are so many Natalie’s in your readership :))

  27. Well written! This is the first I knew about her interview. Surprised me she would say something like that. Someone gave me a subscription to MSL as a gift. I never read the mag, just pass it on to our local clinic. I would much rather spend my time with you, Deb, Joy the Baker, etc.

  28. Another benefit of blogs that I love is reading the comments that follow. You aren’t able to give or read others’ feedback about a topic or recipe in a magazine. It’s fun and helpful to read what other people liked/disliked and how they made something their own.

  29. I love traditional cookbooks for their polish, but I find that I actually cook more often from the blogs I read. And to say that blogger recipes aren’t tested is silly. The bloggers I read test the recipes themselves, and they let you know what works and what doesn’t (e.g., the inedible curry). Plus, food bloggers would not get popular if their recipes were not good, simple as that. The other thing that food blogs bring to the table is the “everyman” approach to cooking that I really love. Bloggers who put their own spin on the recipes of others encourage home cooks to riff off of those polished cookbook recipes. And that, I think, is where the magic really happens.

  30. On one her episodes she had a young woman demonstrating a baking segment. The guest scraped the batter out of the bowl and Martha chastised her stating that “she left at least a quarter of a cup of batter in the bowl” and “did’nt your mother teach you anything? The poor girl came back with “Well you can ask her, she’s sitting right in the front row!” The level of rudeness was shocking even from her!

  31. Cummon! Are you comparing David Lebovitz with the average food blogger? He was an established chef with the provenance of Chez Pannise, for crap’s sake.

    Ree what’s-her-name is on the Food Channel where having boobs is the primary qualifier and the actual quality of food has been an after though for the last decade or so.

    You may not like hearing it but Martha has a point that blogger recipes are largely untested, about as reliable as your average roll of the dice, and consistently derivative.

  32. Well said Adam. But do you know what really irks me about MS’ comments? The number of times that I cook a recipe printed by a so-called professional, only to find it full of mistakes? Without wanting to generalise, because of course there are plenty of wonderful recipes out there – but I have been shocked how often recipes include obvious errors, particularly regarding things like cooking times. In my experience, recipes on blogs rarely have mistakes like this because they are written by cooks like me, for cooks like me. They tell you what to look out for, where they’ve come a cropper themselves, what secrets they’ve learned along the way. That, for me, is useful testing.

  33. I agree with a lot of your points, but I don’t think you give MS enough credit. Te truth is neither your blog, nor your blog, smitten kitchens, and davidlebovitz’s combined offer enough knowledge to serve as the type of strong foundation many people get from MS. The reality is that the tested and highly edited works remain the backbone to a wealth of knowledge and new ideas. Sure tee Drummond has established a following (so has Theresa guidice), but would you ever by her cookbook or trust her as a cooking authrity? Have you seen the ingredients she uses? Basically, I think blogs and edited works serve different phrposes, which is what I think MS was getting at, though perhaps she could have conveyed it better.

  34. Hear, hear! Reasoned, balanced, well-written as usual. To agree with the posts below: when I think “Hm- what’m I going to do about dinner?” I don’t turn to celeb chefs, or even to my cookbook shelf, usually: the first thing I do is read your blog to see what’s new. Now that’s trust! Thanks, Adam!

  35. It’s the difference between a Photoshopped picture and one just out of the camera – between air-brushed and not. Between real and not quite. I’ll take real any day!
    Great post. Love you!

  36. Right on! We’re no experts but the personable touch and efforts to keep experimenting is what makes food bloggers great. Nice try Martha…

  37. This might be weird, but I have come to find Martha’s authoritativeness and unabashed self confidence (that tips into egotism) to be sort of cute and charming. I just like her. Think of all she has singlehandedly done for domesticity. Yes, I know she has a very talented team, but that is what you do when you are at the helm of a publicly traded company. I think she gets ripped on twice as much as others who are highly successful because she is a woman. People like to kick her around. To me, she’s kind of a badass. She’s better than everyone else at almost everything, and she knows it. Still, I like your post. You are a good writer, and the last line (combined with the first picture) combines to be scathing.

    1. I should have mentioned that of course she feels that way about blogs. There are a million that are throw away, but there there are great ones both discovered and undiscovered that are such a valuable new category of media that contribute so much. But we’re competitors, and we don’t play the same game she does, so I can see how she’s threatened and prone to knee jerk statements.

  38. I met you last year at a book signing and loved how open you were to home cooks as well as chefs. A lot of homecooks are brilliant and we arelucky to live in a world with blogs where we can access them. I think martha has no idea what the average person makes…. I tried to follow one of her recipees for christmas and it took 4 trips to different stores and was so complex It took 2 days to make 12 cookies…. that were o.k. keep blogging, I love how honest and real you are… and hysterical!

  39. I have cooked and eaten Many meals that included one or more recipes from the pages of Martha Stewart Living and I have one thing to say. The recipes in her flagship magazine may be “tested” but I have serious doubts that they’re actually “tasted”.

  40. Way to go.
    We’re spontaneous and raw. That’s what we are, although we try to get the best lookin photo and pick our vocabulary to sell the recipe to our readers, but we still are learning.
    As you said, we always fail. But I loved what you do on the blog that you share failed recipes. This is Martha Stewart would never do. This makes me trust you more when you try a recipe and post it here. I know that you won’t cover up on it and post it anyways.

  41. I hate to be the nay-sayer in the crowd but I think the middle ground holds more truth than either end. There are a lot of bloggers out there who want to be bloggers more than they want to be experts in the areas that they blog about. If I was some one of Martha Stewarts caliber I might be resentful of people who hadn’t made hundreds of cakes and developed the expertise yet present themselves as experts. Many blogs, if they were term papers, would be thrown out for copying. Of course the other side of this is that this is America and we are fond of saying let the market decide. If a blogger consistently seems to be presenting reruns or crappy recipes I stop reading them. I imagine others do too. Martha should trust this principle as well and she should also trust the quality of content.
    As Adam pointed out people are often going to blogs for something other than expert content.Martha is grousing at people who aren’t really her competition…but that doesn’t make her wrong. It is kind of crappy to put up a recipe if you haven’t made it at least once. And there is a middle ground between the layers that professionals must go through and someone sitting in their p.j.s at the kitchen table saying whatever comes into their head. This middle ground produces the blogs that survive, that get traffic, that get offered a book deal-so that they too can go through the layers required to produce a quality product.
    Nobody is wrong here. Not Martha or Adam. But this is America and we aren’t fond of middle ground these days. To paraphrase Julia on using butter, It’s all good in moderation.

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