Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Reconsidering Martha

Convicted felon Martha Stewart met with her probation officer yesterday. She even had to give a urine sample, in which she tested positive for nutmeg." —Jimmy Kimmel

I have a problem with Martha Stewart. There is a problem with my problem. The problem with my problem is that I can't really express the reason I have a problem with Martha Stewart.

Even my wife doesn’t understand why I feel as I do. My feelings are such that I refer to her as "Martha Frakking Stewart" and jokingly denote her the Antichrist. I altered the cover photo on a cookbook to reflect that designation.

I am not alone in this feeling. Others have a similar reaction to her. Even Andy Rooney noted it in his own inimitable style.

She’s too fussy. She’s too perfect to be satisfied.  She asks too much of mere mortals. Emasculation. Jealousy. Irritation. Frustration. Resentment.

Because she’s got us all hood-winked into believing that cooking and housekeeping can and should be the perfect activity for the perfect woman.

She made me believe that I could actually be like her – that I could do one of her craft projects. That I could be a better woman.

Then when perfect Martha, with her Armani suits and her three sizes of loppers, helpfully suggests that they invest a few spare hours in cake decorating, all of that never-enough-time finds its flash point.

It’s different for me. It's kind of how I feel about cake. I hate it but I can't say exactly why.  An irrational prejudice.

My feelings about Martha relate to her as a cookbook author and cooking teacher. It is certainly not born out of culinary misogyny. My adoration of Julia is neither bound, nor hidden. When asked my opinion of the best cooking show ever on TV, I am quick to answer – Sara Moulton’s Cooking Live.

The cooking personalities I admire most are those I could see myself cooking alongside and having a good time. More than that they are cooks who I could see actually producing the things they are demonstrating on television. I’ve never been able to see Martha or read her work without thinking about the many hands that made it possible. I know that similar hands are there with others, but they don’t come to my mind when watching.

The television cooks I admire most are the teachers – the ones who not only showed us new things to cook, but how to prepare them. How to use unusual ingredients. Who showed us world of food we had never seen. People like Sara and David Rosengarten, and before them Jeff Smith, the Frug. (Yes is it OK to talk about what a great teacher he was).

In the beginning was PBS. Julia and Martin and the Frug, and those quirky, locally produced gems whose names have faded from memory. When Food TV came on I was addicted. When I was home it was on, when at work I taped. The fun shows were silly. Ready, Set, Cook. How to Boil Water (that Cathy Lowe was cute). The real, original, dubbed into English Iron Chef. And Sara and David and Emeril before he went live.

Then Emeril went live. Sara went to tape and then to PBS. David disappeared. Personalities seemed selected by cuteness and/or chest size. Teaching became sloppy - recipes dumbed down. The world of the reality show invaded. Faux competitions ruled.

With the exception of the exceptional Alton Brown and his Good Eats, Food TV became useless to anyone who wanted to learn about cookery. So, I left. PBS was my refuge. Jacques and Ming, Lydia and Steve Raichlin. America's Test Kitchen. The delectable Tina Nordstrom.

So I am picky about my PBS.

When it was announced that Ms. Stewart was returning to television on my beloved PBS, my initial reaction was of shock and dismay. How could the programmers put her in the same venue as Jacques, Lydia, Martin and my beloved Julia. It was downright sacrilegious.

Then the unthinkable occurred. Trustworthy sources began reporting that her new show was not only watchable, but a throwback to the classic shows I love. Instructional. Detailed. Useful.

I had to give it a chance.

The first season of the show is divided into 13 segments, each focusing on a different topic or technique. Eggs and sauces, steaming, roasting and braising. Even butchering. The techniques and concepts expressed by her are sound for the most part as is the advice on equipment. It is truly a throwback to educational cooking shows.

The butchering episode was of particular interest to me. She had Evan Lobel, of the famous family of meat cutters, on to help demonstrate basic methods. As it happened, later that same day that Ming Tsai did a bit of the same – breaking down a chicken. Ming is an excellent teacher, but I have to give the edge to Martha’s presentation. It was just a little bit better.

Yet there are things about the show that still are annoying. Other people use high-end equipment, cutlery and dishware. For some reason hers bothers me. Obviously all television chefs have food stylists and set designers, but Martha set just reminds me of Julia’s injunction that “you know someone's fingers have been all over it." Every item in her kitchen down to the mis en place immaculately groomed and coiffed.

Even when cooking. Not a stray seed or cube of onion out of place. It's unreal.

That may be the common denominator.  I could cook with Sara or with Daisy or with Jacques or, yes, with Jeff (before I knew what he was really like).  Real down-to-earth cooks, and folks I could see myself hanging out with, cooking up a storm for family and friends. I can't conceive of cooking with Martha.

I still didn't like her, and I still couldn’t say why.

One Saturday I was watching her episode on Dressings and Emulsions. Martha was demonstrating a vinaigrette. Her technique was flawless, delivery in calm measured tones and her descriptions of both process and science precise.

I found myself distracted. Shiny objects - in this case the set of elegant and expensive cruets, perfume bottle pretty, lined-up nearby. Each filled with colored fluids, topped off to the proper level and color coordinated.  I was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a turn of phrase to describe why I found this off-putting.

At that precise moment Trish, who has never understood why I react as I do to Martha, poked her head in and observed: “no matter what she says she sounds condescending”.


Here is the confession. Tony Bourdain has a new PBS show with David Chang called The Mind of a Chef. It crosses the line to reality show that Bourdain’s earlier shows just missed. I was on board with Bourdain when he was just a Mystery writer and I admire Chang immensely, but no.

I am picky about my PBS.  As much as I hate to say it, Tony should go.

Martha can stay.


Peggy said...

She annoys the hellout of me!! Cooking is supposed to be messy!!
Life is supposed to be messy. Perfection is highly over-rated!

Scotty Harris said...

Couldn't agree more!

Gary Heise Paintings said...

I agree, sort of. I was impressed with the new Martha series too -- great, basic info for the home cook.
I'm not sure what you have against Mind of a Chef. Largely, its a repackaging of Lucky Peach info, but it reaches out to a different audience. I do enjoy Chang's willingness to look like a jerk; he seems to want to share his passion and interest in cooking discoveries.

Scotty Harris said...

My issue is simple - it's a reality show not a cooking show. It belongs elsewhere than PBS.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -