June 1, 2009

The Trouble with Martha

Category: Feasting :: Permalink

In our practice of hospitality and our desire to create a culture characterized by joyous feasting together, we need to watch out for some pitfalls, the kinds of things that give hospitality a bad name.  One is the sort of hospitality that keeps score: “We had you over last month, and now it’s your turn to have us over.”  Another is the sort of hospitality that turns having people over into a competition, where the food is so abundant,  and so amazing, and so elaborately presented that you can almost hear the host and hostess saying, “Top that!”  Yet another, closely related to the previous one, is the sort of hospitality that really doesn’t care about the people or delight in the food itself but seeks the admiration of the guests.

In Outlaw Cook, John Thorne has a chapter on Martha Stewart.   According to Thorpe, Stewart’s approach to “entertaining” is the farthest thing from genuine hospitality. Instead of wanting to have people over to enjoy spending time with them, you have them over to impress them.  Instead of them coming to see you, you aim for them to see things: the impressive display you have created, the books you have artfully arranged on the shelf, the origami-like complexity of your napkins.  Behind it all, Thorne detects self-pity and a strong desire to be admired and liked.

This approach extends even to the recipes she provides:

Food writers have accused her of appropriating their recipes without due credit.  This, whatever the truth to it, is a peculiar charge, for apart from her gala pastries they’re rarely of much interest.  This, too, I think, is by intent.  It is a truism of catered food that it can only appear unique — caterers know that what their clients want is risk-free originality: arresting dishes that never fail to please.

All too often, in fact, her solution is simply a knee-jerk recourse to richness.  In Martha Stewart’s Quick Cook, she gives a menu for four that starts with a salad dressed with one-half cup of blue cheese and two-thirds cup of olive oil, features thick-cut pork chops served with a side dish of turnips into which a quarter cup of butter and one-and-a-half cups of heavy cream have been mixed.  Dessert is vanilla ice cream over which is poured a chocolate sauce made of twelve ounces of melted chocolate and three-quarters cup of heavy cream.

Our reaction to all this migiht be different if we could imagine Martha Stewart herself digging into such a meal, but there is something disquieting about the killing richness of such food and the slender appearance of the person who insists we take some.  To do so is to feel as if, on accepting an invitation for a piece of pie, your hostess cuts you a slice and then sits down to watch you eat it … all too eager to serve you more.

“I made this to make you happy,” her books all say, not “I made this for us to share” (271-272).

Posted by John Barach @ 5:10 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “The Trouble with Martha”

  1. Kata Iwannhn » Books I Enjoyed Most in 2009 Says:

    […] * John Thorne, Outlaw Cook. Fun reading, even though I didn’t attempt any of the recipes. Thorne writes well, challenges those who are bound to recipes, and interacts with (and often argues with) other famous food writers. His chapter on Martha Stewart is well worth reading (see here). […]

Leave a Reply