Many of us find it easier to mock the work of Martha Stewart than to appreciate what she’s done, which is to encourage the masses to make Thanksgiving centerpieces in the shape of a turkey using nothing more than gourds (harvested from our own gardens), a hot glue gun, a few gallons of glitter, and sheer pluck.
I was just as guilty when it came to dismissing Martha. When her “Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook’’ was released in 2007 I thought, “Well here’s a real first world problem. We just don’t know how to clean anymore because Merry Maids has been rounding up our dust bunnies for far too long.’’
I was more than happy to get on the phone with her that year to talk about the handbook for a story. I anticipated our conversation would consist of me asking cheeky yet charming questions, and Martha gamely playing along. Let me tell you, Martha does not play.
Instead, she took my questions, grabbed them around the neck - that is if a question were capable of having a neck - and squeezed hard until they dropped, lifeless. Then she proceeded to deliver serious answers. When I asked her age, she verbally whipped me into submission. Lesson number one: Don’t ask a woman of a certain age her age.
To me, the projects in her magazines, books, television program, and online tutorials looked far too complicated. I have the patience of a feral cat, and there was no way I was going to sit still long enough to make coffee stirrers topped with marshmallow snowmen or follow the steps required to complete her clementine granita recipe. Can anyone tell me what a granita is? I’m too lazy to look it up on Wikipedia.
But a not-so-funny thing happened this year as spring turned to summer. My life started disintegrating. My grandfather, one of the kindest men I’ve ever known, passed away. My boyfriend and I broke up, there was a significant health scare in my family, and I’m still a bit jittery from getting mugged in New York. Don’t tell my parents about the mugging. They worry too much about me as it is.
I’m describing this pity party as a way of explaining how I learned to stop mocking Martha. When normal people are upset, they go to a bar and get hammered or watch “Marley & Me’’ (or preferably both at the same time). When I get upset, I clean. I started dusting until every surface glistened. I was buying gallon jugs of Windex weekly, I emptied every drawer, and I sorted and organized with vigor. I also dug out Martha’s homekeeping book. It became my comforting evening reading while I watched sunsets through newly cleaned windows. This was the orderly life that I craved.
Next came the cooking. Martha’s intricate recipes - which were not as difficult as I had imagined - helped keep my mind off of everything else. I began producing celery root puree, caramel-topped brie with pecans, and Ile Flottante. I wasn’t quite ready to admit to my friends that I was playing the role of mini-Martha, so my neighbors ate well this summer.
I learned that there is something incredibly calming about the rituals and deep concentration involved in taking the time to thoughtfully organize and create. I’ve always loved cooking, but it is immensely satisfying to reflect, sift, mix, and make something beautiful. Particularly when you’re feeling sad. I’m grateful to Martha for teaching me this and I officially take back all of my “I don’t understand it so I’m going to make fun of it’’ diatribes. The woman who once scared me with a capital “S’’ was my new friend and mentor.
When her new book, “Martha’s Entertaining’’ (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, $75), recently hit stores, I said a silent “Thank you,’’ and decided it was time to come out of the closet and admit my love of Martha. You have no idea how excited I am to start making her holiday chocolate ganache whoopie pies while watching the miscreant known as 2011 skulk out the door and never return.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.