I Miss the Old Martha Stewart - No. 107
Love or hate her, Martha is a style icon & I baked her clafouti with spring blueberries and it was wonderful
In February I paid $85 to hear Martha Stewart talk about restoring her nearly 160-acre, circa 1776 farm in Bedford, New York.
I was one of 2,000 at the Antiques & Garden Show in Nashville, and honestly, I don’t think most people in the room came here for the farm. They wanted to see Martha—the authority on style and author of 95 books about it—in the flesh. They wanted to see how the woman who created their favorite cake stand, Egyptian cotton bed sheets, frozen mac and cheese, and now, chardonnay, looks at 80. (She looks fabulous, by the way.)
Me? I wanted to see her farm.
Martha lives on Cantitoe Farm, in Westchester County horse country, where even the vegetables seem privileged. Their soil has been amended with rich Vermont compost. And here heirloom roses—those plump David Austin roses in warm peach and blushy pink, roses you’d expect from someone who wrote a book on Weddings—flourish. Here on Martha’s farm, 240 apple and pear trees hide a fence around a swimming pool that her daughter said she didn’t need in the first place.
Martha’s pretty mad about trees. A 500-year-old grand white oak called the Bedford Oak is nearby and so revered that locals remove their caps when they pass it. Martha boasts that her farm’s former owner, Ruth Sharp, saved the legendary tree from a developer’s bulldozer in 1977. And she says she’s planted 13,000 trees in the dozen or so years since she’s been here.
Everything’s rounded up on Martha’s farm. She’s planted 2,000 boxwoods, 400 azaleas, and her farmhands harvest 3,000 bales of hay for the horses each year.
Back When Style Was About Poaching Fruit
When Martha’s first book, Entertaining, was published in 1982, a tidal wave of pressed napkins, poached pears, and front door wreaths swept across America. And they weren’t delivered from Amazon. You made them.
I grew up craftsy like Martha and remember my mother’s dried flowers in our attic and how she sewed our dolls’ clothes. To me, reading Martha’s books wasn’t as much stressful (that’s how my friends found her) as it was chock full of ideas. I, too, had learned to sew by cutting fabric on the kitchen table.
When I read Martha, though, I studied the photographs. How she set the scene in this fairytale farmhouse I yearned to call my own. The food on the table and the recipes that accompanied it were secondary.
She told me the right way to force bulbs so I’d have amaryllis in bloom by Christmas and how to save seeds from one summer garden to the next. And I would grow herbs as she did and in later years take my young daughters with me to Nashville gardens to amass enough volunteer hours to join the local herb society full of lovely ladies just like Martha, except nicer. Martha was a bit aloof in those days, but I never thought it was more than her stern upbringing and work ethic.
In the kitchen, I did make her royal icing to spread onto sugar cookies, and I think that’s the best recipe if you want to stack cookies because the icing hardens beautifully. But honestly, after three children, I didn’t have much time for Martha projects.
Or her perfectionism. They just didn’t sit well in my world of laundry, carpools, and sippy cups. And I felt that she had already covered the really great ideas. I was growing cynical.
And when she was sent to prison for lying about a stock trade, I sensed she would become the woman the world wanted to hate. She shouldn’t have lied, yes, but I found myself defensive of her as if she were an old friend. How many others had clearly done the same thing and never been punished?
But post prison, in five months time plus house arrest, Martha more than survived. One thing she has always gotten right is to surround herself with talented people, the people who cook the food, style the photos, take the pictures, write the blogs, farm the land, feed the animals, wash the horse blankets, plant, till, do everything, so she can put her stamp on it and make money.
Martha and I had first met in 1984 or ‘85 at a Junior League show in Nashville. We were both on the program—she the keynote (of course) and I was signing cookbooks at a booth. And then we met again in 2017 at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival in Miami when I baked cakes for Trisha Yearwood’s brunch and she and Snoop Dogg made their first big public appearance together on the beach stage. Let’s just say, Martha is more late-night than morning TV these days.
Full disclosure, I thought about writing this piece a few weeks after Martha’s talk, but I couldn’t do it.
The war in Ukraine had broken out, and Martha didn’t seem relevant considering what was happening in the world. What is it about her that I couldn’t stomach? Elitism? And I was worried you couldn’t either.
So I held off writing until now. As my grandmother used to say, take a breath and think about it.
Beauty and Style in Today’s World
Martha and I agree on a few things. She doesn’t like curtains. And I have big windows in my old house and hate to cover them up and obstruct the view.
Martha’s got miles of gravel driveways, and while mine is a lot shorter, I am no match for Martha who keeps hers pristine by attaching rakes to the back of a tractor and as the tractor moves, the rocks smooth out. (Such a great idea!)
We both favor cloth napkins. A paper napkin? “I don’t like the way it feels on my mouth,” she says.
Martha loves birds. A fabulous bird room houses her canaries, and she has a “multinational geese collection” including some from France and China. She has pigeons and a peacock and 50 breeds of chickens with their own Buddhist Sherpa to care for them.
I could not make this up if I tried. Listening to Martha rattle on about her animals veers on comedy.
My friend Beth leans in and whispers, “Does she have elephants and giraffes, too?”
As her talk ends, Beth mutters, “She was fabulous.”
And she was. Martha has such great ideas. She knew the crowd would lap up her slides like French bulldogs waiting for their treats.