The Martha Stewart Machine She's On A Roll - From Catering To Books To Video

Posted: March 22, 1987

NEW YORK — Martha Stewart, the empress of entertaining, was describing her previous night's dinner menu in the sort of breezy, offhanded way that most of us talk about microwaved fish sticks. The meal, she said with a modest shrug, was just a "quick cook," typical of the everyday fare that she whips up in her Connecticut kitchen and serves to husband Andy (on complementary linens and plates always) and that, believe it or not, absolutely anybody can make in 45 minutes, no sweat.

For starters, Stewart explained, she sent her driver to the gourmet shop.

She told him to pick out big, fat asparagus spears, which she planned to

dress in a shallot vinaigrette as a first course. Next on his list were special white chickens, to be broiled with saffron and thyme tucked beneath the skin and presented with risotto, made from her own vegetable broth and wild mushrooms, and a simple salad of fresh mozzarella, radicchio, white chicory and arugula. For dessert, she decided on a dish of baked nectarines ("I told him nectarines or apricots, whichever looked better") mixed with raspberries and blackberries and topped with a bit of vanilla sugar and creme fraiche.

"A beautiful meal!" she chirruped, noting the necessity of a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. "And it takes no time at all."

That night, it took even less than usual, since it never got out of the refrigerator. Alas, Stewart was tied up in Manhattan all day long, and when she finally got home, dinnertime had come and gone and Andy had a headache. ''So no, I didn't actually make it," she replied, after being asked why she had recounted the meal in an unusual implied-subjunctive-present-perfect tense. "But all the ingredients were there, and I would have made it, and it would have been delicious."

In the amazing world of Martha Stewart Inc., talking about food is far more rewarding than eating it, anyway. Barely a day passes in America without a Martha Stewart Lecture, in which she narrates slides showing the excruciatingly ornamented feasts that are her trademark. Almost every month, a couple of dozen ladies assemble at her Westport "farmette" for a Martha Stewart Seminar, a three-day course in high-style hostessing for which she charges $900 (transportation and lodging not included). There is the Martha Stewart Newsletter, through which she sells a mail-order collection of pricey copper goods that include a $29 cow-shaped cookie cutter and a $55 16-inch square tray. In the works are a series of Martha Stewart PBS specials, the first of which aired last Thanksgiving season; a glossy magazine; a line of Martha Stewart tableware from the Franklin Mint, and a set of Martha Stewart videos.

Hard to believe that just five years ago, Stewart was running a trendy but relatively tiny $1 million-a-year catering business. Today, at age 44, she rules an empire so vast that writers have been spraining their brains to come up with a proper title for the willowy, honey-blond beauty, who puts forth the disarming image of a Park Avenue Bo Peep. She has been dubbed the Goddess of Graciousness, the Doyenne of the Dinner Table, the Barbara Cartland of Cuisine.

At the mention of each, Stewart chuckled. "Just call me 'author.' "

Indeed, at the heart of raging Marthamania are the Big Books. The first, in 1982, was the lavishly illustrated Entertaining, a $35 semi-autobiographical cookbook in which Stewart introduced not only herself but also the joys of splitting open dozens of individual snow-pea pods and spreading minute amounts of herb cheese inside or adorning a creme caramel with fresh daffodils. Buoyed by its immediate success, primarily among the upscale women who remain her major market, Stewart rapidly produced three more books - Pies & Tarts, Quick Cook (based on the regular House Beautiful column she writes) and Hors d'Oeuvres. Along with Entertaining, they have sold more than a million copies to date.

Now, with no lack of pomp and circumstance, Stewart has given her devotees Weddings, a $50, 5 1/2-pound panegyric to nuptial celebrations. Over the course of three years, she and her minions attended (and on occasion catered) 50 weddings she deemed "fabulous," snapping photos, for instance, of Canadian socialite Sophie Desmarais and Michel Kaine descending the grand staircase of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to greet their 1,500 guests; of New York sophisticate Hilary Cushing being fitted for her gown in the atelier of designer Mary McFadden; of the yacht decked with a "just married" banner and docked outside the waterfront club where Sissy Cargill and Kelsey Biggers were plighting their troth.

For about-to-be-weds, Stewart stressed, it's "the kind of book that you just have to look at before you start doing anything."

Clearly, a lot of her stalwart readers buy that: They already are marching in droves into bookstores to snatch up the first printing of 75,000 copies, prompting Clarkson Potter, the publisher, to crank up the presses for a second run. "Because I have a reputation now, people were waiting for this book," explained Stewart, a woman of seemingly unflagging self-confidence. ''Appetites were quite whetted."

To be sure, she is more in demand than ever, with a schedule that has her jetting from a gourmet gala in Dallas to media interviews in Los Angeles and to Philadelphia's Palace Hotel this Friday evening for the annual Cook and a Book festivities. With Weddings as a guide, the Palace staff will stage an elaborate champagne and hors d'oeuvres reception at 5:30, $50 per couple, and a black-tie dinner, $150 a pair, at 7:30. A string quartet will play, models will float through in bridal creations by designer Ann Pakradooni, J.E. Caldwell's will set exquisite tables, and Stewart will mingle and autograph copies of her book, to be given free to guests.

She won't be slaving in the kitchen with Palace chefs, needless to say. ''But I did help plan the menu."

Which is?

"Oh, they know," she sighed, waving a long, elegant hand in the air. "I don't know."

*

Sigmund Freud merely asked the question. Martha Stewart answered it.

"Yes, I think I do know what women want," she declared the other morning as she sat in her publisher's Park Avenue office. "I don't mean equality, and I don't mean feminism. But what they really want underneath. They really like to have a beautiful home. They really like to have lovely children. They like to have a nice husband. They like to have pets and gardens and flowers and pretty dishes."

Stewart tells women it's OK, even glorious, to "want that stuff." And therein lies a lot of her appeal.

Still, even she is sometimes taken aback by her own ferocious success. "I do admit that very few people have written five best-selling nonfiction illustrated books," she marveled, "and that is something I have done in just 4 1/2 years. Entertaining is still selling like a brand-new book. . . .

"Then again, I'm not surprised by people's success if I know what they're like. I work real hard. I'm up by 5 o'clock every morning, and I just work and work and work and work. And I am very productive."

She started to work - as a model for the Ford agency - when she was 13- year-old Martha Kostyra of Nutley, N.J., one of six children in a family with ''good genes" but not much money. "Yeah, I modeled until I was 22," recalled Stewart, who still can assume a picture-perfect smile in less time than it takes to remove a lens cap. "I did Lifebuoy soap, Tareyton cigarettes. Put myself through school."

At the age of 19, in her sophomore year at Barnard, she married Andrew Stewart, a Yale law school student. He would later become head of the publishing house of Stewart, Tabori & Chang, known for its coffee-table books. After the birth of their daughter, she went to work on Wall Street as an institutional stockbroker and, at the height of the go-go market in the latter half the '60s, was earning upwards of $100,000 a year. In 1972, when stocks took a tumble, she "retired" to their six-acre farm, next door to the Paul Newmans.

Stewart likes to say that she just "fell into" the food business. One day she was teaching her daughter's little classmates to cook; the next, lending a hand at friends' social affairs, and finally, agreeing to cater them - though she got off to a calamitous start when, at a steamy August wedding reception, her special oeufs en gelee melted and the top layer of the cake slid portside.

Still, Stewart's styling flair - whether she was heaping crudites into mountainous "landscape architecture," dressing tabletops with antique quilts or dispatching her crew, attired in Israeli army khakis, to a bat mitzvah - became renowned. Before long, her client list included not only the neighboring Newmans but also Paloma Picasso, General Foods, American Express and New York's Whitney Museum.

It was her friend Alan Mirken - head of Crown Publishing, parent of Clarkson Potter - who suggested a book. "He said, 'Martha, if you ever have an idea, just send it in,' " she reported. "My husband's company couldn't publish it because they had this thing about nepotism. So I wrote the outline and I handed it in to Alan. I didn't have to hand it in to an editor. I didn't have to go through the ordinary channels. Alan was the president."

Such ingredients in the Stewart success recipe have given others in the culinary arts varying degrees of indigestion. While readily acknowledging her marketing brilliance, critics have griped that Stewart, for one thing, never paid her dues in the food world and that, for another, some of her dishes look far better than they taste.

But the most troubling allegation has been plagiarism. It was first heard

from Barbara Tropp, who asserted that several of her recipes from The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking had been reprinted without attribution in Entertaining. Subsequent editions credited Tropp's work as having "inspired" Stewart.

The latest allegations appeared in a December article in Newsweek magazine, which contended that other Stewart creations - specifically, a chaud-froid sauce, an orange-almond cake and a pound cake - originated with Julia Child.

"You know, where did the pound-cake recipe come from in the first place?" proposed Stewart, obviously stung. "That's my answer. It's a pound of butter, a pound of flour, a pound of sugar. I didn't copy anybody's recipe. I have absolutely used other people's recipes in my cooking. But when I write a recipe, I'm not plagiarizing. I don't think anybody plagiarizes. I mean, anybody who's ever written a cookbook is going to use ideas and ingredients

from other recipes. I'm just sick and tired of it, and I'm not consciously plagiarizing somebody else's work."

Stewart shook her head, shrugged and said, "I don't know what it is. I don't know why people (in the food community) don't like me. I don't even know half the people who don't like me. I don't know why they pick on me all the time. I don't know why there's hate or envy or anything in this world. I don't envy anybody, and I'm not jealous of anybody except, you know, maybe Meryl Streep."

The Marthamachine rolls on. Behind it is her catering business, more or less defunct. "I couldn't have done Weddings without catering," she explained, since it gave her entree to some of the grander do's. "But I really don't need it anymore."

Nor does she have the time. Already she has begun work on her next major book, tentatively titled Cooking From the Garden and due out in 1989. All of her tomes have offered generous servings of the Stewart lifestyle, and this one will home in on her garden, which stretches over six acres. She's keeping a diary and, every morning at 8, meeting with her gardener Renato to plot the day's agenda.

"So much information is going to be in this book," she trilled. "Again, it's going to be pretty big. It will be a sourcebook for people who are interested in plants and seeds and tools. It will be a how-to garden book. And it will be a tabletop book and a cookbook, with lots of real, real simple recipes. Like, pick a head of lettuce and a bowl of peas and what do you do with it?"

For one thing, don't stick a dahlia in it. True, it was Stewart who taught people to strew their food with flora, to place a single orchid here, to build a virtual Burpee demo bed over there. Now it is Stewart who's saying it's out, that colorful vegetables are in. "I go to people's homes for dinner, and every course has some inedible flower sitting on it, because they think that's decorating the plate." Stewart chortled. "I think you'll see that kind of stuff going away."

Along with her books, Stewart is tuning in more and more to the possibilities of television. During her PBS Thanksgiving special, she discovered she liked acting and could, in fact, maintain her on-camera composure when she was forced to make stuffing in a too-small bowl. "I loved the challenge of having to do that and making it work. I'm trying real hard to get a lot of television stuff going."

Indeed, it is some measure of Stewart's expanding horizons that she's been approached to do one of the "Don't let 'em see ya sweat" deodorant commercials.

"I'd love to do that," she said enthusiastically, "and I'd be perfect for it. I never sweat."

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