It took a flurry of e-mails and phone calls between publicists and p.a’s but I finally obtained an audience with Martha Stewart: one of the most powerful women (up there with Oprah, methinks) in North America and now the come-back queen of cuisine.
She was one of the stars at this year’s annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival: a four-day feast on the beach that took place from Feb 19 to 22.
Like everything in Miami – home to the SUV, boob-jobs, tanned abs and obscenely large restaurant portions – the event was a non-stop, over-the-top wing-ding. Celebrity chefs cooked up a storm, the King and Queen of Spain attended celebrations of Spanish food and there were all manner of before- and after-parties at swanky hotels like the Raleigh and Delano. Needless to say, the booze flowed freely.
But meeting Martha was a pleasant, easy-going surprise.
I interviewed her in Toronto in 1987 when she was beginning her rise to stardom with publication of her second glossy book called Weddings. It followed her first book Entertaining which came out in 1982 and to which she is currently writing a sequel.
Known as a perfectionist, control freak and over-achiever, Martha attracted a loyal following and her fair share of enemies during the ’80s and 90s.
I had a love/hate relationship with this homemaking doyenne, finding her imperious and cold in person. Also, I disliked her message that women can do anything – even sand-blast a house as she did in full gear on one of her TV shows – in the name of creating the perfect home.
But the Martha I met in South Beach this year during our 20-minute, one-on-one conversation was a gentler, kinder woman.
Maybe spending 5 months in prison from 2004/5, then being confined to her home with an ankle bracelet for another 5 months – this resulting from convictions of illicit behaviour on the stock market – has, it seems, humbled and mellowed her.
Whatever the reason, she was affable, polite and even warm as we chatted in the fest’s green room before her cooking demo during which she made sweet-but-simple green and potato salads to go with the lobster she’d boiled. During the demo, she showed a social conscience by asking the audience to buy these crustaceans as the recession has hurt lobster fishermen and processors badly on the East Coast near where she lives.
Her current projects include a radio channel, a line of housewares for Macy’s, a TV show (shown in Canada on CBC), a line of eco-flooring made from recycled carpet and her stalwart magazine Martha Stewart Living.
Her new book, Martha Stewart’s Cooking School, is a kitchen bible that offers step-by-step techniques for everything from making vegetable stock to carving a turkey. I highly recommend it.
She told me she wants to teach budding cooks the basics. She likes to learn and loves to teach. Hence her low opinion of TV reality shows (Gordon Ramsay, step right up) that are “schlock, demeaning and sloppy.”
Martha even spoke out in favour of rehabilitation in a Christmas message during her prison stay – a stay that seems to have elicited compassion and humility in a woman who showed little of either some years ago. Then again, she is 67 years old and they say wisdom comes with age.