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Our Martha, Ourselves


Martha's followers know that she collects fresh eggs from the Palais every morning, and viewers of the morning show also know that she pastes eggshells in her Filofax so that she can match the 22 colors—ranging from yellow to blue to alabaster to ecru—with furniture and fabric that she comes upon when she travels. (One recent product line designed by Martha is a group of exquisite paints in an array of colors based on her eggshells that sell for upwards of $110 a gallon.) Martha describes herself as "openly enthusiastic about her chickens." She keeps more than 100 birds—every variety from the Bearded Golden Polish Bantam to the Silver Sebright—and a "smattering of roosters." Victor Schrager photographs of these chickens that ran in the October issue—taken in the traditional stance of old poultry books (against a slitted backdrop that allows only the bird and the human hands holding it to show)—were recently exhibited at the Pace/MacGill Gallery.

Martha is naturally defensive about a tale that Spy magazine floated years ago. (As with many people who seem too relentless in their pursuit of power, Stewart is the focus of scores of jealous stories, many of them no doubt apocryphal.) Like the hell-hath-no-fury tale of Hillary Clinton supposedly throwing a lamp at Bill in the back rooms of the White House, the Spy item gave us the enduring exurban legend—and image—of Stewart running over a bag of baby chicks in her driveway with her Mercedes. "That's ridiculous and totally untrue," Martha tells me. "Most people would love to come back as my chicken."

"It occurred to us at 'Martha Stewart Living' that we had never really focused on the pleasures of raising backyard livestock," Stewart wrote in a recent letter to her readers.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable talk-show host:

DAVE [standing before two hot plates, waving a ladle around like a golf club]: Our next guest is the hardest—yeow! [burns himself on the bottom of the ladle] Ow, man is that hot. . . . Yikes, she had it here on this little burner unbeknownst to me. That's like a third-degree burn. That's going to blister up like hell in a matter of minutes, folks. Our next guest is the hardest-working woman in the world. She has magazines, TV shows, videos, and her own Kmart deal. This is her new book, it's called Menus for Entertaining. Please welcome back the James Brown of home entertaining [band plays James Brown tune], Martha Stewart. [Applause] How've you been? Happy New Year. Tell us about the pig; you have a cute little pig there.

MARTHA [indicating piglet in cage]: Well, it's the year of the pig, Dave.

DAVE: Yes, it is.

DAVE: Making your own dumplings, huh?

MARTHA: In Chinese lore, the new year, you want to eat as many different dishes as possible, everything means something—

DAVE: How's that Kmart deal going?

MARTHA: Fabulous. It's fabulous.

DAVE: Have you ever actually been in a Kmart?

MARTHA: I go to Kmart all the time. . . .

DAVE: What the hell? It smells like hair is burning. What is that?

MARTHA: No, you're burning eggs.

DAVE: Somebody was telling me earlier today, and I find this hard to believe, that you've been alive and enjoying and experiencing American culture all your life and you've never eaten anything from McDonald's. . . . Why is that?

MARTHA: I don't know why. It just doesn't interest me.

DAVE [looking at yellow gunk in a ladle]: And this does?

MARTHA: These are symbols of wealth, Dave. That's what going on here.

DAVE: Martha, let's finish this up. Some people have to park their cars by the hour, and it's very expensive, and they need to get home. Are we ready to go?

MARTHA [keeps reaching for, but gives up on, recalcitrant pig]: You can do whatever you want, Dave.

DAVE: Oh, I guess I'm . . .

MARTHA [cryptically]: Press that, press that.

DAVE [pushes a button and a small display of white fireworks sputters upward to huge applause]: Wow. Martha Stewart. Wow. Martha Stewart. Thank you, Martha, excellent job.

Like Letterman, Stewart can be quite competitive with guests on her own show. She kept upping the ante while making "mahogany" chicken with her friend Salli LaGrone, and there was a tense moment at the end when both pullets were subjected to a taste test. She had a rugelach bake-off with the show's writer. Hers predictably left his in the dust. He looked at her glowing results and capitulated to his boss: "Yours look . . . more like gifts. Mine look . . . like you'd have to have a family to forgive them."

Seeing the headmistress in action with her own mom is also quite instructive. Perhaps one of her most enjoyable shows ever was when she brought on Big Martha. Big Martha, as she is known in the family, is at least half a foot shorter than her five-foot-nine daughter. (Mom, apparently a hyperpatriot of sorts, named Martha's brother George.) Martha credits her mom, and the bakers next door to her childhood house in Nutley (who were named Maus, but not in the Spiegelman sense), with teaching her how to bake. And when Big Martha (who's now 80) started pounding and rolling the stollen on TV, it was heart-stopping. Truly, despite her tiny size and advanced age, Big Martha has the power of ten men. Smiling over at the sumo goings-on, Little Martha said, "You see where I get my strength from." Later, when the baking was done, Martha turned to her mom and said, "I'll give you a big, fat slice of your own stollen."


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