Dinner at Martha’s: The Exuberance and the Exclusion

BY AMERICA LOPEZ

First, mix a couple dozen photographs of Martha Stewart posing next to an ornate dining table, her servants, and her basket collection. Then, stir in futile tips on how to correctly plate food. Add modified versions of Chinese and Russian cuisine recipes, and label them as “foreign”. Mix in the word “hostess” a couple hundred times. Let chill, and you have got Martha Stewart’s Entertaining.

In Martha Stewart’s first cookbook, Entertaining (1982), she guides the reader through the meticulous duty of being a hostess. Through her recipes and collective menus, Martha Stewart allows the reader to glimpse into the glamorous life of a domestic diva. She indulges the reader in a fine dining experience with images of tranquil gardens and delicate table settings. As charming as Entertaining is, Stewart further perpetuates the deep-rooted domestic ideology that continues to be prescribed to women of the 21st century, simultaneously ignoring anybody that does not identify in the white, heterosexual, upper-class category. Through the dichotomous character of homemaker and business mogul, Martha Stewart excludes many based off their gender, class and ethnicity.

Martha Stewart begins by familiarizing the reader to the world of entertaining, setting a definite distinction between a woman and man’s role at a dinner party. In the introduction, Stewart recalls the family members that influenced her perception of the domestic sphere and entertaining; her mother was the hostess, while the men in her family either fished or were butchers. She advocates to the reader in the preface,

A party is never for one.

Stewart explains her belief of entertaining as something “natural” and rudimentary. It is taking something personally appealing and making it bigger, to include guests. In this way, a dinner conveys the desire to please others, an enduring notion of women’s purpose in the kitchen since the Victorian era.

Martha Stewart sells the idea of entertaining to women as an opportunity to be creative and individualistic. From Stewart’s point of view, women are demonstrating autonomy, the ability to make their own choices by deciding how to piece the aesthetics of entertaining together. The relationship between autonomy and the kitchen is not new as Kathleen LeBesco demonstrates in “There’s Always Room for Resistance: Jell-O, Gender, and Social Class.”2 According to LeBesco, Jell-O is more than a gelatinous, bouncy, convenience food; it is a symbol of power. Through inventive combinations and presentations, it is a source of creativity and recognition. Although cooking and entertaining may serve as a form of agency for women, it is still submissive to patriarchal structures as Jessamyn Neuhaus describes in Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America. The 1920’s domestic ideology aimed at the middle class homemaker promoted cooking as an “artistic outlet for women,” an “important and pleasurable part of women’s duties.”3

Stewart encourages women to not only cook, but also to take part in the decoration decisions. Problematically, both can be interpreted as acts of defiance and compliance. She gives advice on what steps to take as an entertainer, stating:

I quickly learned to be a participating hostess, rather than a reclusive cook.” The hostess is the “master of ceremonies.

Her place is “center stage.” Stewart encourages the hostess to think about the best mix of guests, playing matchmaker. She also makes it known that it is the hostess’ duty to enliven the gathering with music, establishing an ambience and evading any silences.

Stewart expects the women to be active members of the party and assume a large responsibility, never once mentioning delegating any work to the men of the family. The word “hostess” is repeatedly used to refer to the reader throughout the cookbook. It is not until page 164 that Stewart depicts “the host carving the meat and the hostess distributing vegetables.”1 It is the singular mention of any male participating in the entertaining preparations, and his only contribution is cutting the meat. It is interesting, but not surprising that the only mention of men in the cookbook involves a sharp utensil and meat, both of which are associated with masculinity. Masculinity and femininity are not explicitly discussed, but are constant themes throughout the introductions and recipes. Unknowingly, Martha Stewart is promoting distinct separate spheres for men and women in the kitchen.

Gender is not the only form of identity used to exclude at Martha’s dinner parties; she further overlooks readers based off class. Stewart’s recommendations for planning a party give an insight of her audience and her view of women in the domestic sphere. Undoubtedly, Martha Stewart’s tips on planning a gathering assume many details about the reader, such as socio-economic class, ethnicity, race, and gender. She claims that with thought and planning, many different kinds of parties can be accomplished in everyday space. However, Stewart gives a lengthy account of interactions with different caterers and questions to ask them, in case of larger parties. She also gives advice on what to look for in service help. For a cocktail party she recommends:

Two people will be needed in the kitchen to assemble and decorate trays, and four are needed to pass trays of hors d’oeuvres. Four bartenders will keep an open bar running smoothly.

Another recurring suggestion is to hire “Julliard students” to play live music at the social gatherings, demonstrating an assumed financial status. In this planning section, she also includes the assumed available ingredients and household technology, such as a food processor or blender, electric hand mixer, melon baller, apple corer, lemon zester that blatantly exclude people without the financial resources. Stewart asks the reader to think about caterers, servants, guests, location, season, and music for the parties, something impossible to someone without significant financial resources.

She states that the book is not only meant for the elite, but also for those that consider cooking as “drudgery.” However through complex recipes with meticulous steps, Stewart proves to be directing her attention towards the seasoned cook, who has a passion for entertaining. Martha Stewart’s recipes only accentuate the gap between social statuses. One of the beginning appetizers includes “cherry tomatoes stuffed with sour cream and red caviar,” a dish undeniably biased for those familiar with caviar, its taste, and where to purchase it.

Not only do most dishes require a certain level of sophistication and assumed availability of ingredients, but they also assume the hostess has plenty of time to dedicate to the kitchen. In one section, Stewart takes the reader through step-by-step instructions of how to make French bread from scratch. One of the last sections of the cookbook is entirely dedicated to desserts, which she qualifies as,

Real desserts, as opposed to a dish of fruit.

Martha Stewart encourages the reader to partake in baking, assuring the reader desserts are fun to make and can be made in advance. Stewart depicts desserts as an impressive way to end an event and demonstrate attention and thoughtfulness to the guests. Once again, Stewart adheres to the idea that women in the kitchen are intended to serve others and have the time to do so.

From basic hors d’oeuvres to wedding menus, Martha Stewart’s Entertaining provides the reader with an array of menus, but all of the recipes are of European culinary traditions. Stewart presents Japanese, Chinese, and Russian dishes as foreign and “exotic,” obviously assuming a white audience. She tends to reduce these “exotic” cuisines to their aesthetic and attractiveness. When talking about a tempura party, she says it is “a matter of attractive display on a center island, counter top, or bread boards, and last minute cooking.” She fails to recognize the significance of the cuisine and the ties some of her audience may have to this culinary tradition. She assumes no culturally specific cooking from the reader by continuously describing these ethnic dishes as “adaptable” to the American palate and lifestyle.

Recipes, menus, photographs, and descriptions in Martha Stewart’s Entertaining all emphasis the glorified role of the female homemaker, while advocating a homogenized cuisine and culture. While focusing on bolstering the worth and value of domestic labor, Stewart fails to recognize the diversity in the audience, proving to not be a very good hostess.

Notes/Bibliography
  1. Stewart, Martha. Entertaining. Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1982.
  2. LeBesco, Kathleen. There’s Always Room for Resistance: Jell-O, Gender, and Social Class. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2001. 129-147.
  3. Neuhaus, Jessamyn. Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking : Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. 1-26.

Photo credit: marthonian.blog.com