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Joke all you want about the number of license-plate cookies Martha Stewart will frost with her fellow inmates, this couch potato is really more concerned with who can replace the Queen of Quiches, the Duchess of Dumplings, the Empress of Empañadas. Maybe the real question is: should anyone replace her? The hours I spent sifting through the Food Network didn't fill me with a whole lot of hope.
Martha Stewart managed to elevate humdrum homemaking into a consummate and sometimes unachievable art. From her 500 ways of making ice cubes to her credit card-tiled pool to her sizzling platters of perfectly glazed duck, Martha was a messiah (or antichrist) for homemakers. That is, until her recent legal troubles and subsequent sentence of five months in prison (currently on appeal) upset her candied applecart.
In 1982, Martha came out with her first book, and by 1996 she had been named one of Fortune's "America's Top 25 Most Influential People." The television show "Martha Stewart Living" accumulated a respectable number of Emmy Awards and repackaged itself into a food-only show.
"From Martha's Kitchen," is still available in daily reruns on the Food Network, but "Martha Stewart Living" has been placed on hiatus for the 2004-2005 season.
This doesn't mean Martha's influence won't be felt elsewhere. "Petkeeping with Marc Marrone," a spin-off of pet segments culled from "Martha Stewart Living," now airs in various markets, and a brand new show called "Everyday Food," a simpler approach to food, spun-off from the digest-sized magazine, will air next fall on PBS.
Although neither of these shows involves Martha as host, her absence has nothing to do with her current pariah status. In fact, when Martha developed "Everyday Food," there never a plan that it ever would include her as an on-air personality — it is considered a separate part of the Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia empire.
What makes Martha's food so sublime is anchored in her presentation. Long before celebrity television chefs came into vogue with their swizzles of reduced balsamic sauces or their blobs of pesto, Martha was making food beautiful. Martha worked tirelessly. Martha was a perfectionist. Martha had an eye for the beautiful and a talent for detail.
There are contenders out there that approximate Martha's level of food difficulty, but is this what the food world wants anymore? Maybe it's time to embrace a change. People were heartily sick of Martha's perfection and anal retentiveness even before she got into salted hot water over the sale of her ImClone shares.
Paula Deen of "Paula's Home Cooking" is sweet and homey with a molasses thick Southern accent that can sound a bit exaggerated ("Stray-et frum mah howse t'yers"), but it's a welcome change from Martha's over-enunciations that are reminiscent of a snippy English teacher. While preparing traditional and simple southern-influenced meals from her Georgia kitchen, Deen also throws in charming phrases, like "cut off our fire" when talking about turning down the stove. However, Deen is so regional with her cooking that she doesn't generally appeal to a large enough audience of cooks and eaters.
Another comforting contender is Sara Moulton, who, like Martha, invites experts to dish out culinary and party planning advice. In "Sara's Secrets," Moulton doesn't stand in a fancy kitchen or take walks outside to show off a palatial estate where she can pick fresh flowers to decorate her table. Instead, she's straightforward, accomplished, and honest. She often admits to mistakes she makes in cooking, which humanizes her compared to Martha's seamlessly produced segments that made her androidal in her abject perfection. While I love what Moulton does and how she does it, I don't see much in her style that would inspire the hordes of adoring fans that have gathered around Martha.
Ina Garten as the "Barefoot Contessa" is directly reminiscent of Stewart in many ways. Garten favors the very best ingredients, and on her show she prepares impressive meals for a variety of guests with seemingly very little effort. Yet, I think people are finally sick of the Hampton-based diva — like Martha, she seems to have pots of money to assist in creating her lavish meals and throwing parties on the grounds of her sumptuous estate. Where Martha was inventive with her time, money, and exquisite technique, Garten is just ostentatious and demonstrates very little technique. Even if you weren't rich, Martha inspired you — if you had the time — to be resourceful and create something beautiful and delicious; Garten puts butter in her hamburger patties and inspires bloat.
"30 Minute Meals" could be seen as a reaction to Martha's complicated and time-consuming recipes, as garrulous and best-selling cookbook author Rachael Ray slaps and dashes her extremely perky way through a full meal in only a half an hour. What she makes up for in speed, Ray sometimes loses in quality, as when she advocates using frozen, pre-made pie crusts. I have never come across a pre-made crust that tasted like anything other than wet cardboard. Ray's show is all about just getting by, and viewers will never learn anything more than that. Not in thirty minutes, anyway,
Ray's culinary crimes aren't nearly as offensive to the palate as Sandra Lee, who in some benighted circles has already been heralded as the next Martha. As the self-crowned "Semi-Homemade Cooking" prom queen, Lee shows viewers how "gourmet" they can appear by using predominantly pre-packaged or pre-made ingredients. She does little dances to her food (Martha would never dance!) as she tries to convince you that her Cheez-Whiz pasta sauces are not the slop they are. If people truly accept this Wal-Martha Stewart as the real thing, I weep for gastrointestinal tracts everywhere.
And with yet another cooking show for those with too much on their plates, Family Circle has given us "Good Food Fast," in which host Ceci Carmichael shows audiences how to prepare family favorite meals while cutting down on time and money. Aside from noting the rather distracting fact that Carmichael and Rachel Griffiths may have been separated at birth, I haven't been able to watch an entire episode. I blame it on the fact that her Dr. Seuss-colored kitchen has seared my retinas.
The chef for geeksThese time-saving shows are fine and dandy in their multiple formats, but who is going to show us how to make quality chicken stock without making us feel as though we have to sell our house for the accompanying ingredients? Enter Alton Brown of "Good Eats."
Brown is the chef for geeks and in a few years has already amassed a cult following. He's the culinary Bill Nye the Science Guy and just a glance at his episode titles ("Deep Space Slime," "Wonton Ways," and "The Dough Also Rises") will show you that he clearly has fun with what he's doing. Brown picks a single subject — coffee, garlic, and poaching all have had shows to themselves — and researches the heck out of it. By the end of the show, he's presented various ways to prepare that particular food or utilize that particular method, and he's explained the science in a way that throws me back to my PBS-viewing childhood. Brown even finds time to consult with his Bond-like associate, "W," to suss out the best multi-use gadgets and cookware.
Some might find Brown's methods hokey, but once you understand the whys and wherefores of how things work, it ensures that you won't produce a slippery lemon meringue pie because you tried to whip egg whites on a day when there's 98% humidity. Besides, how can you afford to pass up a cooking show that uses the whoosh-whoosh Star Trek doors as a sound effect?
It's certainly a great sign when a chef has the power to send squealing hordes of fans to Bed, Bath and Beyond to buy the latest knife or skillet as used and approved by said chef. However, to step into Martha Stewart's decoupaged clogs and bust their tired seams, a new Gastronomic God or Goddess must make viewers eat outside the box and look at cooking in a new light. Each new episode should be stuffed with information that can later be applied, expanded upon, and digested in our own kitchens.
But most importantly, the next Martha Stewart's gotta be good TV — he or she's gotta entertain, explain, and make you hungry for more. I think of that old adage and I realize that Alton Brown hasn't just taught us how to fish, he's taught us how to smoke, cure, filet, and truss that fish.
Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic is a freelance writer living in San Francisco