In the 1970s counterculture of northern California, everyone had a guru or spiritual leader. My childhood was filled with people who were seeking. Some of them studied different types of Buddhism, from Zen to Tibetan. There were yogis and Sufis and followers of Mother Meera, Sai Baba, and Ram Dass. People had spiritual names (Hello, Starhawk!) and spiritual practices, and in their homes they had small shrines and altars festooned with calligraphy, prayer scarves, and incense that made my nose wrinkle. To this day, I can’t stand the smell of sandalwood.
When my brother and I were bored in the back of the car, we didn’t look for out-of-state license plates. It was more fun to be the first to spot the followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rashneesh who dressed in bright red and purple clothes. There were far more of them floating around northern California at that time than out-of-state license plates anyway.
When I was 13, I found my own guru. Her name was Martha Stewart.
Martha was not yet Martha then. I discovered her on a one-time PBS segment about Thanksgiving, but she already had her trademark style, her feel for traditions, her finely honed sense of how things should be done. To a child who had been searching her whole life for structure — for someone to tell me how things are done — it was a dream come true.
A generation of hippies had fled the constraints of their traditional upbringings to create an environment where there were no boundaries, only possibility. Having grown up in such possibility, all I wanted was structure. I wanted to know how life worked. When I asked a question, I wanted a substantial answer that would help me navigate the world. I didn’t want to be told to follow my bliss.
Forget drawing outside the lines — I desperately wanted to know where the lines were so I could stay inside them. Martha, it seemed, could tell me. She had all the answers. Of course, I idolized her.
I started cooking with gusto, making jam and canning. I decided I needed to move to Westport, Connecticut, to live in a Revolution-era farmhouse on Turkey Hill Road down the street from Martha. Where do hippie kids go when they grow up? The suburbs of Connecticut, apparently.
The only problem with Martha was that she ate meat.
This wasn’t so much a problem for Martha — I expected her to eat meat because most everyone did. It was more a problem for me. My mother bought me her cookbooks, as they began to be published, and I faithfully tried to replicate what I saw in the glossy photos. My mom kindly supported my efforts, to the extent of buying me vodka so that I could make Martha’s holiday Cranberry Cordial.
When I think about this today, I am stunned that my mother would buy booze for a minor who claimed to need it for “culinary purposes.” I can’t imagine Child Protective Services would approve of this sort of behavior.
But hippie kids often turn our far more straightlaced than their parents, and my mom knew she didn’t have anything to worry about with me. While my friends were sneaking out at night and trying to get their hands on beer, I was staying home and making jam. I gave away every last bottle of the vodka-based cordial to family friends, all well over the legal drinking age. I was more interested in putting together an attractive gift basket than I was in getting drunk.
I even talked my mother into letting me recreate Martha’s Bouillabaisse Luncheon, as a farewell meal for a family friend who was moving away. I hadn’t yet realized that I don’t like fish — I hadn’t eaten more than the occasional tuna sandwich at a playmate’s house — so the bouillabaisse was actually a disappointment to me. The Crème Caramel, however — made in the charlotte mold that I bought from Williams-Sonoma with my babysitting money — was quite good, and the afternoon spent under the dappled shade of the walnut trees in our backyard was lovely. Martha might even have approved.
But when it came to serious meals — those with real, meaty dishes at their center — I was out of luck. There was no way I could convince my vegetarian mother to let me bake a ham. Most teenagers petition for extended curfews or the keys to the family car. All I wanted to do was make a rack of lamb.
In all honesty, I’m not sure I would have had the guts to cook a lamb, not to mention eat it (soft, fuzzy, cute lamb). In the end it didn’t matter; the option was off the table from the start. Instead I pored over the photos and recipes. Unlike more traditional cookbooks that have separate sections for meat and fish and such, here they were all mixed together. To cook from a Martha Stewart book was not simply to recreate a recipe, it was to create an experience, a lifestyle.
This is the way to live, the books seemed to tell me. This is a life worth replicating. Forget following my own bliss; I wanted to follow Martha’s.
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An American native
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Cracking a Filipino favorite