First lady of frills Aglow: When they made Martha Stewart, they broke the mold. It's probably better that way, though the rest of us can still enjoy the fantasy.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Once upon a time, Hillary Rodham Clinton stalked the power centers of Washington, invading smoky back rooms and twisting arms to reform health care and otherwise shatter the traditional first lady mold. That didn't play, of course, and she's been steadily recast ever since as a kinder, gentler and wifey-er first lady, her outspoken style muzzled and even her hair shellacked into Texas-cheerleader's-mother submission.

Tonight, the devolution is complete: The first lady appears on a Martha Stewart TV show.

Yes, the doyenne of domesticity has corralled even Hillary Clinton. No one, it seems, is safe. The first lady makes a cameo on "Martha Stewart's Home for the Holidays," a CBS special that airs at 8 on WJZ-Channel 13, fulfilling the same role that all guests on all Martha programs fulfill: validating Martha's utter perfection.

Ms. Clinton is shown standing on the White House lawn while Martha hangs a wreath on one of the balconies and asks her how it looks. If you think she responds, "Get that gilded thing off my house this instant," or, "Whatever, just go away and let me get back to making policy," then you haven't been keeping up on the whole Martha ethos.

No, Hillary tells Martha it's perfect, and of course it is. It always is.

Like all of Martha's considerable outpourings -- her books, her magazine, her weekly Sunday morning TV show -- the production values of this, her first prime-time special, are quite lovely. Everything is bathed in a golden light. Candles glow seductively; dapples of light glance over the seemingly casual (but carefully) placed bowl of fruits or bundle of greens. But most glowing of all is Martha herself, all fresh-faced from gathering pine boughs and berries in the woods in one scene, all serene cool in a gray sweater set and pearls making silvery ornaments in another.

Like all of Martha's productions, this is nominally a how-to show. Ha! If your holidays involve making an elaborate gingerbread house complete with Necco-wafer shingled roof; madly tossing a spun-sugar web around a towering croquembouche desert; and steaming and baking and bottling a rash of plum puddings, cookies and panettones, and herbal vinegars to give as gifts, well, how would you have time to spend an hour watching Martha do the same?

Martha is best enjoyed as fantasy. Oh, you may pick up a hint or two to elevate your humdrum life, but it's hard to imagine doing up the holidays the way Martha does. Even if you had the help of your willing family -- both her mother and one of her sisters, a more strained version of Martha herself, are featured on the show -- and the considerable behind-the-scenes staff of Martha Inc.

Despite all those extra hands, even Martha seems a bit harried at times in the show: She rushes rather breathlessly from garland-making to ornament-fashioning to party-preparing. The holidays can do that to you -- all those mythic images of incident-free family gatherings and artful, craftsy domestications crash into the modern-day reality of microwaved dinners and phone-tag relationships.

But that is the genius of Martha Stewart: She understands the in

nate appeal of the concept, if not the execution, of the perfect home. If only we could perfectly swag a mantle or perfectly wrap a personalized gift basket, everything else would fall into place. She is not the first, of course, to understand and exploit the lure of the homey and the handmade -- she just upscaled it. Pre-Martha, the only outlet for the urge to domesticate were awful crafts projects like stenciling ducks on your wall or knitting covers for your tissue boxes; the only mavens to turn to for homemaking advice were women like the hint-crazed Heloise. Martha gave gardening and cooking and decorating a more elegant cachet.

But it's also a more expensive one. Watching her show, in which baskets of pecans were drilled to make garlands and bushels of fruit were toothpicked and dipped and carved up to form inedible decorations made me want to scream: There are starving children in the world! The lavishness extends to time as well as raw materials. You'll watch as Martha goes through her instructions of how to make her uniformly time-consuming decorations -- "tiny trees" out of boxwood sprigs, topiaries of celosia blossoms and pyramids of sugared fruit -- then hear her say, "This will last one or two days." Don't even try to work up a cost-benefit analysis of such activities.

And sometimes, Martha gets a little too confident of her own finesse: Yes, she does have that Midas touch that turns even the common into the stylish. But not even she can turn dishwashing soap into a gift you wouldn't be embarrassed to give -- pouring Palmolive into one of those tall, pretty bottles more commonly used for olive oil and tying a red ribbon around it does not a present make.

Most of her projects, however, are quite lovely: wreaths of lush magnolia leaves and gilded bay leaves, embossed aluminum ornaments and gift tags, and, my favorite, clay ornaments stamped with springerle cookie molds. There's nothing as goofy as some past Martha crafts -- nothing to compare, for example, to one of her autumn projects: drilling and scooping out innocent miniature gourds and sticking a string of lights through them to hang on her porch.

But then, even Martha gets that she's a bit obsessive: The other two guests on her show, Miss Piggy and Julia Child, are allowed to joke about that. Miss Piggy, invited on the show after the Muppet included a Martha recipe in her own cookbook, is a hoot, chortling as Martha constructs a gingerbread house and declaring that, wow, it only took "15,000 man-hours!" The aging Ms. Child joins Martha in the kitchen to make croquembouche, a tower of pate-a-choux puffs that Martha says she learned from Ms. Child's cookbooks. Martha says she wants to make one comprised of about 300 puffs, leading Ms. Child to wryly note that it is possible if you, say, forgo sleeping the night before the dinner.

Inspired by watching a preview tape, I'd like to play Martha for a moment and offer you my own, special seasonal tip: Set your VCR for tonight's show and watch it when you actually have some free time, like after the holidays.

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