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Austin Chronicle Hearth & Soul

By Suzy Banks

The Search for Imperfection

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  While researching an article I'm working on about living cheap and well, I discovered an aphorism: People despise perfection. This notion has been twinkling around in my gray matter since I was a little kid and my aunt Dot told me that her beautiful Turkish rug wasn't perfect, that the weavers had intentionally made a mistake so they wouldn't anger the gods with their perfection. Martha Stewart should have had an Aunt Dot.

I've always felt ambivalent about Martha Stewart. I liked a lot of the ideas in her magazine and cookbooks. As per her instructions, I've made hanging candle holders out of canning jars and baling wire. I've prepared her little cucumber boats stuffed with feta cheese and tomatoes. And while she does seem stuffy and a little snooty, I figured, "Well, she is from Connecticut. Maybe she can't help it." Judging from the parodies and essays I've read about her, I realized she wasn't exactly beloved to many people. But when I plugged her name into an Internet search, I discover she is actually loathed. Of the thousands of websites devoted to Martha, at least the first hundred are predominately vitriolic: "I Hate Martha Stewart" and "Martha Stewart Is a Fake" and "Martha Stewart Should Get a Life."

Why? Why do so many people hate a gal who's got a way with flower arrangements and doily placement? It's because she's perfect, or more specifically, because she seems to think she's perfect. She plasters her name all over her magazine and looks as though she, alone, is responsible for every clever idea presented beautifully between the pages. And she portrays an impossible ideal of efficiency and style. One look at "Martha's Calendar" in the front of her magazine and I begin to hate her, too. How in the world can she go sport fishing for tarpon off the coast of Costa Rica, touch up paint on outdoor urns, give a 10:30am lecture in Fort Worth and still find time to do all those banal things she won't tell us about, like having her hair colored? How come I have to spend a half a day cleaning the refrigerator during which time Martha has pickled her homegrown okra, thrown a party on the beach for 20, grown an orchid, and appeared on The Today Show? She makes me feel even less than inadequate, like maybe I have a serious mental illness I'm unaware of. And you know, she doesn't smile very much. Is she having any fun? Rather than start my own hate-filled website, I'm going to focus on the antithesis of Martha: Julia Child. The spirited 85-year-old cook is as much loved as Martha is loathed. Why? Well, while Julia darned sure knows her petite pan from her pie pan and the results of her efforts in the kitchen are near-perfect, anyone who has watched her on reruns of The French Chef knows the efforts themselves can be wild and chaotic and wrought with hazards. Pot holders catch on fire. Trussing string winds up in the sauce. Omelets flip off onto the cooktop. But through it all, Julia remains unflappable, swinging with the punches in this flawed world, convincing the rest of us that mistakes will be made and they can be a hell of a lot more fun than perfection.

(Catch Baking With Julia, which begins its third season on PBS this month.)

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