Surprised by Stewart’s ‘Very Good Things’
Most of us like comeback stories.
We enjoy watching “Cinderella Man,” where the washed-up heavyweight James J. Braddock returns to the ring and defeats all his opponents to become world champion. We take pleasure in the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose novel The Great Gatsby many considered a failure at Fitzgerald’s death, but which critics and readers today regard as one of the top-shelf novels in American literature. We think of Ulysses S. Grant in Galena, Illinois, selling firewood on a street corner to make ends meet. A few years later, he was commanding the Union armies in the Civil War and would become president of the United States.
Martha Stewart holds a place of honor in this comeback gang as well.
In the last decade of the 20th century, Stewart was a doyen of recipes, manners and style. She turned out books on cooking and decorating, hosted television shows and was a national celebrity.
In 2004, her empire seemed to come crashing down when Stewart was convicted of stock trading irregularities and served a five-month prison sentence. Many pronounced her enterprises at an end, expecting her ruination to be permanent.
It didn’t happen. Instead, Stewart emerged from prison, took up where she’d left off, published more books, developed more television shows about cooking and gardening and is today a successful entrepreneur.
And like so many others, I admire her for that comeback.
Which brings me to Martha Stewart’s Very Good Things: Clever Tips & Genius Ideas for an Easier, More Enjoyable Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021, 288 pages).
As Stewart explains in this latest book, “It’s a good thing” became her catchphrase back in the 1990s on her television shows and was the title of a regular column in Martha Stewart Living, her magazine. Very Good Things is a collection of the best of these columns.
Some readers of this review may wonder why a guy who just turned 70, who makes more than half his meals by popping a box into the microwave, and whose idea of home decoration consists of cleaning off the island table in the kitchen twice a week would read and review Martha Stewart?
Here are three explanations.
I’ve already said I admired the woman as one of the comeback crew. When I saw this latest book in the library, I picked it up out of my high regard for her.
Then there’s the photograph on the front of Very Good Things. This woman’s nearly 80-years-old? She must be sipping from Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth. Maybe looking through her book would magically remove my own wrinkles, gray hair, splotched complexion and sagging jowls.
The format of Very Good Things also appealed to me. I’m running behind on book reviews, and this collection featured lots of photographs and blips of advice that made for an easy read. I figured I could dash through it and toss out a review without breaking a sweat.
Then came the surprise that forced me to slow down and actually pay attention.
I found dozens of tips that could even make this old guy happier in his home.
On page 14, for example, the book offered this tip: “Before you begin any painting project, line roller trays with plastic wrap. That way you can just peel it off — no rinsing required.” It also advised painters to seal their phones in zip-top plastic bags, thereby allowing us to “talk or text without covering it in paint.”
I long ago learned the old trick of sealing paint brushes in plastic wrap and storing them in the freezer, but why had I never thought of these things?
Then came the entry titled “ Drain Deodorizer.” Where I live, one of the kitchen drains, the one leading to the disposal, occasionally reeks. Stewart’s advice about running part of a lemon eradicated this stench.
Many of Stewart’s recipes brought to mind hungry grandchildren. “Fools in a Flash” — a fool is the British term for a creamy, fruit-compote dessert — seems simple to make, is reasonably healthy, and would draw the kids like flies. Ditto on non-alcoholic Melon-Margarita Pops. Easter’s fast approaching, and if I’m with some of the kids, we might make some marbleized eggs together, again easy to do and with beautiful results.
Very Good Things is a good thing in itself, a pleasure to peruse with hundreds of attractive photographs and entertaining reading. Here is an ideal gift for all sorts of occasions: Mother’s Day, weddings, graduations and birthdays.
In January I made a New Year’s Resolution to read at least six classic books, old books that would be new to me. Ivanhoe was a breeze, but tackling Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Devils is more like trudging into a stiff wind. The novel is supposed to tell a story of Russian revolutionaries in nineteenth century Russia, and even after I’d reached page 200 no radicals had appeared.
Then they began revealing themselves, and I realized good old Dostoevsky had sucker punched me, that the revolutionaries were there all along, invisible in the book just as they so often were in reality.
At any rate, the pace of the story has picked up, and I am about halfway through this 700-page beast of literature.
More on that adventure in a later column.
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Love this review! I fell in love with Martha's ideas when she suggested wrapping celery in aluminium foil. It lasts longer. Thanks for being open to all subject matter. I look forward to reading this book.