Modest Martha

Why I love Martha Stewart’s quietly revolutionary new cooking show.

Martha Stewart's Cooking School.
Martha Stewart has a new cooking show on PBS.

Courtesy of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia/PBS.

According to the New York Times, entertaining maven Ina Garten’s Sunday routine begins at 7:30 a.m. with a bowl of McCann’s oatmeal and a steaming mug of Eli’s coffee. My Sunday routine begins a little differently: Consciousness returns around noon, a hand gropes for the iPad to order some life-saving takeout on Seamless, and then bodies heave themselves onto the sofa to watch Garten assemble a chic dinner party for her fabulous East Hampton friends on Barefoot Contessa.

It’s become clear to me from these hours of decidedly unglamorous weekend stupor that the primary satisfaction I draw from watching Garten is not instructional or even inspirational (though I do turn to her actual recipes from time to time). No, what she and her Food Network compatriots are selling (when they’re not selling goofy gimmicks) is aspiration: an enviable lifestyle full of budgetless entertaining and limitless joie de vivre. Food television—as pioneered by Julia Child in the 1960s—once served the function of initiating viewers into a world of technique that they were meant to, with a little effort, incorporate into their daily cooking. It was supposed to be about showing how, not showing off; about food, not fabulousness. The tortilla chip crumbs on my lap are evidence enough that food television today has betrayed this legacy, having lost much of its ability to motivate the home cook to attempt culinary feats of his own.

Even calling these programs “food porn,” as many do, is misleading. Porn ostensibly arouses the viewer to engage with the action on-screen, and, if we’re to believe the sex therapists, even has the potential to impart a new technique or two. By contrast, Barefoot Contessa and its ilk lull the viewer into a passive, glassy-eyed stupor with idealized  kitchens, picturesque farmer’s markets, and fussy table settings while eliciting little saliva and even less cooking. And as for learning? Unless Garten’s trick of adding flavored booze to everything to “turn up the volume!” counts, she hasn’t enhanced my fundamental skill set in ages.

Michael Pollan has suggested a causal relationship between the fall of home cooking and the rise of Food Network extravagance, and even ostensibly educational cooking shows, like Garten’s, have made entertainment their primary purpose. We seem to be living in the age of decadence before the surely inevitable decline of cooking television, unless something can be done to draw us back from the precipice and make good on the promise of instructional programming. What’s needed, it seems, is a show that truly goes “back to basics,” one that dispenses with all the frills we’ve become accustomed to and instead presents cooking with clarity, precision, and honesty. Cooking that makes you want to cook.

The place to look for such a show, it turns out, is Julia Child’s old public television stomping grounds. Just two weeks into its inaugural run, Martha Stewart’s Cooking School on PBS has taken a revolutionary—in the sense of being quite retro—approach to cooking television. Based on Stewart’s recent cookbook of the same title, the show represents a fresh attempt at the genre after the languishment of a baking program in the kitschy backwoods of the Hallmark Channel. And in Stewart’s otherwise baroque (and financially floundering) domestic empire, which can certainly partake in its own WASP-ish kind of aspiration, Cooking School’s pared-down, old-school approach represents a new direction, and a welcome one at that.

About that old-school vibe: When I watched the first episode of the Stewart’s new program, my initial reaction was one of confusion; something felt off—was it the pacing? The editing? I wasn’t sure. But as Stewart calmly presented a few simple variations on the basic theme—for example, “Eggs” or “Sauces”—of each episode in a handsome but otherwise unremarkable kitchen, I definitely noted a distinct and unfamiliar feeling of space and quiet. As I continued watching, however, I realized that my discomfort was not in response to poor post-production, but instead to a lack of glitzy nonsense. Here was footage of a skilled cook simply cooking! No hokey narratives, no friends twirling in with flower arrangements, no corny banter, no catchphrases. And with all those distractions excised, I was forced to actually pay attention to Stewart’s technique.

Of course, that kind of simplicity has the potential to be deadly boring, and indeed, if you’re not truly interested in improving your cooking skills, it may very well be. But though I’m no novice, I can testify that Stewart taught me more about the nuances of egg-cooking in a half hour than I have gleaned from any number of cookbooks, Food Network shows, and friends over many years in my own unremarkable kitchen.

For example, in the show’s first episode, I discovered how badly I had been doing it wrong with hard-boiled eggs. Making practical (not to be confused with America’s Test Kitchen tedious) reference to scientific principles and her own experiments, Stewart explains that the proper method is to bring egg and water just to a boil together and then remove them from the heat, cover the saucepan, and let the egg sit for 13 minutes, no more, no less. I will never return to my procedure of boiling the life out of them again. Similarly, the episode on sauces accounted for exactly why the beurre blanc I tried to whip up a few weeks ago to accompany asparagus fell apart—the water drops I had added to thin it were too hot.

Cooking School is probably not the right show for people who watch food television to visually feast on stylized, elaborate dishes. While Stewart’s final plates do look tasty (especially her brown-sugar glazed carrots in Episode 3), the point of this show is process, not presentation. To wit: While many programs mislead viewers about the time and preparation work required to create a dish (all those little bowls of pre-chopped ingredients take you an extra 15 to 30 minutes to prepare at home), Cooking School spends far more time on the true step-by-step nature of cooking. Carrots are peeled and kale de-stemmed on-air, and though not totally in real-time (we are spared having to wait for wine to reduce, and a shallot is occasionally pre-minced), Stewart’s progression through a recipe doesn’t seem all that removed from my own experience.

Alas, I fear that the attributes that recommend Martha Stewart’s Cooking School may be the very things that limit its audience. The series’ straightforward and technique-based approach to cooking will probably appeal most to those viewers who are ready to move beyond the short-lived satisfaction of mastering discrete recipes (which is really just following directions, after all) and into the deeper whys and hows of cooking that are more widely applicable and useful over the long-term. Then again, there may be no better or more enticing entry into the world of cooking than the mastery of a perfect batch of scrambled eggs—and when was the last time Ina Garten taught us that? Stewart’s little program is a stack of hand-scrawled recipe cards compared to the Food Network’s glossy, $45 coffee table cookbooks. But those scrappy, stained little recipes stay around for a reason—we actually cook them.