Martha—the one we hate to love.
We roll our eyes at the laborious detail of her recipes, instructing us to bundle our asparagus with braided strands of chive, and arming us with stencils, X-acto knives, and a carpenter’s level to decorate cookies. We know that our chives, braided or otherwise, will never come from the herb garden just past the cutting garden but before you get to the apiary.
But this is a woman who paid her dues. She’s the child of working class Polish immigrants who commuted to college from her aunt’s apartment. She’s a self-taught cook who built an empire from a little catering business that she ran out of her basement. She’s had a troubled marriage, a difficult child, and did a stretch in federal prison. We’re intimidated by the manic perfectionism and envious of the lifestyle, but we never begrudge her one smidgen of her success.
Gwyneth—the one we love to hate.
Hollywood dad, movie star mom, a posh and fabulous early life of exclusive schools, A-list family friends (Steven Spielberg is her godfather!), and vacation villas in Spain. She’s blond and willowy with a killer wardrobe, some not-too-shabby romances (Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt) before the rock star husband, and an Academy award while she was still in her 20’s.
And now she’s a food and lifestyle brand.
If you’re not acquainted with Gwyneth’s sideline, to bring you up to date: she dined her way across Spain, star chef (and friend) Mario Batali at her side, for a PBS television series; she started an online lifestyle magazine called GOOP, in which she instructs us to “nourish the inner aspect;” and she just published a cookbook.
The obvious problem is that unlike Martha with her ethnic striving and transparent self-reinvention, Gwyneth is not herself relatable, and she compounds the matter through blinkered entitlement that renders her incapable of relating to us. Her cookbook is packed with examples of her cluelessness, and its high-profile, celebrity-stacked launch and best-seller status set it up as a target for snarky critics who’ve made a sport of locating its most unintentionally funny line (sample: “I first had a version of this at a Japanese monastery during a silent retreat…”).
Her rundown of kitchen essentials includes Global knives (their smallest 3 in. paring knife retails for $60), a Vitamix blender ($400 for the low-end model), and a le Creuset Dutch oven (discounted to about $250 if you don’t care what color). Gwyneth allows that in a pinch you can substitute bacon for duck prosciutto, and brown rice syrup can stand in for agave nectar, but plenty of her ‘essential’ ingredients will have you scouring specialty stores, digging deep in your wallet, and wondering what the hell to do with an opened bottle of $40 ginger liqueur.
Not that Martha has escaped criticism. She’s plenty unapproachable for her steely manner and mania for perfection, and her elaborate, intensely detailed holiday meals with their hollowed-out-gourds as soup bowls and wreaths of 12,000 hand-strung cranberries have always been ripe for parody. She built an empire that is a testament to her ideal, and she’s the obsessive striver who personally sweated every detail.
By contrast, Gwyneth is building a testament to Gwyneth—to her own tastes and sensibilities. To her credit, she has fantastic style. It’s earthy but sophisticated, elegant and playful; but she is no less insufferable for it.
She’s also seen as a carpetbagger who gains entry to rareified lifestyle spheres through birthright and famous friends. It’s doubtful that she’s ever hand-strung even a single cranberry, although she was once given a cooking lesson with Jamie Oliver as a birthday present.
Could Gwyneth ever be the next Martha, or will her achievements forever be seen as celebrity dabbling? Time will tell.
Oh, and I hear that Eva Longoria has a new cookbook….