Alice in Texas

Not writing here anymore- see top post for details of my new blogs.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Martha and the 80s

I paid far too much for Martha Stewart's 1982 classic, "Entertaining", in the thrift store the other day, but I'd been wanting it for nearly twenty years without knowing what it was, and was too excited to check out the Amazon price as I should have done. On the other hand, it is a first edition, and judging from ebay those are worth the extra. To those who want them. Which is not me. Oh well.

It is a great book, from a time when being completely over the top extravagance was just about to become more socially acceptable than it has ever been since (the 80s), and I wish Martha had just continued right into that stratosphere instead of becoming more small-scale domestic, but then everyone else downsized too, so one can hardly blame her for that. "The most sumptuous book on entertaining ever published" says the back cover, and when I read it as a teenager teaching myself to cook it seemed entirely fantastical and extraordinary: who were these people who threw "A sit-down country luncheon for one hundred seventy-five"in their back garden? Who would make eleven kinds of tiny weeny cocktail snacks for fifty guests? A gingerbread mansion for "The holiday party", complete with pediment, finials and cupola plus internal lighting? The mile-high lemon meringue pie- "My mother and I baked it when we had extra egg whites on hand, and made a meringue as high as the oven would allow"- went on my mental list of lifetime ambitions, along with plenty of other things nobody in England had heard of in 1982- pissaladiere, tabbouleh, filo pastry, tempura, and on and on.

Anyway, it is a work of genius, and it sums up something incredibly exciting and creative about the eighties that I didn't think about at the time, but which I think is now due for a revival. I don't mean shoulder-pads, brassy jewellery and merchant bankers waving fistfuls of cash, and I definitely don't mean striking miners and recessions. It's more the way people were willing to stick their necks out and be extreme and extravagant, go over the top in pursuit of an idea without having either to insult all and sundry or kill each other. There were new amazing things happening all the time and it wasn't predictable, it was fun. Well, that's how it seems/ed to me, hindsight notwithstanding. For instance, all that fuss in the press about the avant-garde fashion movement, along the lines of "could anybody actually wear these clothes?" These days, designers make wearable things. Then, even normal shops were full of bonkers outfits, the kind of things that today would be considered ugly and unflattering. But that's partly because today, "flattering" means skin tight and revealing.

Then there were other cultural tidal waves, and it was over. Well, when the tide turns once again and we go back to sack dresses, flat shoes and baggy jumpers, I will be whipping up one of Martha's small dessert parties for fifty, even if I have to eat it all myself. Maybe I'll hire a few episodes of "Dynasty" to go with that.


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