A very personable Martha Stewart greeted 400 fans Tuesday night at Wilton Library for a discussion of her new book, The Martha Manual: How to Do (Almost) Anything.
In a conversation onstage with her longtime publicist and friend Susan Magrino, she covered a lot of territory, from her first book, Entertaining, which launched her career, to her merchandising contract with the QVC shopping network,
The Bedford, N.Y., resident reminisced about her Westport home, an 1805 farm house on two acres that she purchased in the late 70s for $38,000. She eventually added four acres to the estate that had views of Long Island Sound.
“I learned how to do everything in that house,” she said, noting she stripped years and layers of paint from the woodwork. “I miss my sour cherry trees … I planted an orchard of old varieties of trees” including white peaches which she said she cannot get to grow at her present home.
The two women talked about Entertaining, which they referred to as a landmark book. Stewart was a caterer when she conceived and sold the idea for it. Part of the impetus for branching out into publishing, she said, came from thinking about her legacy.
She said to herself, “If I have grandchildren and they ask what did Grandma do, I didn’t want my daughter to just say she was a good cook and a gardener.”
“When you look at the book, most people would use a stylist,” Magrino said.
“I still have every object in that book,” Stewart replied. The entertaining icon is renowned for how she scoured estate sales and flea markets for her finds. She promised to do a future television show about her basement, “where all the treasures are.”
Moving on to the business end of things, Stewart said she regards every product as a child.
“It’s not about promoting,” she said, “it’s about popularizing … it’s a way of taking care of your friends.”
Many people don’t have the time or inclination to shop the way she did. “There are a lot of people who want it all right away. That’s where the merchandising comes in,” she said.
The Martha Manual
The Martha Manual was inspired by her Ask Martha column that appears in her magazine, Martha Stewart Living.
“I like how-to books,” Stewart said. The “almost” in the title leaves room for future projects, she explained.
Her next book, she teased, would be on organizing although “not tidying — careful editing and organizing.”
“I’m constantly doing household organization,” she said. She proceeded to tell a story of how she created a set of marble shelves for the shower in her 1925 home, which will now be in the magazine. “It’s such a great project,” she said.
When asked what event or business taught her the most, she singled out writing the original business plan for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia in her successful effort to buy back her magazine from Time Warner.
“That’s where I learned the most about business,” she said.
Writing the first annual report for the company also taught her a lot. “You dissect what you are doing, line by line. It really is a good way to know your business. Great discipline, too.”
Magrino asked Stewart if she has a favorite recipe.
“No, not really,” Stewart replied, adding she loves to bake pies and fancy cakes. She did reveal she’s discovered a simple way to ice sugar cookies.
“I make giant sugar cookies and what bothered me so much about the sugar cookies was decorating with a piping tip and flooding and filling and dabbing they call it, all that silly language, and then they use squeeze balls instead of piping bags, but you see a child that picks up that beautiful cookie that took you 15 minutes to decorate and then they eat it, so I had to come up with a new way to decorate sugar cookies.”
She filmed a video on the subject for Martha Stewart Instagram on the four Ds of cookie decorating: dip the cookie, drip off the excess, decorate and dry. “Then you devour it — I’m solution oriented.”
When questions were opened to the audience, one fan asked what Stewart was reading.
She admitted to being addicted to watching and reading things on her iPad. “I should have given that up for Lent instead of sugar and alcohol,” she quipped, adding she enjoyed watching The Favorite and Bohemian Rhapsody, as well as reading The Understory by Pamela Erens.
“How do you know what you know?” another asked.
Stewart replied that both her parents were teachers, and that she read all the time. “I learn a lot by watching,” she said. “I pay very close attention. If I see a garden that interests me, I ask questions.” On her show, she added, she can learn all kinds of things from the guests she has on.
To a question about where she buys her fabric, Stewart responded, “My attic is a treasure trove of fabric. I buy it wherever I go.”
Her go-to flour is Hecker’s All Purpose and her favorite hostess gifts are eggs from her chickens and vegetables from her garden.
The final question was, “what was the moment you took a passion to a career?”
“After my first book I visited with people who loved it,” Stewart said, “and I realized I did have something to say.”