Just So Celebrity: There's nothing like Martha Stewart coming to lunch to launch feelings of inadequacy. But Baltimore was well-prepared, and the most obnoxiously ideal homemaker on the planet was on her best behavior.

November 08, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

Martha: "Don't dress the salad too far in advance; it may wilt."

Reality: Chef Benny Gordon arrives at 2 a.m. to start tossing escarole, frisee and the rest of the elements of Martha's "Winter Salad with Toasted Walnuts and Cheese," preparing for a luncheon that will begin about 11 hours later.

Martha: "When entertaining on a small or a large scale, the rewards are many. Think of the pleasure of treating yourself to a favorite meal; multiply this by a guest list and you begin to calculate the pleasures of entertaining."

Reality: "I have a headache," says Michael Crawford, food and beverage director at the Baltimore Convention Center, watching as waiters squeeze between tables, hoisting heavy trays high above their heads, just one uncontainably excited fan away from sending Martha's "Pecan-Breaded Chicken" or Martha's "Chocolate Victoria Tartlets" raining down on one of the 1,300 guests or -- horrors! -- Martha herself.

Yes, for her many fans, fantasy and reality collided yesterday: Martha Stewart, in the flesh, came to Baltimore for lunch. It was an event that took only a year of planning, a wait staff of 92, a kitchen staff of 25, a table-setting staff of 11, a test run of the full menu a week before and who knows how many anxiety attacks.

It wasn't all for Martha, of course, but for a big, $75-a-plate benefit for the Epilepsy Association of Maryland. She was the draw, though, for those of her fans within driving distance of Baltimore who were not satiated merely watching her television show, reading her books and magazine or purchasing her paint, writing papers and cake-decorating kits. They wanted to see her live and in person, albeit from the distance of about a football field for some.

Martha's inexorable success has spawned an impressive shadow industry: Martha parodies that come out almost as often as her own productions. But she remains incredibly popular, even among those who know to stay in the closet about their heroine worship.

"I'm one of the faithful, I'm afraid," said Debbie Preissler of Sykesville, who called in sick to work yesterday to take advantage of her daughter Wendy's Mother's Day present -- two tickets to the event.

"She's getting worse," Wendy sighed good-naturedly at her mother's Martha mania.

"She's in training," Mom says of daughter's just emerging Martha tendencies.

Wendy bought tickets so early that they were among the first 400 or so who received vouchers to get Martha to sign their books (which had to be bought that day at the Martha bookstore set up as part of the event).

Before lunch, Martha gave a one hour and 15 minute slide show and lecture, featuring her inimitable recipes and decorating projects. Make individual pies in tiny teacups with the crusts dripping over the side like a Dali watch face! Gild baby pumpkins and serve soup in them! Slash quince branches from your garden and stick them in gourds for a centerpiece! Upend your creme brulee into a pre-baked tart shell! Silver-leaf your fruit! Get out your propane torch and burnish that meringue! Ladies, start your glue guns!

Yes, it was vintage Martha -- ideas that initially seem charming and replicable, quickly piling up into giddy absurdity and impossibility.

"We put all our holiday projects aside for today to come here," joked Karen Moore, the head Martha-wannabe of a group of 10 friends who drove from Salisbury for the event.

"Yes, we're not drilling any nuts today!" added another of the group.

Everyone dissolved into giggles -- perhaps it was the wine, perhaps it was Martha's latest Thanksgiving turkey idea (deep-fry it!), perhaps it was the birthdays of two members, Gina Greir and Nancy Hanna, whose friends bought them tickets to the luncheon for the ultimate birthday party.

Karen, a survivor of Martha's Easter topiary of blue eggs -- it was either "beautiful" or a "nightmare" depending on whether you merely saw it or made it -- plans to host a party at her house for the gang to watch Martha's prime-time Christmas special next month. Everyone has to bring a Martha hors d'oeuvre.

"I have three young children," demurred Joanie DiNardo, "I do variations of Martha."

Martha, though, will have none of that corner-cutting.

"We all feel inadequate," WBAL-Channel 11 anchorwoman Donna Hamilton told Martha during a press conference before the lunch.

"I'm trying to tell people I don't want to hear that any more," Martha responded crisply. "That's your own problem. You have to figure it out yourself. I have."

The tall and leggy Martha, 55, dressed in a brown suit, pearls and loafers, arrived about 45 minutes later than scheduled, the fog of Connecticut apparently the one thing yet to submit to the indomitable force that is Martha. She arrived with a phalanx of tall, handsome women, each with a tote bag (Martha's is Prada) to smooth her way.

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