TV DINNER. Food writer Martha Stewart brings holiday cuisine to prime time
Westport, Conn. — `HELLO, kitchen,'' the blue-jean clad technician in the barn says into his walkie-talkie. ``We need the puff-pastry turkey - now.'' There is an air of desperation in his voice, since the kitchen is about 500 yards away from the huge, windowed barn decorated with traditional pumpkins and autumn leaves. The ultramodern kitchen, beyond the vegetable garden and the gaggle of strutting geese, is attached to a crisply painted old farmhouse.
It is Thanksgiving in October.
A six-member crew from WGBH, Boston, is shooting the Thanksgiving edition of ``Holiday Entertaining with Martha Stewart,'' which airs on most PBS stations on Nov. 17 at 10 p.m. A former stockbroker, Mrs. Stewart served as food and entertainment editor of House Beautiful, and now writes books on entertaining for Crown Publishers and a syndicated newspaper column for King Features, entitled ``Entertaining.''
The crew is taping in the new barn/recreation hall of Stewart's six-acre Westport, Conn., estate - which also includes a restored 19th-century farmhouse, a greenhouse, a smokehouse, and an orchard.
Then there are the flower, vegetable, and herb gardens, the enclave of 120 chickens, turkeys, and wild geese, and three beehives. And, oh yes, two chow dogs and six cats.
On this particular day, in addition to the six-member TV crew, there are also 14 invited guests, all friends and relatives, as well as a Norwegian au-pair girl to keep an eye on the six youngsters whose eyes are focused on the 50-pound poitiron (French pumpkin), which contains the first course, a cream of pumpkin soup.
Martha Stewart, chic as usual in a long skirt and knitted maroon overblouse belted with a heavy brass buckle at the waist, coolly supervises the setting of the two long dining tables and the buffet table.
It is the culmination of four days of preparation by 10 people, including four cooks (among whom were Stewart and her sister) in the extra kitchen attached to the main house. This professional-looking kitchen had served Stewart as a catering center until recently, when local zoning regulations forced the business to move out of the house.
So, the four huge Garland ranges and two Traulsen refrigerators are now used only for special occasions and to prepare dishes for inclusion in Stewart's steady stream of books and magazine articles.
Executive producer Christopher Gilbert from WGBH supervises the lights and camera, rearranges the decorations, and fusses with Stewart over the table settings and the overloaded buffet table. Since Stewart's husband, a book publisher, is in Germany attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, I am serving as her dinner partner, seated at her left.
She is seldom in her chair, though, because she is busy making certain that the food is just right for the camera and, almost incidentally, the on-camera guests who have been invited with the understanding that we will be part of the show.
This unique ``turkey shoot'' begins at noon. Before the camera focuses on Stewart as she prepares to dish out the first course from the pumpkin, producer Gilbert warns us all that we are to act as if we are eating the meal ... but not to eat it until we are given the OK.
``If you get really hungry,'' he tells us, ``there's a table out there behind the barn under the trees loaded with snack food - cheese, salami, prosciutto, peasant bread. Eat as much as you want of that. But please don't eat the Thanksgiving dinner until I give you the word.''
``Talk to each other, laugh, be animated,'' he directs as the meal finally begins.
I force a grim smile as I pass the pumpkin soup plates around the table for the third time. Finally the camera gets it right, and within seconds after Mr. Gilbert gives us the signal to consume the soup, it is merely a colorful memory.
Luckily, the soup is supposed to be cold.
``Now, start lining up at the buffet table, plate in hand, chatting gaily to each other,'' Gilbert orders.
I am there quickly, helping myself from a table loaded with roast pheasant with plum chutney, puff pastry-covered turkey, smoked pheasant, potato-squash-apple salad, roast garlic, root vegetable salad (parsnips, turnips, scallions, baby carrots, and onions), spiced Seckel pears and peaches, and pickled watermelon rinds.
Stewart's sister is carving the smoked pheasant as I approach her.
``Ask her an intelligent question,'' Gilbert prompts. It is clear to me that this is to be my big moment on camera. I freeze. In desperation I cast about for a brilliant question.
``How long did it take you to smoke the pheasant?'' I ask. Without waiting for an answer, I rush back to my seat at the table, preparing to gorge myself as I reflect upon my triumphant performance. But no, it is not to be that simple.
``Please empty your plates and let's try that all over again,'' Gilbert commands. ``It was great but maybe we can do it a little better. Consider what you just did a rehearsal or an audition.''
``Stars don't audition!'' I mutter to myself as I empty my plate and dash out behind the barn to load up on salami and cheese to help me survive what it is now clearly going to be an ordeal.
We line up and chat - seemingly casually but uncomfortably for non-professional actors - at least four times, fill our plates with luscious-looking Thanksgiving goodies, return to our places at the holiday table, then move back to the buffet and start the process all over again. Most of the guests are beginning to become faint with fatigue and hunger. Those who didn't sneak out behind the barn, that is.
Meantime, the au-pair girl has lost control of the children, who seem to have decided among themselves to retire from the meal until dessert time. They prefer to dash around the barn clucking like turkeys, climbing up into the hayloft sleeping balcony, and leaning far out over the railing while their nervous parents try desperately to lure them down unharmed.
Finally, at about 4 p.m., Gilbert gives the word we are all waiting to hear: Eat.
By that time, I am stuffed with cheese, salami, and prosciutto but I am determined to try some of the smoked pheasant - even though I am not yet privy to the length of time it took to smoke it.
Stewart is able finally to sit down and chat. But she is so busy coordinating and supervising that eating seems to be out of the question for her. She looks fondly over at the dessert table, loaded down with pumpkin pie, sweet-potato pie and a cranberry sorbet.
``You must try the Concord grape pie,'' she insists. ``Our staff spent hours and hours pitting those grapes. You know,'' she smiles mischievously, ``I served it at a luncheon for the King and Queen of Sweden recently. They loved it. But when the Queen got up to speak, her teeth were completely purple. Now, I usually serve it only at night.''
I look at my watch. It is night - almost 6 p.m., time to leave Westport for the trip back to New York if we are to miss the worst of the commuter traffic. I look longingly at the pies, hoping that Martha will offer a doggie bag.
She doesn't. But she does say: ``You know, our next show will probably be Christmas dinner in a cottage in the Berkshires. Perhaps you can come to that? I promise you'll even be able to eat next time.''
We leave the Thanksgiving feast in the barn in Westport as the camera starts moving in for closeups of the other guests as they are served portions of pumpkin and grape pie.
How long, I wonder, before they will be allowed to actually munch on those glorious delicacies?
I am still fantasizing about that when we stop for a snack at McDonald's on the way back to New York.
Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.