A look back at ‘Entertaining,’ Martha Stewart’s first cookbook

Martha Stewart's Book "Entertaining" is seen on January 17. (Photo by Austin Steele/CNN via CNN Newsource)

(CNN) — In front of Martha Stewart is a perfectly set table, complete with silverware rolled into cloth napkins, matching blue glasses, and three picturesque floral arrangements at the center. Plates of fruit sit on a table behind her, and at the center is the face that would launch a thousand cookbooks, tableware collections, lifestyle magazines, bedding sets and fabulously-hosted gatherings.

Dressed in an angelic all-white ensemble, Stewart’s hair is longer than most would recognize now and slightly curled. This is Martha before the magazine and the product lines, before the Snoop Dogg friendship and the pouty lips.

This is the cover of Stewart’s first cookbook, “Entertaining,” first published in 1982. But this isn’t an ordinary cookbook, one with 30-minute recipes and sensible serving sizes. When Stewart says “Entertaining,” she truly means entertaining. Ever wanted to host a cocktail party for 200 people? What about an omelet brunch for 60, or a country pie party for 50? Look no further.

Before she become the homemaking icon, Stewart ran a successful catering business which eventually grew into a $1-million enterprise, according to a 1991 profile in New York Magazine. The business was contracted to cater a book release party, where she met Alan Mirken, then the head of Crown Publishing. He was so impressed with her catering that he asked her to write a cookbook — and that book became “Entertaining.” 

Stewart showed readers how presentation can be as important as the food itself

“Entertaining” goes beyond recipes. Entertaining is a discipline, one worthy of study, and this is its textbook. In a section on how to set a table, Stewart references the Japanese sculptor Sofu and writes “The table can establish or augment a mood, for it is in fact a stage set and should be so considered.”

This is not the “Everyone can cook!” mentality from “Ratatouille.” Nor is it the easy, thrown-together, vibe-driven, no-fuss approach that brought modern stars like Alison Roman to fame. Stewart means business.

In “Entertaining,” presentation is just as important as the food itself. There are instructions on making food look beautiful, another on organization — in which she advocates for the importance of making lists — and another on drink garnishes (“It is important to have lemon peel and olives,” she writes).

Entertaining takes planning, the book seems to say. It’s work. But it’s work that, at least theoretically, anyone could do.

“(The book) is not intended only for the culinary elite … but especially for all those people who regard cooking as ‘preparing meals,’ as drudgery or duty – and entertaining as an even greater worry,” she writes. “For them, I hope to show that there are many ways of entertaining and that each ultimately depends not on pomp or show or elaborate technique, but on thought, effort, and caring.”

The book’s recipes reflect ’80s cooking

While “Entertaining” is considered timeless by its many devotees — it’s still in print, after all — it is still an artifact of ‘80s cooking.

In the era of soft-as-baby-food vegetables, Stewart calls for boiling a pound of whole Brussels sprouts before baking with butter; for green beans and baby carrots she steams, then tosses with butter. She does, thank goodness, call for salt and pepper, and even some nutmeg in the case of the carrots.

A recipe for salmon mousse calls for mayonnaise, heavy cream AND sour cream, to be served in the shape of a fish. Stewart is precise in her directions, instructing us to “mix together gently but thoroughly.”

Then there’s the carrot and squash puree, essentially mashed potatoes without the potatoes, but with the cream and butter. A part of Stewart’s Thanksgiving menu, this mash is served alongside yellow onions stuffed with Swiss chard, surely providing guests with their daily recommended portion of vegetables.

There’s also sour cream raisin pie, which is unfortunately exactly what it sounds like.

But it also contains some surprisingly modern ideas

And still, some parts of the book definitely stand the test of time.

Her recipe for tabbouleh, a Middle Eastern salad of chopped parsley and bulgur, seems to be before its time, and could easily be on any given food blog today.

One section is dedicated to pulling off a tempura party, and contains both a history of the technique (brought to Japan by Portuguese missionaries, Martha says) and a helpful guide to deep frying (she includes sesame oil in the frying oil and uses cake flour in the batter). Here, Stewart instructs: “Serve guests as you cook, taking orders for special items.”

The idea, even now, seems surprising in its simplicity, yet genius in its execution — who wouldn’t be delighted to attend a tempura party?

Four decades later, the book is still considered an entertaining must-have

Though “Entertaining” kicked off Stewart’s career from local caterer to nationally known hostess, its release was not without controversy. According to the 1991 New York Magazine profile, some recipes were found to be from fellow culinary icon Julia Child. Chef and writer Barbara Tropp, whose work focused on Chinese food, accused Stewart of stealing some of her recipes. Even Stewart’s former business partner, Norma Collier, told the magazine, “a lot of her recipes were mine.” Still, it didn’t stop the book’s success, or Stewart’s iconic career.

While many Martha books, magazines, blogs and media ventures came in the decades after “Entertaining” was first published, there’s still something special about this homemaking ur-text.

In 2018, Bon Appétit named the book as part of its monthly cookbook club, praising its ability to “stand the test of time.” Meanwhile, Amazon and Goodreads reviews from as recently as this year praise the book’s photos and attention to detail. One writer said the book changed her life.

In a “Russian Buffet for Twenty-four,” a situation for which surely everyone must be prepared, Stewart freezes bottles of vodka in a block of water with flowers, resulting in a stunning floral ice block that doubles as a centerpiece, a trick seemingly created for Instagram.

So why not plan a wedding luncheon for 270 people, or a Hawaiian luau for 20? These are the recipes that launched a cultural revolution and created a mogul out of a one-woman catering business. Surely, they’re good enough for any table.