by Bonnie Black (Gabon 1996-98)
May 6, 2022
Martha Stewart and I go back aways. We’ve never met, but our lives have followed somewhat parallel paths. We’re about the same age (she’s three years older); both from New Jersey; both were models when young, then later became caterers in New York; we were both about the same size, shape, and coloring; both gave birth to one child, daughters, born within days of each other in 1965; both love cooking, homemaking, gardening… The list goes on and on.
She’s uber-famous, of course, and I am not. But that’s quite all right with me.
There was a time, though, when I achieved a modicum of Martha Stewart-like fame: when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in my early fifties in Gabon, Central Africa. This experience struck me as funny at the time, so I wrote about it humorously in my Peace Corps memoir, How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers, 2010). Here, to illustrate, is an excerpt from that true story in the chapter, “The Martha Stewart of Gabon”:
During my catering years in Manhattan – at a time when Martha Stewart was the food professional most food professionals loved to hate – I used her recipes with impunity because they were both dependable and glamorous. One in particular stands out in my mind: Brie en Croute. This simple hors d’oeuvre, which emerged from the oven like a gift for a queen, was more than glorious to look at. With its molten cheese and delicate-golden-crispy-crust counterpoint, it was the perfect cocktail accompaniment.
My short-lived fame among a small band of young Peace Corps volunteers in Gabon, Central Africa, as “the Martha Stewart of Gabon” would not have threatened the real Martha. Little Gabon – the size of Colorado — would surely be one country in the world where, if she knew of it at all, Martha Stewart wouldn’t care about being famous.
The label stuck for me there, though, when it went into print. In a write-up for the December ’96 issue of the monthly newsletter, Peace Corps-Gabon Health Notes, Cindy, the volunteer posted in Koula Moutou, told of the Thanksgiving dinner eighteen of us new volunteers had had at her house: “…With Bonnie leading the way in the kitchen, we had a feast that was incredible. [Cindy then listed all of the traditional items on the menu.] … Bonnie was the true Martha Stewart of Gabon. She made sure that everything came out perfect – right down to the flowers and napkins on the harvest table. It felt like a real Thanksgiving.”
From then on, my nickname among my fellow volunteers became “Martha.” And, frankly, I was a little flattered by it. It inspired me to become a role model for these young people, most of whom were at least half my age. I wanted to show them, through my own lifestyle there, that although we all were living in the back of beyond, in the middle of a hot, wet, rainforest as dense as a head of broccoli; although we all lived on a meager allowance in towns and villages where there was really nothing to buy anyway, we could rise above!
We didn’t have to live (as many of them were doing) in the kind of squalor that would shock their middle-class American parents, or subsist on tinned sardines and stale cookies. We could learn to make decent-enough meals with available ingredients plus herbs and spices sent from home. We could get the knack of gracious entertaining by candlelight (since the power lines were nearly always down). We could decorate the interiors of our mud-wattle huts or cement-block houses in such a way that they would be cheerful and welcoming. It’s amazing what one coat of paint and some brightly colored African fabric can do.
It became my mission to teach my fellow PCVs, by example.
My cement-block house in Lastoursville, one degree south of the equator, was on the train line. There was one train in Gabon that reached from Libreville, the country’s cosmopolitan capital on the Atlantic coast, to Franceville in the southeast. Lastoursville sat near the middle of that line, a ten-hour train trip to the capital. So volunteers often stopped at my house in their travels. They knew I had room for them, clean sheets and dry towels, screened windows, thick homemade soup, fresh-home-baked bread, just-washed floors, and current issues of The New Yorker and Gourmet on my living room coffee table.
“This is like a real home,” some would say, with more than a tinge of homesickness in their voices, as they gripped like a lover the issue of Gourmet that featured a thickly frosted chocolate layer cake on its cover.
“But you can do it, too,” I’d tell them, launching into Martha mode. I’d show them how I built my own bed, using NIDO tins for the legs; how I’d hammered together a wooden loom for weaving doormats out of discarded plastic bags; how I used the tiny, ubiquitous, red, tomato-paste cans (washed, with both ends removed) as napkin rings; how I made tie-back curtains for the living room, without the benefit of a sewing machine; how I made flowers out of dried corn husks for the dining room centerpiece bouquet; how I planted pineapple tops and forced avocado pits (in time, I had thirty little avocado trees growing in separate small containers on my front porch). So Martha.
A page from her Peace Corps memoir — planting an avocado tree I’d grown from a pit
At one point, I even went a bit crazy with Peace Corps-issue Magic Markers. In the bedroom that my postmate Morgan used when she came into town for mail and supplies once a week from her village, Mana-Mana, I painted a huge, rattan headboard on the wall at the head of her bed. To the right I painted a low bedside table, with an immense vase on it filled with colorful flowers. Not content with that, I surprised her by drawing a large-screen TV on the wall across from her bed. She was thrilled when she saw it – none of us had TVs at our posts – but she chided me for hiding the remote.
The decorating touch that I think the real Martha Stewart would have appreciated most was in my bathroom in Gabon. I took green markers and drew tall, wild grasses from the baseboard up. I painted a clear, rain-free, baby blue sky, dotted with real-cotton-ball clouds on the ceiling. At head-height, I drew a drooping, black telephone line from one corner of the room to the other, then the other, and the other, and painted colorful birds perched on each line in happy clusters.
And then, to express my soaring sentiments in that exuberant moment, I wrote in loopy, two-inch-high script along my drawing of the longest telephone line: “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have found my own way to be free.”
I bring up Martha Stewart now because she’s been in the news lately for promoting agelessness. (See the April 28th NYTimes article, “Martha Stewart Welcomes You to Generation Ageless”—
Martha has just turned eighty; and, if the photos of her in the NYTimes article are to be believed, her face is as smooth as porcelain. Good for her, I say.
It’s not for me to judge anyone, ever; doing so is against my personal religion. But Martha and I must part ways on this issue. To me, she lives in another realm.
Agelessness? I believe we older women would be wiser to embrace and even celebrate our age and step up to the responsibilities that go along with it; namely, wising up. We may once have been pretty little flowers with smooth skin, but now, let’s face it, we’re seed pods. It’s time to scatter those seeds.
So, yes, I was once, briefly, “The Martha Stewart of Gabon.” But no one would ever call me “The Martha Stewart of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico” now.
Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98) is the author of many published essays, as well as five published books: Sweet Tarts for My Sweethearts: Stories and Recipes from a Culinary Career; a historical novel, Jamie’s Muse, based on the lives of her Scottish great-grandparents who emigrated to South Africa in the late 19th century; and three memoirs about her own life-changing experiences in various Africa countries (www.bonnieleeblack.com).
An honors graduate of Columbia University in New York (B.A.) and Antioch University in Los Angeles (MFA), Bonnie taught English and Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico’s Taos branch for ten years. Now retired and living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, she writes an award-winning weekly blog called The WOW Factor about the ex-pat life there (www.bonnieleeblack.com/blog/).
Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98) book How to Cook a Crocodile: A Memoir with Recipes was the first book published by Peace Corps Writers Book imprint!