Words of Wisdom from Wise Older Women | Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon)

Martha is a Marvel

Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98)
May 22, 2023

Martha Stewart is a marvel, don’t you agree? She’s a quintessential American success story, and Americans love success stories more than any other kind.

From her modest beginnings as the second of six children in a working-class Polish-Catholic family in Nutley, New Jersey, Martha has risen to great heights, succeeding on every rung of her personal ladder, and climbing back up when she’s fallen off. She’s been a fashion model, a Wall Street stockbroker, an entrepreneur par excellence known worldwide as “the empress of domesticity,” a prison inmate, and now, at age eight-one no less featured in a bathing suit on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s just-published swimsuit issue. It takes your breath away.

When I was a caterer in Manhattan from ’86 to ‘96, Martha was the caterer other caterers loved to hate. It was envy, no doubt. But I didn’t hate her at all. I used recipes from her many bestselling cookbooks proudly because they were so good – so beautiful and reliable. I knew that Martha had a battalion of recipe-testers behind her, so her recipes would be foolproof. They were.

Martha on the cover of her first bestselling cookbook, 1982                   

Then when I closed my catering business at the age of fifty to join the Peace Corps and serve as a health and nutrition volunteer in Gabon, Central Africa, for two years, I somehow gained the title of “the Martha Stewart of Gabon” among the younger volunteers. I thought it was funny at the time, and, like most jokes, partially true.

Who — besides me — in the middle of a hot, wet, dense-as-a-head-of-broccoli rainforest cared much about interior decorating while living in little mud-wattle huts, or made an effort to cook and eat well when good ingredients were basically nonexistent? Nobody, really.

However, my make-believe-big-sister-and-fellow-Jersey-girl Martha Stewart had a huge influence on me in Gabon. She whispered: You’ve got to strive to live well at all times, wherever you are in the world. So I tried to emulate her.

The label “Martha Stewart of Gabon” stuck for me there in Gabon when it went into print. As I wrote in my Peace Corps memoir, How to Cook a Crocodile:

“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. … 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.’”

But I see now that the real Martha Stewart’s latest iteration – sporting a swimsuit on the cover of Sports Illustrated – seems to be causing quite a stir. “Tut-tut, how dare she,” say some. “You go, girl,” say others. I think I’m on the fence.

On the one hand, I know that dear Martha has a battalion of people behind her to make her look not only good but forty years younger. If not plastic surgeons, then surely the finest makeup artists and hairstylists in the business – to say nothing of the air-brushers and Photoshoppers at Sports Illustrated. Such help is not available to the rest of us aging female mortals. So a role model for aging with grace Martha Stewart is not.

But on the other hand, she’s certainly a sport, and this gig clearly illustrates it – putting herself out there like that. “Look at me,” she seems to be saying, “I’m still going strong!” Brava, I say! The old girl’s got gumption.

I’ve been imagining having Martha come to tea here at my new place in San Miguel de Allende – you know, one of my Tea-and-Tart-on-Tuesday-at-Three teas for special friends.  I’d make for her a pear frangipane tart – the glorious recipe from her Pies & Tarts cookbook, which I included in my own Sweet Tarts book (with attribution, of course). And, over herbal tea, I’d ask her – older woman to older woman, one on one – what she really thinks.

Really, Martha,” I’d say to her, “don’t you think that we older women have more meaningful things to do with our lives now than to pose in a swimsuit on the cover of a national magazine?”

A portion of the May 2023 Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue featuring Martha on the cov

I suspect that in a serious moment she would actually agree with me. I suspect that she’d tell me she only did that gig on a lark. Just because she’s Martha Stewart. And we’re not.

  • “The Martha Stewart of Gabon” is a chapter in my Peace Corps memoir-with-recipes, How to Cook a Crocodile, available from Amazon.com.
  • The pear frangipane tart recipe is in my Sweet Tarts essays-with-recipes book, also available from Amazon.

Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98)

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’s (Gabon 1996-98) book How to Cook a Crocodile: A Memoir with Recipes was the first book published by Peace Corps Writers Book imprint!

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