Martha Stewart's tips for gracious big-house living

Writing from her exciting new institutional home, Martha gives "how to serve" a whole new meaning.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Published June 27, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

As I write this from within the rustic, pewter-tinted walls of the government facility where I am summering this year, I am reminded of how important it is to make every situation special, felicitous and, above all, attractive in its own way.

This is especially true, of course, during meals.

Thrice daily here at my new "home" my new friends and I assemble in our intime dining room (officially known as Food Services Unit, Room B-7). Within its glowing, brushed-concrete walls, we celebrate gracious living, watched over by uniformed personnel who are attentive to our every need (and slightest move).

Here at the facility, each meal begins when "guests" walk in single file to the "dining room." To put myself in a mood of pleasant anticipation, I like to think of this procession as a parade, an opportunity to smile, wave, imagine the rousing chorus of a brass band. Attempting to implement this approach led to a brief spate of solitary confinement (for my own safety), but I'm sure it will yield a far more pleasant result for those on the "outside." Consider adopting this new tradition when family and friends join you for a July 4th gala at your home. Pass out small flags (available at your local dime store or crafts shop) and, especially if children are present, kazoos are certainly in order (again a well-stocked variety store is a good source for these, but they should be collected before the meal is served). In here we find that a "flag" made from a single sheet of "TP" taped to a pencil and a piece of cellophane held against a comb (wash it first!) are the perfect accessories for our "meal march."

Next, as our meal begins, we are each given a shiny stainless steel tray with partitions for the different types of food. For your event, I suggest similar trays but in bright red, white and blue plastic. These can be purchased by mail order ahead of time (page 167). To impart a patriotic flavor to our reusable trays, I enlisted several surly veterans of the facility to supply sharpened paper clips (a no-no, but I think even our "hosts" would agree that the end justifies the means) to engrave flags, banners and stars as permanent garnishes. You can achieve the same motif with the "July 4 Decal Packet" (available at a nominal charge from Presumably, your party guests will be more amenable to a patriotic motif.

The menu is often rather limited chez Lompoc, but it exudes a certain charm and embrace of basic American foodstuffs that harks back to simpler, more innocent times. And you know how I feel about more innocent times. I strongly encourage you to adopt this culinary theme for your holiday gathering -- a paean to the purity of yore: bologna sandwiches served on gleaming white bread (for ease of preparation leave the crusts on) or peanut butter and jelly ("PB&J" we called them when I was a child; in here they're known as "rat bait specials" -- recipes on page 194). To complement the sandwiches, canned corn or peas and a simple boiled potato (page 129) -- known as a "flying coldcocker" in here -- create a Yankee veggie melody that your guests won't soon forget. To drink, a half pint of milk in the carton can summon up memories of happy school days (or hard time at Attica), and refreshing ice tea served in a tin cup always puts me in mind of Adirondack camping trips.

Unlike those of you at home, I enjoy the bonus of a vending machine here at the facility that dispenses a surprisingly good trail mix -- assorted nuts, raisins and bits of chocolate that no one else wants to eat (though I will confess to competing from time to time for a fresh bag of Cheetos). I'm sure a similar mixture is available at your grocer. I've found that the plastic caps from spray-paint cans (used here in the sign-painting shop) make enchanting nut cups. By snipping off the ends of our toothbrushes and fashioning them into two-prong forks (another no-no here, I suppose, but sometimes a little rule breaking is in order), we make the our nut treats last several minutes -- just one more little trick for bringing old-fashioned leisure back into dining.

As you will recall, I've always believed that a table is not really set until the flowers and napkin rings are in place. And as you might imagine, napkin rings are a rare item around here, but necessity is the mother of invention. Who would have thought that when cut into fourths and decorated with toothpaste, the tubes from toilet-paper rolls make perfect homes for the serviette (page 136)? If you like, trim them in a scallop pattern and add glitter (not available here). Have the kids add names or humorous nicknames! (We like to label ours with the number of days left on our sentences -- a getting-to-know-you trick that creates a sense of optimism and hope, especially among the short-timers.)

One happy discovery I've made recently is that celery tops quickly arranged in a Dixie cup whisper "party" in a very unostentatious and distinctly American manner. Use four to six such displays to enliven the center of your table (page 87). (Unlike me, you are not likely to have to trade cigarettes for celery stalks, a step that is mortifying but, as you will see, well worth the periodic debasement). Decorating the cups as we do in here -- with papier-maché curlicues made from masticated gum wrappers -- will give your affair an atmosphere of playfulness. Origami centerpieces fashioned from back issues of Easy Rider magazine add an exotic and amusingly outré touch.

Most important, be it bologna or foie gras, enjoy your holiday, enjoy your meal and especially your freedom -- it's a good thing! Take it from an "insider": You can have a good time even when you're serving hard time.

Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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