The Martha Stewart of Gabon

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 my 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” —https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/28/style/martha-stewart-tiktok.html?searchResultPosition=1 ).

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.

26 thoughts on “The Martha Stewart of Gabon”

  1. Bonnie, what a lovely slice of your life to read about. Brightened my day, and as a fellow caterer in NY and food stylist of similar age it all came to life as if it were yesterday. Food here is different,varied and an inspiration with all the freshness available. Like you, I love it and would not change much except to have my family more accessible. Thank you for your insights and sharing to others and WOW.

  2. I loved your article!! You must be a fabulous artist as well as a wonderful writer!! Did you take pictures of the walls you decorated? And with markers!!!! I love your resourcefulness. I think Mexicans are resourceful too but not like you!!!

    Do you still dabble in catering??

    1. Thank you, Dorit! Wonderful to hear from you. No, no more catering for me! I, too, love and admire Mexicans’ creativity and resourcefulness. Such a joy to see.

  3. Dear Martha, your creativity and inventiveness are a wonder. I can almost feel the warmth and cheer of your cinder block hut. And you didn’t even have to serve time in prison ! Happy 80s!

    1. No prison for me, Ted, gracias a dios! And (I must clarify), the real Martha is three years older than I. I’ll be 77 next week. I’m still enjoying my Happy 70s. — Abrazos, BB

  4. I love this “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.” Another self image to consider.

  5. I enjoyed reading your book several years ago and what a great tie-in with todays blog on Martha Stewart and aging. Loved it. I turn 80 in another seven months.
    My daughter was a Gabon PCV, 1999-21, posted in Cocobeach. My wife and I visited her and traveled around the country visiting all her 14 post mates. The volunteer in Lastoursville was given the Martha Stewart title because she had a chandelier in her house.
    You are a treasure.

  6. This description is so vivid and lovely: “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. “

  7. Dear Bon,

    I’ve also been seeing Martha Stewart lately on a commercial where she endorses “Pretty Litter” for the pampered kitty. This kitty litter resembles fluffy snow, and it turns delightful pastel colors based on your cat’s intestinal health.
    It’s one thing to be Martha Stewart with all imaginable goods and services at your fingertips in Manhattan, but it takes true creativity and imagination to do it where so little is available. No disrespect to MS, but what you accomplished is for more challenging and laudable.

    Love,
    Paul

    1. That’s funny about the kitty litter commercial, Paul dear! I haven’t seen it. I think I can credit my mom with my can-do approach. She used to tell us kids (when finances were tight, which was most of the time), “Anybody can BUY things! But it takes a special person to MAKE things.” So creativity always trumped cash then — and it still does to me now. — LU, BB xx

  8. What a lovely and uplifting article. Thank you! And Happy Mother’s Day to you, Bonnie. I only know you through your blog and books, so I’m hoping it’s not a sad day for you. What an incredible road you’ve traveled.

  9. Really enjoyed this read. In contrast, I hosted a Thanksgiving meal for about 15 fellow Peace Corps volunteers and some Voice of America folks in my town in Botswana Africa. Unfortunately having never done it before my timing was off. Eventually I was kicked out of my own kitchen and a few gutook over. over. Oh well, fun had by all.

    1. Funny story, Lyn! Makes me think a collection of such stories, titled “Thanksgiving Feasts in the Peace Corps,” or something like that, would be a fun and fascinating read! 🙂

  10. Oh, Bonnie, you captivated me again with your wonderful MS in Gabon stories! How very creative you were and are, a wonderful writer and now I realize, an artist, too. We share so much in common, I cannot wait to re-connect in person with you when I am next in San Miguel and if you get to Portland, Oregon, know you are invited to be our guest—we’ll redecorate the guest room —maybe with magic markers—I can already see the “seed pods” bursting forth with colorful flowers! and maybe lines of poetry strung around the walls, too!

    1. Thanks so much for this delightful comment (and invitation), Sher. So glad you liked the post. Just proves that Necessity is the Mother of Creativity, too! 🙂

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