Domestic Insight: Corn-on-the-Cob Skewers

Since we are in the midst of corn season, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight a domestic gadget that helps us to handle those steaming, buttery cobs of golden goodness a little more daintily. I am, of course, referring to the corn skewer: one of those little kitchen tools that stradles the gap between cartoonish kitsch and useful utensil. According to almost every etiquette expert, from the late nineteenth century onward, it is perfectly acceptable to eat corn on the cob using your fingers. These experts do have tips for making the experience a tad more civilized, of course: cutting the cobs in half before serving them, providing linen napkins exclusively for the purpose of handling the hot cob (and dabbing the melted butter from your lips), or providing the diner with a small, sharp knife so that she may slice off the kernels from the cob if she so chooses.
Top: corn skewers from the 1920s used on railroad dining cars. The skewers are made of metal and the handles made of wood. They each have a triangular support and were manufactured by F.P. Pfleghar & Son for use on Milwaukee passenger cars. The sterling-silver set above is from the 1940s, made by Berry & Co.

The most excellent tool for eating corn on the cob, however, must certainly be the corn-on-the-cob skewer. This late Victorian-era invention first made its appearance on large European cruise ships and railroad dining cars where holding corn on the cob firmly was essential. These early skewers would usually be made of silver or steel, some with wooden handles. As the decades rolled on, the skewers found their way into American homes. By the 1920s numerous sets were made in sterling silver, sold in sets of eight throughout the U.K. and the U.S. These sets were usually reserved for the dining-room and formal entertaining. After the 1960s, however, they became more of a seasonal utensil used at the kitchen table or outdoors at picnics and backyard barbecues. As such, they were mass produced in durable plastics with stainless steel 'prongs' that could be inserted into the ends of the cobs.

Designs for the handles of the skewers are limitless and can be quite imaginative. The most frequently-used design mimics the appearance of an ear of corn. (The plastic versions are usually bright yellow.)  Other designs range from the comical to the ridiculous: dinosaurs or golf balls or pistols or angel wings; some are minimalist-looking knobs made of wood or ceramic and others have ornately-carved or painted designs.

The sterling silver varieties can be quite collectible today. A complete set of eight from the 1940s or '50s can fetch anywhere between $125 and $200, depending on their condition and the manufacturer. The vintage novelty skewers from the '60s and '70s are less valuable but no less fun to collect.


The Editor-in-Chief at Home

Eric Pike, the Content Director and editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart Living magazine, looks at colour all day long. From vibrantly-hued fruits and vegetables to multi-layered patterns on fabric swatches, his eye rarely gets to rest. This is why Eric chose to surround himself with a palette of neutrals at home: pale grays and taupes, accentuated by light blues and warmed by wood tones. The first time I saw his apartment in the September, 2005, issue of Martha Stewart Living, I became greatly enamoured of his style.
It took Eric a while to find the perfect place to live, but just over a decade ago he did. In 2001 he moved into the top floor of an 1840s Federal-style townhouse on a historic block in Manhattan. The dark pied-a-terre needed a serious facelift, however, and he embarked on a renovation with New York architect Richard Perry. Eric's goal was to create a calming, classic environment that was "not quite minimalist" but definitely spare in decoration where everything was thoughtfully placed to be both functional and attractive. Eric's collection of antique Gustavian Swedish furniture lent itself perfectly to the colour scheme, which was inspired by birch bark, driftwood and beach stones - the calming hues of an overcast day.  Eric also installed a decorative fireplace in the livng room, shown above. The nineteenth-century limestone mantel was a gift from Martha.
Because the apartment building has windows only at the front and the back of the edifice, skylights are used to great effect in Eric's home. There are four in total: one over the entry stairwell, one in the front entrance, one in the bathroom and a very large one in the dining room, casting natural light into the interior of the apartment all day long.

Eric is something of a collector and one of the challenges of living in a small space meant finding places for everything while still maintaining that clean, pared-down look. Eric employed several tricks and strategies to keep things looking sparse while still storing his things neatly. In the kitchen, for instance, cabinets were designed without hardware, concealing appliances while keeping them accessible but off the counter. Electrical outlets are hidden under the top cabinets to further minimize visual clutter. The refrigerator door and the door to the stacked washer and dryer unit are painted the exact shade of gray as the rest of the kitchen, seamlessly blending the appliances into the room so that they recede gracefully into the facade.
Behind the mirror in the living room, over the mantel, Eric has tucked a flat-screen TV. In many of the corners and archways of the apartment, Eric has maximized storage space by carving out niches for hidden shelving and storage closets - all of which are kept hidden behind sleek doors that are barely visible.

Decorating a small space? I think Eric's apartment is the perfect example of how you can live on a smaller scale without sacrificing even a hint of elegance and grandeur. Below are five lessons we can all learn from Eric's decorating choices:

1. Small spaces do not have to be cluttered. Provided you invest some time to really consider where furniture should go, you can find a spot for just about anything.

2. Small spaces do not have to be dark. Eric chose a unifying, monochromatic scheme to keep his home looking cohesive, thereby making it feel larger. If each room had been painted a different shade, the effect would have looked fractured, accentuating the smallness of each room rather than the grandeur of the entire space.

3. Invest in light. The skylights in Eric's home bring natural light into the apartment where windows could not. To further assist the distribution of light, Eric uses a lot of reflective silver and mercury glass objects in his decorating scheme.

4. Think strategically. Every nook and cranny in Eric's home has a purpose: every alcove, every archway. Maximize space by finding it anywhere and everywhere and then work to seamlessly blend and conceal those spaces.

5. Know what you want to see when you walk through the door. Eric had a very clear vision of what his apartment should look and feel like. To give his eye a rest from the kaleidoscope of colour he looks at all day in photo spreads and prototypes, he chose a restful gray palette. Perhaps you need the opposite: a vibrant, colourful palette to perk you up after a day of paperwork and LCD screens. Assess your emotional needs, as well as the practical ones, and go from there.


Faux Bois at Skylands

One of the many things I love about Skylands, Martha's home in Maine, is how she has chosen to decorate it. She has perfectly mixed refined elegance with rusticity and whimsy by pairing contrasting textures, all the while maintaining the home's traditional atmosphere. Of Martha's residences, Skylands is my favourite. One of the best decorating choices Martha made, in my opinion, was using her collection of faux bois in her indoor decorating scheme. Faux bois (which means 'false wood' in French) is a decorative technique that mimics the physical qualities of wood, whether it is the grain, the texture of the bark or the gnarled shapes of tree branches. Martha's collection is quite extensive, encompassing both antique examples from England and France as well as new pieces that she had specially commissioned for Skylands.
"When I started collecting, I found most of the pieces at antiques shows -- such as the New York Botanical Garden show in May and the Lexington Avenue Armory Garden Antiques Show (which now takes place in Chicago) -- and at several Maine, Connecticut, and New York dealers, including Bob Withington in York, Maine, and John Rosselli and Judith and James Milne in New York City. I bought planters, chairs, benches, luncheon tables, and stands," Martha writes in her book Martha's Entertaining.

She initially began her collection with the intention of using the urns, pots, garden tables and planters outdoors. The grandeur and scale of Skylands, however, was the perfect place to use her faux bois indoors, scaling back the opulence of the home with its woodsy charm.

There are two primary materials that have been traditionally used to make faux bois furniture: cast iron and cement. Martha prefers the cement variety because of its texture and solidity. When styled correctly, it most closely resembles the trunks of trees with their rough bark and their knotted branches. Below are some examples of Martha's faux bois collection at Skylands.
Matha commissioned two enormous tables for Skylands by renowned faux-bois furniture maker Carlos Cortes, a third-generation artisan working in San Antonio, Texas.
The materials Carlos uses are simple (concrete, steel wire, rebar), and his tools rudimentary (sticks, coarse brushes, rough abrasives) but his finished pieces are works of art. The screen holds the mortar and gives a piece its shape. The paintbrush is handy for pushing concrete into the screen, and the fork and the trowel are used to carve intricate wood-grain motifs.
The larger of the two tables that Carlos made weighs a ton - literally! The tabletop alone weighs over 1,200 pounds. It took twelve men to move the table into the Great Hall at Skylands.
Here is the table decorated for an afternoon paté campagnard lunch. A massive Han Dynasty-era urn holds an autumnal arrangement by Kevin Sharkey.
 Martha reiterates the faux-bois motif with faux wood-grain serveware and actual tree-trunk slices that act as trivets for warm terrines of paté.
A series of faux-bois planters from the 1800s and 1900s is used as a centerpiece for the dining room table. Martha planted each pot with mosses from the surrounding woodlands.
 A close-up of one of the planters reveals its many artistic charms and details: the effect of peeling bark, a crack that was intentionally sculpted and 'repaired' with a faux-steel bracket, even a mushroom growing out of its base.
In the living room, the subtly contrasting textures and tones of silk-linen upholstery and a sisal rug play up the intricately modeled surfaces of a cradlelike planter. Separate pots of Venus' Slipper orchids are tucked out of sight by a blanket of pine needles collected from the woods outdoors.
This nine-foot long arboreal table, which is nineteenth-century French, looks refined with a gilded mirror set atop. An antique iron urn holds verbena cuttings while two flanking cement planters hold mounds of green moss.
Another microcosm of moss, ferns, stones and tiny saplings echoes the landscape beyond the walls of Skylands. Inside this faux-bois planter, the miniature setting truly comes to life.

In the upstairs hall, two faux-bois planters sprout heuchera.

In the living room, a faux-bois basket plays centerpiece in a symmetrical table setting.

 This faux-bois planter proffers umbrellas for guests on the front stoop.
  A rustic faux-bois table on the moss-covered ground at Skylands enhances the elegance of fine dinnerware.


In Memorium: Laura Kostyra Plimpton (1955 - 2014)

Many of us woke up today to the sad news of the passing of Martha's youngest sister, Laura Plimpton. Laura suffered a brain aneurism and died yesterday in hospital, surrounded by her family: her husband Randy and her three children, Sophie, Christopher and Charlie. She was 59 years old. Many of us knew Laura to be Martha's closest sister and someone who had worked with Martha for more than 25 years. She worked in the radio department for many years as a script writer and also contributed to many of Martha's ventures behind the scenes as a researcher. She will be so sadly missed. On behalf of everyone who reads Martha Moments, I want to extend my deepest sympathies to Martha, Laura's family and all the Kostyras. Laura is in our thoughts and prayers. Vist Martha's Blog to read Laura's obituary (written by her children) or to leave a comment for Martha and her family.
Laura on her honeymoon in Ireland in 1990. (Photo: The Martha Blog)


Happy 73rd Birthday, Martha!

There are people in our lives who change us, who make us better, teach us, strengthen us and lead by example. For me, Martha Stewart is one such person. I have been fortunate enough to have met this iconic figure on several occasions and have told her, in person, that her work has been an enormous source of inspiration to me. For that, I feel truly blessed. This blog has been around for eight years and even now I find myself consistently interested in archiving and charting the developments of Martha's work and the incredible company she founded. Every issue of her magazine, every book, every episode of every television show - they all impart a profound wealth of information and knowledge that I cannot take for granted. I consider Martha to be one of my greatest teachers. I also consider her to be a friend and, perhaps, on some small level, she thinks of me as a friend too. I hope she is having a marvelous time with her grandchildren and the people she most loves - maybe at Skylands or maybe in some far-flung destination. Where ever she is, I know she is learning something. I know she is teaching something. Happy Birthday, Martha!

Martha in Porter Magazine

There is an extensive feature on Martha Stewart in the fall issue of Porter, Net-a-Porter's print magazine. The issue is on stands now and features photographs of Martha by Terry Richardson taken at Bedford. Martha is photographed indoors and out, surrounded by members of her furry family: dogs Genghis Khan, Francesca and Sharkey, and her Friesian horses. Richardson has shot ad campaigns for Tom Ford, Yves St. Laurent, Aldo and Marc Jacobs as well as editorials for Rolling Stone, Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar. Apparently, Martha personally requested that Terry photograph her for this piece. She got her wish! You can see some of the photos, below, and can read more about the story by clicking here.


The September Issue

One of the most anticipated issues of Martha Stewart Living is arriving in subscriber mailboxes this week. You will find the issue on newsstands August 11th. I'm not sure how I feel about another food cover...especially one on an issue that was typically all about home decorating and design. But I'll take it! The cake looks delicious and there is an excellent article inside on Drabware and using a neutral colour palette to decorate. There are new takes on healthy baking, one-pot meals and home organization tips.