'Living' on the Edge

When she does it, it looks and tastes and smells great. When I try, it's another story

Every year around this time, my inner Martha Stewart emerges, and I fantasize about delivering baskets filled with homemade goodies with tantalizing aromas to my friends and family. Yes, I am a closet crafter. And although I rarely do anything more complex than sewing a button, I'm ever optimistic that someday I'll start baking bread, d飯upaging old furniture, and making unique gifts for everyone on my list using nothing but items found easily in my backyard, like herbs, fruit, and leaves.

In Martha Stewart's world, making things like candles and soaps is good; it's relaxing and it promotes world peace. And, oh, those colors she uses for her home—those calm hues like buff, lichen, stone, and twig—transport your spirit outdoors. You can almost smell the fresh pine air, even if you've been sitting in front of the computer for the last six hours, eating microwave popcorn.

So it was with my desire to follow the Tao of Martha that I ventured to make candles with my friend Alison last year. She'd borrowed a book from the library that illustrated candlemaking as easy as pouring wax into milk cartons. The results were pretty, with many candles decorated with flower petals stuck to the sides. "Oh, I love it!" Alison cried.

"And think of how much money we'd save on Christmas gifts," I said, "making our own fancy candles instead of buying ones that cost $12 at the store."

The following weekend, Alison and I went to Pourette, a small candle-supply store in Ballard, and bought bricks of paraffin, coloring, and wicking. Back at her house, we got to work in the kitchen while her boyfriend, Peter, skeptical but amused, looked on. First we got our milk and orange-juice cartons ready, cutting off the tops and setting them on a table covered with newspaper. Then we melted the wax and our coloring—which had come in hard little chips—in two double boilers. This took only a few minutes. Easy enough. This was going to be fun.

But the next step, pouring the wax into the cartons, was tricky, because the wick kept being pushed to one side by the wax. Nothing in our book showed us how to keep the wick from attaching itself to the side of the box. All of the illustrations showed perfectly straight wicks placed dead-center in the milk cartons. I tried keeping the wick in place with a stick, but it ended up curling diagonally to the base of the candle.

Meanwhile, Alison was experiencing added difficulty with the wick. Following advice from an episode of Martha Stewart Living, she tried to stick the wick onto a penny with a dab of hot wax. Supposedly the penny would keep the wick in its place. But when Alison tried it, the penny dropped to the bottom of the carton, without the wick. In the end, her candle had four pennies stuck underneath—and not one of them had held the wick in place. Oh well, we had lots of milk cartons; the next candle would be better.

Besides, we had decorations. I had brought an old bag of potpourri and slices of dried orange to embellish the candles. This was improvisation; Martha never talked about such things. With renewed inspiration, we dropped the potpourri leaves and orange slices into the hot wax. We put the candles in the fridge to harden while we cleaned up the kitchen.

Hours later, the results were disappointing. I wanted my candle to be a rich cranberry—and it had been that shade when the wax was hot. But hardened, the candle was much brighter, the color of Hawaiian Punch. Alison's was only slightly better. We had spent over $20 for the supplies and produced two candles too ugly to display on a mantelpiece, not to mention give to anyone else as presents.

A few weeks later, I discovered my candle was also a fire hazard. A guy and I were getting romantic one night, when suddenly the room became very bright and filled with a pungent odor. The candle was burning—like a small campfire. Those orange slices I had been so proud of had caught flame and were burning to a crisp. Smoke filled the room, setting off my fire alarm. Needless to say, the fiasco killed my friend's mood and my desire to emulate Martha Stewart ever again.

Soyon Im is a staff writer at Seattle Weekly.

More home-brewed disasters

. . . that suggest one must suffer in order to understand the Way of Martha:

After visiting a Web site for making soap, I made several bars of lavender citrus soap with fennel seeds. (The site suggested grainy materials like coffee grounds, poppy seeds, etc., for effective cleansing.) The results were pretty and rustic, but when I gave one to a friend, he said, "It looks like old cheese. And what are these little things stuck inside? Mosquitoes?"

For a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner for six, I tried an Indian menu, following a recipe for dahl included in every college co-op's Bible, The Moosewood Cookbook. It turned out rich and spicy, but what I didn't count on was how brown and watery the whole thing was going to be. When I put the big pot of dahl in the middle of the table, a couple of people excused themselves to use the bathroom.

A friend once hand-sewed a skirt for my birthday. The fabric was beautiful—she had bought it from a Lower Eastside shop that specialized in Indonesian batik. But she forgot to put in one thing—a slit. Without it, the skirt fit like a tight sack, restricting my legs from moving more than several inches. The skirt looked great when I posed in front of a mirror, one hand at my hip. But once I tried to move, I either had to hop or take tiny baby steps. I ended up saving the fabric—thinking that I would some day use it to make pillows and potpourri sachets. It hasn't happened yet.

Resources

Pourette Candle-making Supplies—Try your luck! A no-frills store as plain as a nun's habit, Pourette has everything for making luxurious candles and soaps, including molds, wax, scents, dyes, and wicking. 1418 NW 53rd, 789-3188.

The Candlemaker's Companion (Storey Communications)—Betty Oppenheimer shows you everything you need to know about making poured, dipped, and rolled candles, and even gives instructions on how to braid your own wick! However, there's no information on how to keep that darn wick straight.

Beautiful Handmade Natural Soaps (Sterling Publishing)—In this excellent book, Marie Browning recommends using basic, store-bought white soap (Ivory) as a base instead of producing soap from scratch using lye and home-rendered fats, which is a long (and scary) process. The author herself would rather "leave soapmaking to the experts" and gives recipes that are relatively easy to follow.

www.homearts.com—Gives detailed recipes for making your own soaps, candles, and other aromatherapy products. Gives projects for kids and links to other craft sites as well.

www.marthastewart.com—Tons of home, wedding, and holiday ideas, transcripts of TV and radio programs, recipes, and Martha-approved merchandise for sale. Well-organized and as impeccable as everything else that bears her name, suggesting what we knew all along—that Martha belongs to an alien species.

 
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