One of these years, that pretty cookbook will get an appropriate smudge of grease

November 12, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

I JUST BOUGHT A new cookbook. It has beautiful pictures in it of tempting food. Someday, I hope to be eating food that looks just like the food in these pictures.

But it won't be tonight, because right next to the new cookbook in the grocery cart I am pushing around this cavernous warehouse store are complete-in-this package frozen fajitas, which we are having for dinner.

If it doesn't come in a jar or in suspended animation, or if it isn't delivered in a box or purchased through a drive-through window, it isn't dinner in our house. So I add this slim and pretty little cookbook to my immaculate collection. Someday, I promise them, you all will be touched by greasy fingers and splattered with sauce. Someday, you will be used.

I do not cook from recipes, I cook from directions on the backs of packages. I do not perpare meals, I assemble them, like a taco. But I love to buy cookbokks and secrete them away for the time when the hot-dog-or-Spaghettios crowd has left home.

Every year, 800 to 1,000 new cookbooks are published, and each year a new survey reveals that busy Americans are cooking less often. A recent Gallup poll reports that six out of 10 respondents think it is acceptable not to cook from scratch for a week. Still another survey shows that the amount of money families spend at the grocery store is shrinking while the amount of money spent in restaurants is increasing.

The obvious questions are: Who is buying these cookbooks and what are they doing with them? I think they are reading them in bed. Like me. I drift in a no-fat, no-cholesterol reverie just before sleep.

"It is analogous to the upsurge in people remodeling their kitchens," says Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. "It is a booming business because, for a number of reasons, people are spending more time at home."

Like me, they have this vision of the kitchen as the center of a warm and spirited family life. Or the aromatic gathering place where charming, wine-drinking friends watch as you prepare a simple but elegant meal.

The truth is, our charming friends are too busy hauling their warm and spirited children through a crowded calendar to gather in my aromatic kitchen.

"It is like buying a piece of exercise equipment," said Mr. Celente. "The desire is there, but the time isn't. The will is weakened by stress. People are working harder, longer, more than one job. They don't have time to cook."

The family dinner is indeed in decline, but when people do find time to cook, they want to do it right. So you find kitchens stocked with heavy equipment -- espresso makers, bread machines, rice steamers -- and with cookbooks so arcane and glossy they might be better suited to the coffee table.

Everything from the chef-at-home and celebrity cookbooks (in which we learn that Regis Philbin's favorite food is a Ritz cracker with peanut butter and jelly) to ingredient-specific cookbooks like the one devoted to mushrooms, most of which can be obtained only by hunting in the woods of Central Europe.

L There is a cookbook for every taste bud on the human tongue.

"Cooking has become a hobbyist thing, a glamorized leisure activity," says Joshua Isenberg, associate editor of Food Channel, a print publication for the food and beverage industry.

"It is no longer grunt work. It is a creative job."

My cookbooks chronicle my life like photos in an album. There was my "Betty Crocker" (I need the pictures) phase. My "Joy of xTC Cooking" (if you are going to do it, do it right) phase. There was my fondue phase, my crepes phase, my stir-fry phase, my seal-a-meal phase, my crock-pot phase, my microwave phase. Looking back, I seem only to cook in connection with a new piece of equipment.

I am currently in my gourmet-deli-takeout phase. But I know what I am missing by not cooking.

"People need to cook because it is an activity that connects you," says Mr. Isenberg. "To the food, to the people you are with. It is social. If you take it away, people who have achieved a lot in their lives will still feel disheartened because they haven't mastered one skill -- cooking like their family members used to cook."

Mr. Isenberg's observation is quantified by the most recent trend in cookbooks -- traditional fare, the comfort foods of childhood, updated with lighter recipes.

I don't know that I want to whip up my mother's noodles and mashed potatoes -- a staple of my own personal childhood -- and present it to guests. But someday I will cook from the pristine books on my kitchen shelf. And I will make dishes that look like abstract art, like the pictures.

But not until I get my kitchen remodeled.

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