Americans are spending vast sums for cookbooks, gadgets and state-of-the-art appliances, but more and more in today's kitchens ACTUAL COOKING IS OPTIONAL

March 01, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

One of the great mysteries of late 20th century American life is this: If some 46 percent of our food dollars is spent on food prepared outside the home, why are we buying $10,000 Thermador Professional Series double oven ranges for our kitchens? Or even $9 Williams-Sonoma lemon zesters? Why are cookbook sales soaring?

Sophistication about food and wine has become a kind of status symbol in the '90s. Americans have developed a regional gourmet cuisine to be proud of, and a global network of food is available to us. "The cultural elite," says Gary Fine, a professor of sociology at Northwestern, "see food as something worth thinking about and spending money on."

But they don't have to be able to cook.

Our relationship to food and its preparation has changed quite remarkably in the '90s. Most of us use our kitchens more to store and heat food than to cook it.

Our parents ate dinner at home during the week. They went out to a restaurant on the weekend as a treat. But nowadays Americans eat out, carry out or drive through during the week. If we cook, we're more likely to cook for family and friends on the weekend as a way of relaxing.

Cooking seems to be one of those things people don't do except when they feel like it. Here are some random but related statistics:

The primary reason Americans say they go out to eat? Because they don't want to cook: 29 percent. For enjoyment or pleasure: 2 percent. This according to a 1995 Roper poll.

A 1996 study by the Food Marketing Institute found that 75 percent of U.S. consumers didn't know by 4 in the afternoon what they were serving (or eating) for dinner. We may dream about creating lavish dinners for our guests on the weekends. But we don't give much thought to our everyday meals.

According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans consume an average of 4.1 commercially prepared meals each week.

But still, many of us are obsessed with the process of creating wonderful meals.

"I'm in my 40s," says Terry Dorr, a college marketing director. "My friends and I spend vast amounts of money on cookbooks and Bon Appetit and Gourmet subscriptions. Most of us pore over complicated meals in cookbooks and magazines we know we'll never make. I have a collection of French cookbooks that I just look at."

Mmmm. A juicy aiguillette of duck replaces a juicy Danielle Steele novel. It's cooking as entertainment.

A quick glance at the cookbook section of any bookstore will lead to the nonscientific conclusion that America is drowning in cookbooks: glossy coffee-table books to give as gifts, endless books on 20-minute quick meals, cookbooks that can only be classified as arcane ("A Modernist View of Plated Desserts"), books celebrating a particular ingredient, books from celebrity chefs, reissued standards like "The Joy of Cooking." Somebody is reading all these books and all those beautiful cooking magazines, but why?

Maybe our nation is so weight conscious and health conscious that this is our way of having our cake and not eating it too. A recipe for a fudgy chocolate mousse cake in the February issue of Food & Wine calls for 1/2 pound of unsalted butter and five eggs plus three yolks. Just reading about it feels wicked, delicious.

Now close the magazine and go eat your Snackwells.

Here's something else to ponder. Is Emeril Lagasse the Michael Jordan of celebrity chefs, or is Michael Jordan the Emeril Lagasse of professional basketball? I wouldn't be surprised if you told me that more people watch Lagasse's Food Network cooking shows than the Chicago Bulls. I do know that 30 million people watch the Food Network, and almost half of them are men.

The best of these celebrity chefs are showmen par excellence. My guess is that most of Lagasse's viewers aren't heading to their kitchens after the show to fix his beef tenderloin with fresh horseradish and black pepper crust. They're watching to be entertained.

But there's a more serious reason for these shows' popularity. People like to watch someone who's skillful at something -- in this case, cooking. Warren Belasco, author of "Appetite for Change" (Cornell, 1993), has a theory why: "People are torn. We really want convenience; but at the same time there's a sense of loss, a loss of craft and contact with a real cooking tradition."

Where the family is

Maybe that's why Americans have made their kitchens the heart of their homes, where the whole family gathers and where JTC friends are entertained. They look back nostalgically to a time (real or not) when Mom produced wonderful dinners every night while they did homework at the kitchen table.

I don't know about your mother, but mine -- who did produce wonderful dinners -- would never have let a guest in her kitchen. Whatever redecorating dollars she spent, she spent first in the living room.

But now the kitchen has become our living room, so we put in gleaming floors, granite counters, fine wood cabinetry and state-of-the-art appliances.

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