- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

As stock market indexes fall, sales of prepared foods, kitchenware and cooking classes rise. In short, Americans are cooking at home instead of going out in these pocketbook-anemic times.

“Virtually all types of the restaurants are seeing drops,” says Marcia Mogelonsky, senior analyst with the market research group Mintel International in Chicago. “From upscale to casual. They’re all feeling the squeeze as Americans increasingly are cooking and eating at home.”

A recent survey of 1,500 consumers by Mintel and the National Association for Specialty Food Trade shows 57 percent of respondents saying they are dining out less.

In the meantime, outfits including Sur la Table, purveyor of upscale kitchenware and cooking classes, are seeing sales increase in top-notch kitchenware and classes such as Everyday Kitchen Essentials.

“Some of our students say they spend at least $250 a month eating out. So, why not use some of that money to learn how to cook better at home?” says Edward Hamann, culinary program coordinator for Sur la Table at Pentagon Row. “You can give someone a fish to eat, or you can teach them how to fish, and that will feed them for a lifetime.”

At Epicurious.com, a food site with more than 35,000 professionally tested recipes, editors have noticed increased Web traffic, attributed largely to Americans increasingly cooking at home.

“We have seen an increase in traffic for many reasons, but the economy is certainly one of the main reasons,” says Tanya Steel, editor in chief of the site, which gets at least 5 million unique visits a month. “One of our more popular sections is our new Dinner Rush, which plans out a week’s worth of dinners, provides a shopping list and uses ingredients from earlier in the week for later in the week,” Ms. Steel adds.

The advanced planning and reuse of ingredients are aimed at saving money.

Other popular Epicurious.com destinations are Budget Boosters and a section in the Thanksgiving package that offers up a six-dish, eight-person Thanksgiving menu for $79.99.

So, with this great return to the kitchen, what is cooking on American stoves?

There are variations by age, ethnic group, family tradition, income and experience level, but according to the Arlington-based Food Marketing Institute, sales of prepared foods are up.

“Grocery stores have made it very easy,” says Deborah Duchon, nutritional anthropologist and Food Network personality. “It’s not so much about preparing and cooking anymore as it is about assembling and putting into a microwave.”

“Supermarkets are doing everything they can to make it economical, healthy and convenient for customers,” says Leslie G. Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute. “From the rotisserie chicken - which you can pair with so many different things - to the produce department, where you can pick up bagged salads and salad bar items.”

There also are attempts to cook, though, as witnessed by Mr. Hamann at Sur la Table.

“Many twentysomethings are not learning to cook at home anymore, but they are really eager to learn,” Mr. Hamann says. “We see them in our classes all the time.”

Except, in Ms. Duchon’s experience, young men today have better cooking skills than they used to.

“I think it’s become more cool for men to cook,” Ms. Duchon says, “and I think the celebrity chefs have helped, and gay culture.”

Although a Food Network personality herself, Ms. Duchon cautions against believing everything seen on cooking shows. Rachael Ray’s 30-minute meals, for example, may be inspiring and educational, but few of them can actually be whipped up in a mere half-hour.

“People are learning that the hard way,” she says.

Americans are also turning to Web sites for basic cooking techniques.

“We realize there is a whole generation out there who doesn’t know how to cook, so we created over 100 technique videos that show you how to do basic things like make a simple syrup, frost a cake or carve a turkey,” says Ms. Steel of Epicurious.com

The role of sweets echoes the general picture. Sur la Table, for one, has seen a surge in participation in various baking classes.

“Sweets make people feel better,” says Susanna Linse, spokeswoman for Sur la Table. “Especially during tough times.”

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