With households watching every penny, a growing number of Americans are ditching their takeout menus and heading into the kitchen to cook dinner at home. The trouble is, many don't know how.
"We have forgotten how to cook," says author Mollie Katzen, best known for "The Moosewood Cookbook." As families learned to rely on dialing for pizza, they stopped being able to bake their own.
Now, lots of people want to save money but can't even make eggs, she says. We've become a nation of inexperienced but newly determined cooks, and that has given cookbook authors and publishers a promising new niche.
After years of cookbooks that ranged from pretentious celebrity chef volumes to glossy tributes to cupcakes, the latest trend embraces Cooking 101 — books that take readers back to the basics.
This fall, British chef Jamie Oliver releases "Jamie's Food Revolution," which teaches basic techniques that save money and produce healthier eating habits. And Katzen will roll out "Get Cooking," the first in a series of books that targets beginning cooks with straightforward recipes for soups, pasta, chicken and burgers.
These new offerings follow last fall's "Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics" by television chef Ina Garten and "Martha Stewart's Cooking School" by Martha Stewart. Garten's book was the top seller and Stewart's was in the top five, says Kathryn Popoff, vice president of trade books for bookseller Borders Group, Inc.
Books such as New York Times' columnist Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" and "Cooking Know-How," by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough also populate the growing genre.
Dorothy Harr, a 41-year-old marketing executive from Centerville, Va., is among the more than 40 percent of people surveyed by Worthington, Ohio-based consumer research firm BIGresearch who say they're cutting back on dinners out. But her limited skills mean her family doesn't eat much variety.
"I tend to cook the same thing over and over and it gets really boring," she says. She's hoping a brush-up of the basics will change that.
Basic cookbooks have long been a staple of the cookbook industry. Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" walked Americans through Gallic cuisine. Fannie Farmer taught home cooks how to measure properly. "The Joy of Cooking" introduced asparagus and how to handle it. What has changed is the level of knowledge — or, perhaps, ignorance — these new books assume.
Katzen is amazed at the level of skills. "The questions I get are so basic 'Should I buy the frozen spinach or the fresh,' 'I'd like to make an omelet, how do I do that?' I thought it was obvious, but it's not."
Culinary historians say America's migration from the stove began sometime after World War II, when more women moved into the workforce and the makers of packaged foods began casting cooking as drudgery to be dispensed with quickly.
Our skills eroded through the 1960s, '70s, and '80s as families worked more and ate fewer meals together. Now the average home cook's knowledge has declined so thoroughly that The Betty Crocker Kitchens Stylebook, which is used for recipes and package directions, has simplified some of its terms. For instance, modern cooks are instructed to "beat" sugar and butter together rather than "cream" it (the instruction of yesteryear), cookbooks manager Lois Tlusty said in an e-mail.
At the same time, people began to eat out more. Not just hamburgers, but high-end fare at restaurants presided over by culinary luminaries. Chefs became celebrities and food-driven media like specialized magazines and the Food Network helped make contemporary diners more sophisticated than ever — at least on the surface.
"People want to throw around terms like 'jus' or 'coulis,'" says Anne Mendelson, a culinary historian and contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. "Some people say we're getting more sophisticated. But then you look at the cookbooks meant to teach people to cook and you hear horror stories of the trouble ordinary people have using those books."
Getting comfy with the kitchen
Cookbooks are only part of the effort to help Americans get comfortable in the kitchen again. Many beginning cooks seem to want more instruction than a book can reasonably offer, giving rise to cooking schools.
Roughly 350 cooking schools can be found across the country, says Stephan Hengst, spokesman for the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., up from just over 200 a decade ago. In 2007, the latest year for which figures are available, more than 62,000 students were enrolled.
"People realize that at the core of it, they never really learned to cook to begin with," Hengst says. "With the rise of Whole Foods and farmers' markets people are discovering ingredients that they're completely unfamiliar with and they want to know what to do with them."
At Sterling, Va.-based Cookology, where timid cook Harr has taken more than a half-dozen classes, owner Maria Kopsidas even offers a farmers' market class based on what cooks might find at their local markets. But she also recognized the need to teach these same cooks to improvise — that is, cook with confidence.
"How do you teach such a special skill?" says Kopsidas. "You can show people, look, there are two or three ways that we tend to cook things like vegetables, and then give them a few recipes to use as a foundation."
But some culinary observers worry a whole shelf of books on cooking 101 won't help a culture that has moved so far from the kitchen.
"We've fallen into the hands of other people making our food for us," Mendelson says. "And I don't know if there's any road back from that."