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You Gotta Eat To Survive, But You Don’t Have To Cook

July 20, 1993

NEW YORK (AP) _ Every evening, an army of bicyclists takes over Manhattan, delivering boxes of pizzas, bags of burritos, cartons of General Tso’s chicken.

Voila 3/8 Dinner is served.

In cities and towns all over the country, two-career couples, young families and single people in their 20s and 30s turn not to Mom in an apron but to supermarket takeout, pizza deliveries, restaurants or microwaveable prepared dinners.

″If you’re brought up with so many choices readily available, cooking is not necessarily the first way you think of getting something to eat,″ said Betsy Leichliter, who researches dining patterns.

Many of these young people have sophisticated palates; they’ve eaten Thai and Vietnamese, Mexican and Moroccan, southern and northern Italian, Indian and Provencal. They can distinguish between a bourride and a bouillabaisse, Yukon gold and yellow Finnish potatoes, fusilli and rigatoni.

″They can do some things fine. They can make pasta, they can operate a grill,″ said Mona Doyle, president of the Consumer Network, a Philadelphia firm that surveys people about their buying and eating habits. ″They don’t know how to make a sauce, they don’t know how to braise.″

It makes for a limited repertoire.

″I do pretty basic things, like cereal or pasta dishes. I can make a sauce, sort of. I can make a piece of chicken if I had to,″ said John Callahan, 32, a photographer in Hawaii whose mother was a school teacher.

″I see cooking as taking up a great deal of time, and that’s time people my age just don’t have,″ he said.

A National Restaurant Association Survey in 1991 found that people ages 18 to 24 ate more commercially prepared meals in a week, 5.1, than any other age group.

In part, that’s because so much is there to be bought.

A decade ago, the array of takeout food ″was called New York food. Now it’s St. Louis food and suburbs food,″ available most places, said Doyle, who recently completed research on ″twentysomethings″ for a food company.

She found that ignorance, a lack of time, a high failure rate in the kitchen, delayed marriage and a perception that homemade is as expensive as takeout have combined to make cooking less inviting for young people, even those who like to eat at home.

″It’s smoke and mirrors when they get in the kitchen,″ said Katherine Alford, head teacher at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School. ″It astonishes me that their culinary traditions are nonexistent.″

Alford, 35, said she grew up with lots of convenience food, and understands its importance to women seeking time for careers or pursuits other than housekeeping.

That legacy has to some extent changed the definition of cooking.

″People like to assemble foods now, more than prepare them,″ said Jo Natale, a spokeswoman for Wegman’s, a chain of 46 upstate New York supermarkets that carry a range of takeout foods. ″They might buy an entree and make a salad.″

Consider:

- A young woman taking part in a focus group for the National Pork Council said she could not make kabobs at home because her supermarket didn’t stock pork cubes. She didn’t consider cutting the meat herself, said Robin Kline, director of consumer affairs at the council in Des Moines.

- In his new book ″Desperate Measures: 90 Unintimidating Recipes for the Domestically Inept,″ Kevin Crafts includes a recipe for real whipped cream, noting that it tastes and looks better than canned, which would not be news to anybody who grew up when milk came with cream on top. The book, he said, is aimed at people who generally eat pizza or a bowl of cereal for supper.

- Cookbook author Marcia Adams tapes her TV cooking show at Bowling Green State University. Some college students who supposedly cooked were hired to assist her. ″I was spending all my time training them,″ she said. The director then went to her Lutheran Church choir and got some older women; they worked just fine.

- Jan Ecklund, manager of consumer services at Betty Crocker in Minneapolis, said calls to the company’s toll-free number show that many young people don’t understand the instructions on mix boxes to ″grease and flour″ a baking pan.

In postwar America, the kitchen was women’s domain, the place where they pleased husbands and husbands’ bosses, where they coffee-klatched with neighbors, where they created fabulous Saturday night dinner parties.

But by 1957, nearly a third of the labor force was female, and food companies saw in these women an excellent market for convenience foods, Harvey Levenstein writes in his history of eating in America, ″Paradox of Plenty.″

Working women often never found time to pass on cooking skills learned from their mothers. So young people are starting from scratch if they become motivated to cook to save money, because they become parents themselves, to eat more healthfully or because it’s fun.

And many young people still learn to cook when they marry, Doyle said. It’s just that marriage often comes later these days.

Shelly Chagnon, 25, said her mother was an excellent cook, but she never learned much from her. Chagnon works from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. as conservation coordinator for Glendale, Calif., and takes aerobics classes three days a week, leaving little time for making dinner.

She and her husband used to eat out often, but are saving money for a house and to raise children. Now they eat salads, pasta, or baked potatoes topped with canned chili.

″It’s hard to visualize what I’m going to do for my kids,″ she said. ″I feel kind of sad because I was exposed to so many foods at home and I don’t know what my kids will be exposed to.″

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