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Home cooking hits the back burner, but food culture heats up

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Abigail Hitchcock, the chef and owner of CAMAJE, shows Katrina Gleich how to properly cut a mango during a cooking class at her New York City bistro. (Photo by Karsten Moran)

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Abigail Hitchcock, the chef and owner of CAMAJE, demonstrates the technique for cutting an onion during a cooking class in her New York City bistro. (Photo by Karsten Moran)

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Katrina Gleich stirs the filling for potato and spinach samosas during a cooking class at CAMAJE, a New York City bistro. (Photo by Karsten Moran)

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Mike Shur folds potato and spinach samosas during a cooking class at CAMAJE, a New York City bistro. (Photo by Karsten Moran)

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Curried peas and cumin potatoes cook on the stovetop at CAMAJE, a New York City bistro. (Photo by Karsten Moran)

On a recent Saturday morning, Katrina Gleich and her boyfriend, Mike Shur, celebrated their one-year anniversary at CAMAJE, a bistro in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

But instead of eating a leisurely brunch of mimosas and omelets, the two busily prepared vegetarian Indian food as part of Gleich’s anniversary present to her boyfriend--cooking lessons.

“We both enjoy cooking, but we never really have the energy to do it,” said Gleich as she and the five other students watched Abigail Hitchcock, CAMAJE’s owner and chef, give a demonstration on how to properly chop a mango for chutney.

In fact, most nights, Gleich, 23, pops a Lean Cuisine into the microwave or pours a bowl of cereal for dinner.

She is not unlike a growing number of Americans who treat cooking more as a recreational activity than a daily necessity. Today books about food regularly make bestseller lists, and Web sites like FoodNetwork.com enjoy the most traffic they’ve ever had.

But more people than ever are eating microwavable dishes, frozen foods and mixes for dinner, according to data collected by the NPD Group, a consumer and retail market research company.

“Homemade dinners are dropping like a lead balloon,” said Harry Balzer, an NPD vice president specializing in food trends.

Over the course of a year, Balzer tracks the eating habits of about 5,000 Americans. His results show that only 58 percent of people who eat dinner at home on a given night cook from scratch, compared with 72 percent in 1984.

Making dinner from scratch takes time, said Balzer, so consumers will buy any product that makes cooking easier.

Places like DinnerSmith in Maplewood, N.J., whose motto is “We do the shopping, chopping and mopping” have capitalized on that very idea.

“We hear women say, ‘We love to cook but we hate to prep,’“ said Fran Valle, co-owner of the store which opened last year.

So DinnerSmith employees prepare the ingredients--dice, chop, slice--provide the recipes, and send customers home with a ready-to-cook meal.

Valle added that part of the appeal of stores like hers is the social aspect. Often a group of women will come in for a girls’ night out to prep together, or a couple will come in for a date.

Specialty products like cooking magazines and cookbooks are also experiencing a boom. R.R. Bowker, which compiles publishing statistics, has tracked a 30 percent increase in book titles related to cooking between 2002 and 2006. Books about food and cooking are so mainstream that Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” has been on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list for a couple of months. Even Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” which debuted at No. 7 when published in 2000, is still ranked on the paperback bestseller list.

Cookbook stores like The Cook’s Library in Los Angeles do not release sales data, but manager Tom Fischer says they have seen a steady increase in business since it opened 18 years ago. Literary books about food have exploded, he added.

“They’re talking about a subject that everyone has an interest in,” Balzer said. He added that while not everyone likes cooking, “The thing we really enjoy is the eating.”

Cookbooks are even used for pleasure reading. Kathy Levy, a teacher in Kansas City, Mo., said she sometimes reads cookbooks without any intention of making anything in them. Her husband, a doctor and historian of medicine at the University of Kansas, also uses cooking as a stress reliever. She said he makes dishes that require a lot of ingredients and steps when he’s really stressed out.

Cooking classes have also caught on as a way to relax, and classes around the country are selling out.

In order to learn something new and for entertainment, Levy occasionally takes cooking classes at the local YWCA.

Her friend Kerry Scott sometimes joins Levy with her 20-year-old son Ben Scott, partly as a bonding experience.

“I’m a working mother with two kids, and I have a pretty active lifestyle,” Scott explained. “I sort of don’t feel like spending an hour in the kitchen preparing a meal.”

Now that her kids have grown up, she has more time to focus on cooking. The classes also allow her to connect with her son, who enjoys spending time in the kitchen.

Balzer of the NPD group said people in Scott’s son’s age group look at the kitchen differently than previous generations.

“The interest in cooking is still very high,” he said, “but we’ll reach a stage when all cooking is recreational.”

He believes that as people become increasingly dependent on prepared foods, 50 years from now all supermarkets will be drive-thrus.

But for now, Gleich is happy to spend her Saturday afternoon at CAMAJE learning how to make cauliflower pakora and basmati pilaf. She might even try the recipes at home sometime, if she can find the time.

Said CAMAJE’s Hitchcock, “Cooking is cool now.”

E-mail: esk2007@columbia.edu