America's new culinary renaissance
We're becoming a nation of food fanatics, signing up for cooking classes, turning into gourmets in the kitchen, and making dining in or out the equivalent of a cultural event. Is America the new France?
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The transformation of food from kitchen to cultural phenomenon is evident everywhere. Farmers' markets and gourmet food trucks have proliferated across the country. Urban hipsters now preserve their own jams. Suburbanites are raising chickens so they can have fresh eggs. The most mundane fare – from hamburgers to cupcakes – has been turned into haute cuisine. Has anyone not had French fries made in duck fat yet? Cuisine is even popular on the big screen, from the dramatic ("Julie & Julia") to the animated ("Ratatouille").Skip to next paragraph
Roger Hand, a retired doctor who attends the botanical chef series here every week, recounts how he recently attended a Shakespearean play and was surprised to find Elizabethan-Era recipes on sale in the lobby. "Going to see 'As You Like It,' I didn't think I'd come home with a cookbook," he says.
What's behind the new food culture, and are Americans really eating better as a result?
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On a Friday evening in Cambridge, Mass., 10 people listen intently to Dave Ramsey, an instructor at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, explain the basics of using an industrial kitchen: Don't touch the outsides of the ovens (they are hot); carry knives pointed downward at all times; and most of all – have fun. The group is made up of friends, spouses, and soon-to-be-marrieds. It's a Spanish cooking class for couples.
Within minutes, the students, wrapped in white aprons, scurry off to separate workstations. Half the room begins chopping garlic, bell peppers, zucchini, and parsley, as well as slicing baguettes, zesting lemons, and peeling potatoes. The other half works over a bank of stainless-steel stoves. Together, the group is creating a multicourse Spanish meal, from gazpacho Andaluz to crema Catalana, in three hours.
For one of the couples, Peter and Trese Ainsworth of Needham, Mass., this is their first cooking class. Mr. Ainsworth, a lawyer, professes that he is a relatively new convert to the kitchen – but a passionate one. When a favorite Italian restaurant in his neighborhood, Sweet Basil, published a cookbook a few years ago, he felt as if he had been given the "keys to the universe." He taught himself to make stocks and sauces. Now he prepares a big family meal every Sunday.
It doesn't end there. He built a raised-bed garden in order to grow his own tomatoes, herbs, and carrots, and regularly watches the Food Network with his two teenage daughters. "I look forward to cooking. It relaxes me," he says.
His rationale for taking up a chef's knife after wrestling with legal briefs all day explains why many people are spending more time in the kitchen: It's something that virtually anyone can do – and it's satisfying. It is a form of self-expression and status, entertainment and education.
In an age of a service economy and pervasive cubicle culture, many people who spend a lot of time glaring at com-puters find cooking a way to create something tangible. In that sense, the interest in cooking parallels the rise of other "hands on" movements that attempt to balance the virtual world with throwback skills, such as laying your own sheetrock and knitting.
Some people, too, are attracted to cooking as a sort of rebellion against the McDonaldization of America and what they see as the tasteless, processed products of an industrialized food system. "I live alone and can't stand prepared food, so I've learned to cook fairly elaborately for one," says Mr. Hand, whose repertoire includes Wiener schnitzel, polenta, and bouillabaisse. "It's an art."