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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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All of which raises a basic question: Is America really advancing as a culinary – and eating – culture as a result of the latest fascination with food? Probably yes and no.

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Certainly not everyone is turning into an Emeril Lagasse. Americans still spend 49 percent of their food budgets on eating out, estimates the National Restaurant Association, an unhealthy portion of which goes toward Whoppers and Big Macs.

Moreover, fixing a good meal at home, or getting one in a restaurant – particularly if using fresh, locally grown ingredients – can be expensive, leading some critics to argue that much of the latest food craze is really one of a relatively few elites.

And even if people are buying beautiful in-season produce because they feel it lessens their carbon footprint or supports local jobs, that doesn't always mean they know what to do with their weekly allotment of Swiss chard and fingerling potatoes from the community farm.

"We get excited about what looks beautiful, like purple carrots, and that's fascinating," says Deborah Madison, a chef and cookbook author in Santa Fe, N.M. "But you need to understand vegetable families and why things reside in them."

The preoccupation of many with watching cooking shows on TV raises its own set of questions. Many critics level the same charges against them that they do against television in general: They make us passive – observers of, rather than participants in, life, in this case actually cooking.

"Most people don't want to spend the time cooking," says Mark Kurlansky, bestselling author of "Cod," "Salt," and "The Food of Younger Land." "They are buying frozen gourmet from Trader Joe's, or ordering in, or going out to eat, or buying from places that make premade meals."

Nor does the speed at which things happen on cooking shows – in half-hour segments, with an emphasis on competition – really reflect what actually happens in a kitchen, particularly among professionals. "TV has had a positive and negative effect on the culinary world," says Waysok. "The positive is that everyone wants to be the next Gordon Ramsay, and the negative side is that people think being a chef means yelling a lot and throwing things around the kitchen."

Still, a growing number of Americans today are becoming more sophisticated cooks and consumers of food. They are more skilled in their own kitchens, and, when they go out, they are dining in restaurants with a new generation of adventurous chefs. Is America the new Italy? No. But neither is it the era of Hamburger Helper.

Now all we have to do is make sure we don't obsess about it too much. As Trese Ainsworth put it when the family gave Peter the cooking class for a 40th birthday gift: "We signed him up for a karate class, just to keep things in balance."

Gloria Goodale in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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