It's 6:30 p.m. - dinnertime across America. But for a dozen novice cooks in Boston, dinner on this autumn Wednesday will have to wait. For now, they are seated in a large kitchen at an adult-education class, eager to begin a course called Cooking 101.
"I can't cook," Laura Hosmer says matter-of-factly. "My mom is a really good cook, but I just never watched what she did. I'm not a detail person. I would make things, and they would turn out awful." She once assumed, for example, that "if you don't have an egg, you can add water." But, she says, "Guess what? You can't."
Now Ms. Hosmer, a hospital-development officer who graduated from college a decade ago, wants to improve her culinary skills. So do the other five women and six men in this class. As she explains, "Most of my generation and younger all eat pasta, veggie burgers, and tuna."
This "pasta generation" includes men and women in their 20s and 30s, often single, whose kitchen skills range from minimal to nonexistent. They lead busy lives, shuttling from work to the gym to social activities. When it's time to eat, they head for a restaurant, order takeout food, or zap a frozen dinner in the microwave.
But there comes a moment when even the most confirmed noncook wearies of spaghetti, rice cakes, and yogurt. Across the country, young professionals like these are enrolling in beginning cooking classes with reassuring titles such as "How to Boil Water." They're also buying basic cookbooks, such as "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen." In the process, they are finding unexpected pleasure in cooking - gasp! - from scratch.
"People want to cook more for themselves," says Michael Malkoff, who teaches this three-session course at the Boston Center for Adult Education. "Every person should be able to put a meal together."
Culinary experts cite a variety of cultural changes that have left men and women adrift in the kitchen. Heading the list is a dramatic increase in the number of mothers who have put away their aprons and headed for the office. They may have little time or inclination to pass along kitchen skills to their offspring.
"Mothers are either busy working, or they're microwaving dinner," says Nancy Mills, co-author, with her son Kevin, of "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen" (Houghton Mifflin, $17). A lot of mothers do not know how to cook, she finds.
Just ask Kelly Dowd, a student in Mr. Malkoff's class. Calling herself "cooking-challenged," Ms. Dowd, an independent consultant, says, "I did not learn cooking from my mom. She never had any real interest in cooking."
Steve MacDonald, another class member, tells a similar story. "I love my mother, but she doesn't cook," he says. "I cook out of a box. I take it out of the freezer and put it in the oven." Mr. MacDonald, who sells upscale kitchen appliances, recently bought his first house. Now, he says, "I just want to stay home. If I want to entertain, I'd better learn how to cook."
Gender roles and expectations have also changed. "We have had a whole generation of women who didn't particularly want to learn how to cook, because they didn't want to be stereotyped," says Gary Goldberg, executive director of the culinary arts program at New York's New School.
He sometimes gets frantic phone calls from prospective brides who say, "I need to learn how to cook in three weeks." At the New School, as in many culinary programs, beginning classes fill up first.
At the Cook's Warehouse in Atlanta, participants in the basic class include professional people, newlyweds, and singles. Interest has increased in the past three years, according to Vicki Stevens, director. "People are saying, 'We want to stay home more.' Cooking has become a form of entertainment. Other people are in the kitchen with them."
Still, as people marry later or not at all, the need to shine in the kitchen can be postponed.
"Every single boyfriend I've ever had has been a better cook than I am," Hosmer says. "It used to be that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach. Now, instead of cooking for him, you just go out."
These changes amaze Kathy Casey, owner of Kathy Casey Food Studios in Seattle. "It just astonishes me - some people don't know any basics whatsoever," she says. "They don't even know the words - sauté, blanch, rapid boil, simmer. They don't know what 'folding in' means anymore."
For singles living in cities where housing costs are high, roommates can be a necessity. Apartment kitchens, often small and poorly equipped, become even more challenging when they are shared. Who wants to cook?
"Everybody tries to make dinner at once, usually around 7:30 or 8, after coming back from the gym," Hosmer says. "Nobody has enough time, nobody has enough energy, nobody has enough space."
Sometimes it's even a matter of not having enough money, she notes. Buying many ingredients is more expensive than just buying pasta and tomato sauce.
The good news in the kitchen involves an impressive increase in the ranks of men learning to cook. Mark Bittman, author of "How to Cook Everything" (Macmillan, $39.95), teaches about 20 cooking classes a year around the country. Ten years ago, almost all participants were women. Today, men account for between one-third and one-half of his students.
"It's no longer, 'Oh, how cute, there's a man here,' " he says. "It's definitely expected that there will be men."
Mr. Bittman regards both "gourmet" food and convenience food as enemies of good cooking. "So-called gourmet cooking makes people think cooking is hard," he says. "So-called convenience foods make people think it's easier to microwave than to cook."
Making pasta with butter, sage, and Parmesan cheese is not more difficult than making macaroni and cheese from a box, he insists. "It's something you savor instead of something you tolerate."
Malkoff and other cooking instructors see a curious contradiction: Because people eat out a lot, they know good food. They become accustomed to a variety of ethnic foods and flavors from all over the world. But many have no idea how to cook these dishes at home.
"People get underdeveloped skills and overdeveloped palates from eating out so much," Malkoff says.
In his class here, two men, MacDonald and Steve Conway, are among the first to volunteer to help prepare tonight's meal. Malkoff tells MacDonald how to make a marinade: 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon olive oil.
MacDonald measures the ingredients carefully. When he finishes, Malkoff says with exaggerated praise, "You made a marinade. Isn't that good?" The class claps in good-natured support. Nearby, Mr. Conway, a medical company employee, sautées vegetables for a stir-fry dish.
This participatory approach pays off. As the evening progresses, everyone takes turns at the large cooking island, learning to chop, braise, and broil. Initial shyness gives way to easy camaraderie and moments of humor.
"I'm going to ask a dumb question," Hosmer says. "Is there any music you should listen to while you cook?" Music, Malkoff assures her, is optional.
Tall and friendly, Malkoff was once an aspiring actor in Los Angeles. He has been teaching cooking classes for seven years. Surrounded by vegetables, herbs, balsamic vinegar, chicken, and other ingredients for tonight's menu, he demonstrates basic techniques: how to use a knife, how to stir-fry, how to cook fluffy rice.
In the process, he keeps up a running patter of advice and tips:
You don't need a lot of equipment. You need only one knife - an 8-inch classic chef's knife.
It's important to have a clear workspace and a big cutting board.
When you marinate chicken, it's good to leave it overnight. It takes three hours for the meat to absorb the marinade.
Always heat a pan before you put anything in it. You want disparity in temperatures between the pan and the ingredients, so it won't stick.
Don't wash mushrooms. Instead, clean them with a damp cloth or a mushroom brush.
To tell if a pineapple is ripe, smell the bottom.
Don't buy too much olive oil at a time; it goes bad quickly. Light and heat are big enemies of oil. He buys it by the quart, and recommends an inexpensive extra-virgin olive oil for cooking.
How do you know when chicken is done? Press a spatula on it. If it's still a little bouncy, cook it until it's firmer.
By 9 p.m., students are dining fashionably late on the dishes they have prepared from scratch: Sage Balsamic Chicken, Sardinian Vegetable Sauté, Mustard Tarragon Salmon Kebabs, and rice. The setting may be unfashionably simple - paper plates and plastic forks at institutional tables in a basement kitchen - but no matter. There's not a pasta dish or veggie burger in sight.
Next week, Malkoff says, they will make soups and pot roast. The third session will focus on dough and desserts.
Malkoff encourages students to try tonight's recipes themselves in the coming week. He offers this reassurance: "Every person has it in him to learn to cook."
Already Hosmer is setting goals for herself when she finishes the course: "I want to cook one meal a week for someone else and two meals for myself that aren't spaghetti and pasta."
Conway, who is here in an effort to "stop eating too much pizza and takeout," also looks pleased as he prepares to leave. Already sounding like a seasoned chef, he says, "If you can learn how to cook, you're all set."