When not studying anthropology in the library stacks, college student Erica Fedderly can usually be found in one other room – her kitchen. She might be putting a pinch of turmeric on a tilapia filet. Or creating something with ingredients from her personal herb garden. Or testing an obscure recipe she found on the Internet.
Ms. Fedderly is a self-described "foodie." The senior at the University of California, Los Angeles, attended a semester of culinary school in New Jersey before heading west. But her interest in food transcends just learning the technical skills of how to prepare a meal. It has become an all-consuming passion – even a lifestyle.
"I love Mexican spices and French sauces, but I also really like Vietnamese cooking, which is a great combination of French and Asian," she says.
Fedderly wields the wooden cooking spoon (hand-tooled, preferably from a developing nation) of a generation of youth brought up on arugula not iceberg lettuce, paninis not peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, free-range chickens not caged ones. Raised with unprecedented exposure – both real and virtual – to world cuisines and global concerns, this Millennial Generation now coming of age as young adults is redefining what it means to love food. These 20-somethings aren't just passionate about, say, Mexican cuisine or counting bad or good cholesterol. Their foodie lifestyle is one part cooking, one part social conscience. They create meals in a kitchen jammed with friends, from recipes they've spent hours discussing, with ingredients they know the origin of in precise detail. For them, food exploration and preparation has become at once theater, entertainment, self-definition, status, and creative expression.
Many of them are swelling the classrooms of cooking schools around the country. The Boston Center for Adult Education, for instance, runs about 100 cooking-related classes a month. In recent years, the faces "have been getting younger and younger," says Brehon Garcia-Dale, manager of the food and wine program, who notes that most of her instructors are now in their 20s, too.
One reason is the explosion of food shows on TV that have turned chefs into celebrities and made cooking "cool."
Cooking has also become more accessible. Ten years ago, says author Christopher Powell, who helped launch retailer Williams-Sonoma, cooking classes still carried the mystique of Le Cordon Bleu-prescribed way of doing things. Then, personalities such as Rachael Ray, with no credentials other than a passion for food, began to demystify cooking. Now, he says, "food is something anyone can do."
While the under-30 crowd mirrors a larger societal shift toward fascination with food, it brings its own technology-driven spin to the mix. Whitney Williams, a psychology major at Santa Monica College in California, uses the Internet to research everything from good versus bad carbohydrates to sugar levels in fruit. She will tap social media to talk about recipes and food ingredients.
Yet she, like many Gen-Yers, also sees food as a natural counterbalance to the antiseptic world of computers. "Food is such a great connection to the earth and the real world of my friends," she says.
One generation's approach to food has always been shaped by technology and its relationship to previous generations. At one point, says Beth Forrest, a food historian at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., canned goods were the rage because they allowed people to eat vegetables anytime of year – something they couldn't do previously without smoking or drying them.
In the 1960s, the interest in organic farming and ethnic foods was a protest against what the younger generation felt was "the lack of authenticity in their parents' world of processed food and lack of racial diversity," she says.
Today, as the first generation to grow up immersed in a digital world, Millennials find something satisfying in using skillets and smoked paprika. "Food uses all your senses, which is just the opposite of a virtual world," says Ms. Forrest.
For Millennial food bloggers Cara Eisenpress and Phoebe Lapine, both relatively recent graduates of Ivy League schools, there is an element of social protest in their interest in food as well. They have published a book, "In the Small Kitchen: 100 Recipes From Our Year of Cooking in the Real World," intended to take back good food from the experts and high-priced restaurants. "A mediocre meal for one can cost $40," says Ms. Lapine, "while for the same amount of money, you can buy the groceries and cook a really great meal for your friends at home."