AND A MEAT LOAF TO GO

By the hundreds, the cook-books roll off the presses--diet cookbooks and dessert cookbooks; cookbooks for the cuisines of Sri Lanka, South Africa and Canada; berry cookbooks, cherry cookbooks and a cookbook for people with the unusual problem of what to do with a lemon. And then there are racks full of cooking magazines, newspaper recipe columns and even a TV network for people who need to know how to fillet a sea bass at 3 a.m. That is, people like Karen and Ken Mullin, a young professional couple in Cleveland, who subscribe to three cooking magazines and have two fully equipped kitchens in their house. And all so that on their way home from work they can stop off at a supermarket and boldly choose... two portions of meat loaf and a container of mashed potatoes. "My job," says Karen, "is to pour the salad from the bag."

A half-century after the first TV dinner was born, the food industry is approaching its long-sought dream of supplanting the unpaid labor of people like the Mullins in the final, and arguably most profitable, step by which a cow gets turned into meat loaf. Increasingly the acres of Corian countertop in America's Versailles-quality kitchens are used not for chopping or whisking but for dumping takeout containers onto plates. For those who even bother with plates. According to the influential food-industry researchers at the NPD Group, the proportion of American dinners that came from a takeout counter or a grocery freezer increased by 24 percent in the past decade. "We thought the microwave would be a cooking appliance," says NPD vice president Harry Balzer; instead it found its apotheosis in reheating takeout macaroni and cheese.

Across the United States, entire business models are being transformed. Supermarket takeout counters, formerly a place where unsold chickens were rejuvenated with a coat of barbecue sauce, increasingly resemble high-end corporate cafeterias, with sushi bars and stir-fry stations and cooked-to-order pizza ovens. And in the restaurant business, Balzer says, almost all the growth over the past 15 years has been in takeout. Jeffery Sobal, a nutritional sociologist at Cornell University in New York, thinks the trend toward healthier eating is responsible: Americans have finally gotten the message that it's bad to eat a bucket of fried chicken larger than a wastebasket, so they're doing it at home where no one can see them.

Increasingly, the luxury-dining business resembles the fashion industry, where the chef's flagship restaurant lends its prestige to more-profitable takeout products. Wolfgang Puck, the legendary impresario of "California cuisine," pioneered the trend 15 years ago with his Express chain, offering a selection of pizzas, soups and salads to go. Now his sauces and gravies are for sale in supermarkets, joining the signature products of Charlie Trotter and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Of course, there are people you wouldn't expect to cook at home, like Steve Traxler, an unmarried Chicago theater producer, whose refrigerator contains little more than orange juice, wine and leftovers. Or empty nesters like Pearlie Carter, 68, who put in her time cooking for her family and now is perfectly happy to buy Thai steak strips or teriyaki chicken breasts at the ultrafancy Shaw's supermarket in downtown Boston. Which leaves... hmm...

Well, somebody must be using those cookbooks, right? "People don't have time to cook; I think they're reading them in bed," says Rozanne Gold, the author of a popular series of cookbooks.

It's not entirely a question of time. The takeout boom is fueled, in part, by the popularity of foods like sushi, which even adventuresome American cooks are unlikely to try to make at home. And takeout fills another need as well, for the phenomenology of the home-cooked dinner: the family gathered at its own table, the familiar smells and tastes, the pure white of the mashed potatoes against the golden skin of the chicken. As for those lemons... maybe we can just squeeze them over the wok-stirred broccoli florets with sesame-ginger dressing instead.

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