By the scores, by the hundreds, the cookbooks roll off the presses, an estimated $433 million worth in 2002--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. (Say, honey, how about some turnips with lemony bread crumbs?) 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 to savor the miracle of fresh cilantro in Ohio in January, of jicama and chorizo and six kinds of dried chilies 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 in a shallow bath of thawed turkey gravy, 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 dinners that came from a takeout counter or a grocery freezer increased by 24 percent in the past decade--and in five years is likely to overtake meals made from scratch. "We thought the microwave would be a cooking appliance," says NPD vice president Harry Balzer; instead it found its apotheosis in reheating a container of takeout macaroni and cheese.
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; sales of hot entrees in supermarkets were $1.57 billion in 2002, up 38 percent in five years. Natural-food stores, those last bastions of authenticity and simplicity, have discovered that a little olive oil can transform the contents of a humdrum bag of dried lentils into a salad costing three times as much. At the 147-store Whole Foods Market chain, prepared foods have been the biggest growth category in each of the past four years.
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, 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 increasingly they're doing it at home where no one can see them. Applebee's, the nationwide casual-dining chain, is capitalizing on the trend with "carside" service at all 400 company-owned locations: call in your order, give your car model and a waiter will meet you with dinner as you pull into the parking lot. New York's fleets of battered bicycles hauling containers of kung pao shrimp now share sidewalk space with deliverymen from restaurants specializing in risotto or English fish and chips. And, increasingly, the luxury dining business resembles the fashion industry, in which 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. "My thinking was, if it's good enough for Wolfgang, it's good enough for you," he says. Now his sauces and gravies are for sale in supermarkets, joining the signature products of Charlie Trotter and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Some dishes travel better than others, though. The takeout business is thriving at San Francisco's popular Slanted Door restaurant, but chef Charles Phan worries that "by the time people get it home, I have no idea what it looks like." So in May he plans to begin selling the raw, fully prepared ingredients, condiments and cooking oils needed to cook his Vietnamese-inspired dishes at home, further blurring the line between takeout and home cooking.
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. He favors takeout sushi over cooked dishes, which spares him even the minimal effort of pushing a button on the microwave. Or like Scott and Beth Zucker, busy New Yorkers with three children under the age of 6. "It's so hard to keep the kitchen stocked with fresh items, and the cleanup time is so much more when you've cooked," Beth says. "With takeout everything's in its container, and then you just throw the container away." 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 whose three-ingredient recipes practically beg to be made at the end of a busy workday. But it's not just a question of time. The takeout boom is fueled, in part, by the popularity of foods like sushi (now available at some 7-Elevens in California), which even adventuresome American cooks with healthy immune systems are unlikely to try to make at home. Some Chinese dishes are easily cooked from scratch, but even if they were inclined to attempt it, the Zuckers would face the problem that they like their dishes spicy, while their children favor bland and gooey. Homemakers have always confronted the issue of diverging tastes, but the time-honored response ("You can eat those turnips now, or you can sit there until your head falls into the plate") is harder to sustain when a pizza is only a phone call away.
But even the preference for exotic cuisines seems inadequate to explain the boom in takeout, so much of which involves what the industry calls "home-meal replacement"--the trio of meat, starch and vegetable that the Boston Market chain merchandised with such success in the 1990s. What people crave at least as much as pad thai is 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. And as for those lemons... maybe we can just squeeze them over the wok-stirred broccoli florets with sesame-ginger dressing instead.