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WHAT'S COOKING?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The story of how Maryland cooks is a tale of two kitchens, our latest reader survey finds.

Older cooks tend to make dinner from scratch, eat in the kitchen or dining room, favor American cuisine and say the late Julia Child is their favorite chef.

Cooks younger than age 35 use prepared foods more often, prefer Italian cuisine, are fans of TV chef Rachael Ray and often eat dinner in front of the television.

More than 1,500 readers responded to the third annual Taste survey online and in the newspaper. Besides the noticeable differences between the generations, the survey also found:

88 percent of respondents cook at least three times a week.

Women tend to see cooking as an act of love; men see it as art or science.

Readers say the main reason they cook is because they enjoy it.

More than half of the readers say their dinner entree is likely to be chicken.

Readers say the most essential item in the kitchen is the microwave oven, followed by the coffee maker.

Many readers surveyed said their friends or families motivate them to cook. "I like to see people eat," says Hasseline Crowder, 55, a Maryland Transit Administration police officer, who began cooking for her brothers and sisters when she was growing up in North Carolina.

Her specialties include barbecue and a "tuna" casserole that uses mackerel and fried chicken served with spaghetti (a dish she doesn't make often, she says, because "I don't want people to get used to it").

Gerald Dance of Lexington Park, a 70-year-old father of three, said he enjoys poring through cookbooks to find new recipes his kids, ages 16, 9 and 7, will enjoy. He cooks Chinese, Indian, Medi-terranean, Spanish and Leba-nese dishes. Recently, he began experimenting with panini made with homemade bread.

"When I was 12, I had a good friend teach me how to cook an omelet and it took off from there," Dance said.

Crowder, who lives in the Pimlico area, was among the 40 percent of respondents who see cooking as a way to express love for friends and family. Dance was among the 27 percent who view cooking as an art form.

But at the other end of the spectrum was a surprising number -- 28 percent -- who summed up their view of cooking as: "Gotta eat, gotta cook."

"It doesn't give me joy," says Linda Hylan, 58, of Westminster. "I see it as a big waste of time."

She says she does like finding creative ways to use leftovers, often salvaging small portions of meat and vegetables and freezing them to use later in soups. She cooks mainly because her family expects it, it saves money and it's more healthful, she says.

The view that cooking at home is more healthful than eating out was shared by a large number of readers: One in four respondents said it is their main reason for cooking.

"I lost 40 pounds over the last year and a half and the only cooking I trust is my own," said Wendy McCord, 29, a Howard County firefighter.

Jennifer Meyer, 38, of Catonsville, says her desire to cook healthful foods springs from her love of her family. "It would be easy to go out to a restaurant to eat," says Meyer, who has two children, ages 2 and 8. "But it's high in salt content and high in fat. ... How I show my love is giving ... the family an overall balanced diet to keep them healthy."

When it comes to deciding what to cook, more than 43 percent of the respondents said their favorite cuisine is American. Again, there were generational differences, with cooks under 35 showing a wider range of food preferences -- 30 percent favoring Italian, 24 percent American, 15 percent Mexican. But among cooks 65 and older, 58 percent prefer American, 20 percent Italian and 2 percent Mexican.

More than half of the respondents said chicken is likely to be their dinner entree on any given night of the week. But 20 percent of the respondents under age 35 said their usual entree is vegetarian.

Wendy Bennett, 29, a medical resident at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, says she gave up meat when she was 14 out of concern for animal rights, but says now she also believes the vegetarian diet is more healthful. Salads, pastas, beans and tofu are staples she and her husband use in their meals. "We have certain standards that we prepare quickly," she says, adding that she usually has dinner on the table in less than a half-hour.

The 30-minute meal is something of a gold standard that food manufacturers, chefs and cookbook authors have tried to help Americans achieve. Nevertheless, 58 percent of the cooks surveyed said they typically spend between a half-hour and an hour making dinner.

The amount of time spent cooking varies by age. A third of readers under age 35 spend less than a half-hour over the stove compared with about a quarter of those over age 50. While only 6 percent of young cooks spend more than an hour making dinner, 16 percent of those over age 65 do.

Part of the reason, no doubt, depends on how much cooking is done from scratch. More than half of cooks over age 50 say they make their dinner from scratch, while less than one-third of those 18 to 34 do. And while nearly half of married cooks make their dinner from scratch, less than a third of single cooks do.

McCord says she cooks from scratch a couple of days a week. "Usually it's frozen dinners the rest of the time," she adds.

Kevin Cunningham, 50, of Baltimore, says he cooks dinner from scratch but tries to save time by cooking two or three entrees on Sunday that he can reheat for his family during the week. "It works like a charm for me," Cunningham says.

He was among the more than one-third of the respondents who named the microwave oven as the appliance they could not live without. The second most popular appliance was the coffee maker.

Although both the microwave and the coffee maker scored high across the age groups, some cooks said their stoves, grills and food processors were their must-have appliances. Crowder says she would love to find a way to take her gas stove with her when she moves to North Carolina next year. Bennett couldn't do without her rice cooker.

Where cooks eat their dinner depends on their age and who else is at home. Overall, nearly half of the survey respondents say they eat in the kitchen. But nearly half of the respondents age 18-34 say they eat in front of the television. Only 13 percent of cooks age 65 or older eat with the TV on.

Not surprisingly, single cooks and those who are divorced eat in front of the TV more often than married folks do. The survey found that 45 percent of single and 38 percent of divorced respondents eat with the TV on compared with 19 percent of those who are married. But the percentage of widowed respondents who eat dinner with the TV was no higher than that of the married people.

McCord says whether she's eating at the fire station or at her home in Ellicott City with her brother, the television is usually on in the background. "It's something to do while you're eating," she said. "I know it isn't really good."

The time readers eat also depends on their age, with older cooks tending to eat dinner earlier than young ones. Bennett say that with her work at the hospital and her husband's work in a law office, meals are often late. She is among the nearly 14 percent of young cooks who eat after 8 p.m. But just 3 percent of those over age 65 eat that late. Nearly 7 percent of the seniors eat dinner before 5 p.m.

When it comes to favorite chefs, the late Julia Child is still the overall favorite among readers. Even though Crowder says her cooking leans more to soul food, she is a big fan of the great chef who taught Americans to cook French. "I loved her voice and she was so down-to-earth," Crowder says.

Younger cooks, however, are drawn to the new celebrity chefs, including Rachael Ray, Alton Brown and Emeril Lagasse.

McCord counts herself a Ray fan. "Of all the chefs on TV, I use her the most," she says. "It's simple and easy and she is funny."

Survey respondents at a glance

15% are age 18-34

38% are age 50-64

79% are female

73% are married

27% are age 35-49

20% are over age 65

21% are made

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