If Martha Stewart rules, why doesn't anyone cook -- much less give dinner parties today?

I quit giving elegant dinner parties for in-town friends about 10 years ago when I realized it cost a bundle, was exhausting and no one ever reciprocated. On the rare occasions when friends do entertain for social reasons rather than business or political reasons, everyone stands in the host's mega-kitchen grazing from platters of food arrayed on the counters. The frantic hosts are usually too busy washing dishes and preparing food at the last minute to actually speak with their guests.

It wasn't always that way.

Both my mother and mother-in-law worked, raised three kids, had no hired help, and entertained constantly. Their small kitchens were stocked with just a handful of spices, a blender, electric mixer, and a pressure cooker. Yet they regularly hosted large sit-down dinners.

The dining ritual included cocktails in the living room while everyone nibbled on carrots, celery and canned olives. The meal was ready and warming on the stove, so the hostess sat and enjoyed her company until she slipped away to put the food on the table.

At her invitation, everyone moved to the dining room where the table was covered with Mom's hand-embroidered tablecloth and napkins and best china. My parents sat with their guests and enjoyed a leisurely meal.

Afterward, Mom quickly stacked the dirty dishes in the kitchen and joined her guests in the living room for more conversation. Mom made it look effortless and no guest ever entered her kitchen. Their friends invited them over in return.

Of course, in the 1950s and '60s, their guests were happy to be fed turkey or roast beef, potatoes, and canned or frozen vegetables. In summer, barbecued steak or chicken was offered along with canned baked beans, homemade potato salad, and iceberg lettuce topped with bottled dressing. The only wine ever poured was Manischewitz Concord Grape during Passover Seder.

My parents' generation didn't know from brie or Bordeaux, and their social life didn't include meeting friends for restaurant meals.

As a '70s bride, my concept of entertaining was more ambitious than my mother's. I was inspired by Julia Child, who made French cookery look like fun. My friends and I eagerly tackled her recipes and were thrilled to repeat her TV triumphs. My culinary high point was the night I made chocolate-covered cream puffs filled with creme anglaise.

Not to be outdone, my husband took Chinese cooking classes and soon was preparing sumptuous banquets, including home-made Peking duck. If my Dad could grill ribs, my husband was a whiz with a wok.

For a decade or so, our social life was a whirl of sparkling formal dinner parties where we and our growing circle of friends showed off our latest recipes and favorite wines. Our dining room was in constant use, along with my mother's embroidered tablecloths. My spice rack expanded to two kitchen cabinets and specialized French and Chinese equipment crowded my shelves.

We became food snobs and sneered at the meat-and-potatoes diet of our childhood. But we were soon victims of our rising expectations; by the 1990s, the dinner party was doomed. As our culinary standards grew, so did the burden of entertaining. We sophisticated hosts outsmarted ourselves and, in the process, killed our social life.

But, Washington, D.C., is not Peoria -- and my own experience may not be typical. Maybe gracious living is alive and well in America's heartland. After all, cookbooks still sell briskly and cooking shows abound on public television.

It turns out the contemporary dining scene is filled with ironic contradictions. It is true that "The Martha Stewart Cookbook" was on the Publishers Weekly hardcover bestseller list in 1995 and 1996, and that her company was worth about $250 million in 1998. This suggests that millions of American women have embraced her domestic goddess standards.

However, the American Restaurant Association reports that average Americans now eat out several times a week -- far more than they used to. And sales of prepared meals from grocery stores are booming. According to Gopal Ahluwalia, chief economist of the National Homebuilders Association, 54 percent of new homes in 1997 had a separate dining room. But, he said, anecdotal evidence suggests the room is only used now on rare occasions.

Today's home buyers want kitchens big enough to hold a full dining room table and much more storage and work space than was typical of houses built in the 1970s. However, people aren't cooking in their bigger and better-equipped kitchens; in reality, the room represents a lifestyle, not function.

Area builders confirm the demand for fancier and larger combination kitchen-family rooms. Home buyers still want formal living rooms but are willing to accept smaller spaces since the living room is now mainly for show and is rarely occupied.

So, while we increasingly buy the means of production for exotic recipes and fabulous dinner parties, we don't actually invest the effort it takes to use all that fancy stuff.

Like Seinfeld, we eat cold cereal and bottled water at home. When hungry for a real meal, we eat out. As we roll toward the millennium in our dream kitchens, where we nuke our take-out dinners, buyers of Martha Stewart's cookbooks are engaging in wishful thinking, I've concluded. No one really makes her recipes. They just read them. We've been reduced to virtual dining.