Thirty years ago, the food world in this country was a very different place. Celebrity chefs were a thing of the future, and cooking shows didn't have an entire network to themselves. In home kitchens, the food processor was the new must-have. And when people went out for a special meal, the classy restaurants were mostly French.
As cooking class season approached, we took a look back at the first list of classes The Washington Post printed in 1975, and we talked with some longtime instructors. Things have certainly changed.
That first list reflected a limited range of offerings. Printed on a single page, the entries were grouped in then-predictable categories: Breads and Sweets; French, Chinese and "International" foods; Entertaining; and Vegetarian. There were a few "health food" classes, too, a single offering for kids, a two-lesson diet food course and two workshops in early American cookery.
This year's list (see Pages 4-7) is a testament to the many ways cooking has entered contemporary American life. Not all the categories are new, but the critical mass is noteworthy.
Today, French cooking lessons are still around, but barely. Asian food is another story: Classes on Indian, Thai and Cambodian food have joined Chinese cooking, which continues to be a draw and these days includes classes in regional food, such as Hunan and Szechwan. You can learn to make sushi and dim sum, too.
Other regional foods that are so popular on fine dining restaurant menus also show up on our class list. "We're seeing people willing to try different foods," says instructor Jinny Fleischman. "It's pushed us to new areas -- Sicily, Chile, the south of France."
Spanish tapas classes are popular, as well as other small plates. "We used to call them appetizers," says Fleischman.
An emphasis on healthful eating is almost a given in class descriptions. Some classes are specifically targeted -- such as "quick and healthy" and "cardiologist-approved." Even baking classes tout their healthy approaches.
Classes for children abound now, too, both age-appropriate basics, and spinoffs such as knife skills, etiquette, hygiene, holiday foods and baking.
Most instructors seem to take for granted the new ingredients introduced by Asian and Latino immigrants over the last 30 years. "Twelve years ago, if you went to look for chilis, they were hard to find," says instructor and food consultant Mark Haskell. "Now you can find them in little bodegas all over the city."
Students have changed as well, with many more men taking classes now. "I have more men than women," says Joan Shih, who started teaching Chinese cooking more than 30 years ago. "Lawyers, doctors, acountists, scientists. They're the ones who come at night. It's kind of relaxing for them." More young professionals, too. Shih's students include people whose parents took her cooking class a generation ago.
Many of the recipes that attract people are geared to contemporary life -- especially the ones that emphasize speed. "I rarely teach anything that takes more than 35 minutes," says Phyllis Frucht, who has been teaching cooking for 25 years. "Fast and fresh -- that's what my people want." Many students also want recipes they can largely cook in advance. "That way it's not so overwhelming, and you don't have to do it all at once," Fleischman says.
Nowadays cooking classes are often seen as recreation, relaxation and entertainment. "It's cheaper than going out to dinner -- definitely an evening out," Frucht says.
Cooking as a skill in the business world is out there, too. Several instructors offer cooking classes styled as corporate team building. "There's a competitive edge to it," Haskell says. "You pick out a menu, break people into teams . . . and they get to know each other in a different way."
Whatever else our list says, it's clear that despite the popularity of takeout foods, restaurant dining and supermarket meal replacements, cooking classes are thriving. "They bring people together," Haskell says. "You eat your results, and you get to play with your food." Even if your mother told you not to.