For close to 17 years, Robert Plaut bought a cup of prepared oatmeal from a local deli, his work cafeteria or Starbucks for breakfast. “I didn’t think too much about it until last week,” says Plaut, 41. But like a lot of people — forced to work from home to help slow the spread of covid-19, the coronavirus disease infecting thousands across the globe — the ViacomCBS employee went grocery shopping in his Queens neighborhood last week. Among the items in his cart? A cardboard canister of Quaker Oats. “I know oatmeal is boiled in water, and I read the package and figured it out. But then I realized … I needed to learn how to make lunch and dinner.”
Plaut’s case is an extreme one. With restaurants closed across more than two dozen states — though takeout and delivery are still available in many places — employment uncertainty and grocery store shelves periodically barren, a growing number of people are watching online tutorials, FaceTiming parents, and asking experts on Instagram and Twitter for help in an end-of-days-like scramble to learn how to cook.
Basic cooking is a skill many people pick up as a kid, in college, or as a young adult. But with an estimated 40 percent decline in family and consumer sciences (formerly known as home economics) classes, both parents working in 60 percent of American families, and so many options for ready-made meals in urban areas, from grocer steam tables to fast food to delivery apps, some people fell through the cracks.
“I picked up very basic stuff, like I can make spaghetti or tacos, but I’m scared of burning rice,” says Amy Myers, 29, a developer based in Chicago. “My mom is a single mom and worked full-time, so she didn’t have time to do a lot of cooking. We ate a lot of takeout.”
Until recently, she worked in an office where meals and snacks were free. Now, she’s feeling more pressure to learn how to cook. Fortunately, she lives with roommates who also find themselves at home. “I’m learning a lot of pantry cooking. I’m learning how to roast veggies on a sheet pan and how to combine spices,” Myers says. “It’s a whole new world, but it’s becoming easier to understand.”
Around 45 percent of adults age 18 to 24 and 64 percent of age 25 to 34 rate themselves as good or somewhat good at cooking, according to a 2015 survey from research firm NDP Group. But until recently, learning how to cook, or learning how to cook better, as an adult was considered an aspirational skill akin to learning how to ski — could be nice, might be fun, but would be daunting and could come with potentially expensive start-up costs.
Food bloggers, recipe writers and chefs are ready to help. On Instagram, Adrianna Guevara Adarme of the blog A Cozy Kitchen regularly hosts cooking tutorials for dishes she has featured on her blog. She has just under 250,000 followers. “Usually, I’d see around 15,000 people following along, clicking through,” Adarme says. “Now, the number of viewers is up 25 percent and my DMs are insane. Everyone has a question, wants to know what they can substitute, where to get a certain ingredient online.”
Delish, the social-first publication that Hearst unveiled in 2015, is among the first publications to launch an Instagram Live cooking series with parents and kids — for parents and kids. Because not only are many parents working from home, but their kids are home from school as well. Hosted by editorial director Jo Saltz and her children, the channel “will feature kid friendly recipes … [like] pizza waffles and puppy chow,” according to a statement.
After a podcast about coffee and a diet book, the third-best-seller on Amazon’s list of books on food and cooking recently was a paperback by Bonnie Ohara called Bread Baking for Beginners that’s also available instantly on Amazon’s Kindle digital reader. In sixth place was an Instant Pot cookbook, seventh was the Easy Dinner Cookbook and 10th was Alison Roman’s “Nothing Fancy.”
Dozens of recipe writers and cookbook authors, including Roman, Benjamina Ebuehi (“The New Way to Cake”), Colu Henry (“Back Pocket Pasta”), Jet Tila (“101 Asian Dishes You Need to Cook Before You Die”), Julia Turshen (“Small Victories”) and Ben Mims (“Sweet & Southern”) are answering questions from readers and fans on Twitter and Instagram about specific recipes and ingredient substitutions. Around once a day, Roman has tweeted a call for questions. A recent one, at 11 a.m. on March 19, solicited more than 100 questions and comments within a couple of hours.
Those less experienced in the kitchen are turning to other sources, such as online cooking classes, YouTube and meal-kit services. Rouxbe, an online culinary school that started in 2005 and counts chef Marcus Samuelsson among its spokespeople, says it is experiencing “double-digit growth.” Uploads of videos related to sourdough bread hit an all-time high this year, according to Veronica Navarrete, head of global communications at YouTube, and average daily views of videos with “Cook With Me” in the title “more than doubled in the first two weeks of March 2020 compared to the same time last year,” Navarrete says. Average daily views of videos with “meal prep” in the title also increased more than 55 percent in the first two weeks of March compared to the same time period in 2019.
But then there’s the issue of acquiring the raw materials. While grocery retailers are struggling to keep their shelves full and nervous shoppers are grabbing the last box of penne or an extra few cartons of eggs, one way to bypass that system is to go through a meal-kit delivery company, which will deliver the raw ingredients regularly to customers’ doors. Blue Apron, the meal-kit company that started up in 2012 and went public in 2017, is just starting to ramp up.
“Over the last week, we have seen a sharp increase in consumer demand,” according to Blue Apron CEO Linda Findley Kozlowski, who says the company is increasing its capacity for future orders and expects to fulfill this new, greater demand by March 30. Until then, some recipes may be changed and orders may be slightly delayed as the company adjusts its orders and stock. On March 17, Freshly, a meal-kit service that launched in 2011, asked its customers for patience on Twitter, writing, “Just like you, we’re navigating these unprecedented times as best we can, & appreciate your patience & understanding as we do our best to accommodate a large increase in demand for our meals. We’re working as hard as we can while maintaining the health & safety of our employees.”
For those that already feel confident in the kitchen, it’s a time to specialize in a skill they were simply curious about in the past, but which now seems like more of a necessity.
“I know how to cook. I learned by watching my mom cook. I used to work in restaurants,” says Jack Reed, 35, a software engineer based in Denver. “But I always shied away from bread baking. It seemed hard, and I could never get it right,” Reed says. He has been reading a few blogs and watching a lot of YouTube. This weekend he made focaccia. “It seemed like an easier bread to make, and it turned out really well.”
He’s off to a good start and excited about his next loaf. “I’m hoping to try to bake some sourdough,” Reed says. “If I get it right, I’m going to keep baking bread to maybe help out the neighborhood where I’m at, since everything is closed.”
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