Commentary

Eat. Pray. Sauté.

For my 50th birthday (yes, I'm owning it) my husband presented me with a Viking stove. This was not at all like the faux pas of giving the wife a broom swathed in a red, satin bow -- I genuinely love to cook, and that's something I have in common with many of our About.com users.

As a rule, About.com's research studies are designed to act as an entrée into the behavioral and purchasing habits of the general population. But in our July Food & Cooking study, we discovered a new genus. One that's flourishing on About.com and one that I recognize as my kinsmen: Real Cooks. After all, it takes one to know one.

Overall, these survey results were surprising, upending one of the dominant narratives of our times: that while everybody waxes nostalgic for a home-cooked meal, no one actually cooks anymore. Sure, we TiVo Rachael Ray, root for our Iron Chef favorite as if it were a bloodsport. But as a population we rely on fast foods or lean hard on the microwave, thawing frozen meals, rather than face the pile of fresh ingredients that somehow have to be compiled into a supper at the end of an already long day.

Or, so we've been told.

If conventional wisdom holds that we eat poorly, too quickly to properly digest, with our dining table abandoned -- who and what, then, is a Real Cook? A Real Cook is the best news for food marketers since sliced bread. She and he cook from scratch five times a week; nearly 40 percent cook every single day. While taste is still paramount, "healthy ingredients" are now the top purchase influencer for Real Cooks. Supermarkets might be the go-to venue for foodstuffs, but they are agnostic, alternating between four of seven types of venues. Consistent with the attention paid to nutrition and taste, over 40 percent frequent both green markets and health food stores.

The Real Cook is confident and improvisational when it comes to menu planning -- placing emphasis on the basics, but with a twist: personalizing recipes. Sounds just like home to me. Just this summer we were vacationing in Connecticut and my mother would quietly assert: "I made a few small adjustments to your recipe." Tried and true as the directions were, her deft touch made good dishes great.

This year I've frequently cited the emergence of a new, deliberative consumer mindset. Across About's verticals we have seen generics rise in popularity as we navigate a fragile economy. Not so with the Real Cook: they have recommitted to the brand. While price remains a consideration, preferences for name brands, by contrast, have bounced back -- soaring 32 percent in the last year. For Real Cooks, home cooking is its own form of quality control and personal empowerment.

Donning the kitchen apron is far from an onerous burden to the Real Cook. They might have a set store of favorite recipes, but their commitment is such that they will go online to search at least once a week (52 percent) to uncover new recipes or spark ideas. Beyond the permanent campaign to find new ways to make the familiar taste fresh is the desire of some 41 percent to "expand family tastes."

Where advertising is concerned, it's a quick leap from engaged to activated. The Real Cook might not be self-identified as a gourmet (she does not see herself as a "foodie") but is aware of and appreciates contextual advertising. Within About.com, a Real Cook is acutely activated by packaged goods ads: 55 percent report taking at least one action as a result of seeing an ad. Their frequent searches for new twists on basics make them tailor-made for product introductions -- 35 percent tried a product for the first time.

The Real Cook doesn't want to be entertained or inspired so much as be provided with nuts and bolts, helpful techniques and step-by-step directions. While cooks want and need praise from their loved ones, marketers that enable Real Cooks to tap into their creativity and hone their culinary skills may see a boost in consumer loyalty.

While getting food on the table is a pragmatic pursuit, there is also an emotional component: Just as 52 percent perceive cooking as a creative outlet, 62 percent see meals as a conduit for connecting with their family. Special occasions and holidays are particularly embraced by the Real Cook. They see their efforts as a way to keep family traditions alive. For more than half of our respondents, cooking is bound up in their sense of self-esteem.

Reports of the death of the home cook have been greatly exaggerated. Today's home chef -- she or he -- does not consider the daily task of cooking to be a chore. Rather, it is a meaningful part of everyday life. For these Real Cooks, meal planning is not an avocation, but a calling. Cooking from scratch -- particularly during the holiday season -- is a way to express creativity, pay tribute to family culinary traditions, and bond with one's family. One respondent described cooking as a "way to express caring and love." The Real Cook might only have a fleeting interest in Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, even Jamie Oliver. But to family and friends, the Real Cook is a brand ambassador and the last word on cooking.

Thanks for reading. Now, I'm headed home to make dinner.

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