Generation gourmet

Millennials eschew fast food for home cooking

Tessie Barnett, 27, and Patrick Percy, 26, bake cod and prepare fresh fillings for a meal of fish tacos at their Durango home. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Tessie Barnett, 27, and Patrick Percy, 26, bake cod and prepare fresh fillings for a meal of fish tacos at their Durango home.

If young people in Durango scarf down McMuffins at breakfast, Whoppers at lunch and pizza in the late night hours, they aren’t telling me.

Instead, when I asked folks aged 18 to 30 my burning question – Do you cook and how often? – what emerged was a mix-and-match mélange of eating styles from preparing all-scratch meals to eating relatively healthy fast-food at Mexican-themed eateries to treating themselves occasionally to a meal at one of Durango’s better restaurants.

No one said a word about dining at traditional fast-food places, at least, not without heavy pressing. Yet there’s usually a line outside Subway on north Main Avenue at lunch and at McDonald’s drive-thru window, cars often spill out into the street.

Only my 22-year-old nephew (who isn’t local) would admit that he cooked what we older folks consider a God’s honest meal only about four times a week. And even then, we had to define cooking.

Cooking is not microwaving a burrito. It’s not making a sandwich, unless the filling has been specially prepared, like homemade pulled pork. It’s not reheating purchased chicken and potatoes.

Under those parameters, my nephew’s in-house cooking diminished to twice a week and his lament about his schedule of college courses and work at a day care center doubled.

Nonetheless, you’ll be glad to know Durango’s plethora of fresh and organic produce, its civic attention to good food and a healthy lifestyle and its abundance of fine restaurants rubs off on its young people. Most of those interviewed said they cook at home at least half the time and try to eat well even when they’re grabbing a quick meal out.

Really, in Durango, there’s a whole lot of cooking going on.

Some young people cook as a form of at-home entertainment – a way to get together for an evening of fun with friends. Some cook to accommodate their diets, be they gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian or, well, whatever. And some do it, like it or not, because they’ve discovered a fundamental truth about cooking – it’s a whole lot cheaper than eating out.

Some, however, have a different motivation. The way to a lover’s heart will ever be through his stomach. Or in this case, hers.

Pat Percy, 26, who works at Durango Brewing Co., met and fell in love with his girlfriend, Tessie Barnett, two years ago.

“Once I started dating Tessie, I wanted to impress her,” he said.

So he devised a dish to woo her vegetarian soul – lettuce wraps filled with ground Boca burgers cooked with garlic and onions and topped with peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes, finished with sriracha sauce.

“I’m proud of that,” he said.

Today the two cook most of their meals together, although it’s harder now that Barnett is back in school and working, too. Still, they manage to put together a Thai stir-fry, a green curry or a rice-and-beans dish several times a week and always save Sunday to cook a big meal together.

As for fast food, never for Barnett and um, well, gosh, he hates to admit it, but probably as often as three times a week for Percy.

“I’m embarrassed to say it,” but he adds on a brighter note, “it’s a lot better than when I was in college.”

So, you might ask, what do young people cook?

In a word, chicken. Baked chicken, grilled chicken, sauteed chicken. Chicken enchiladas, chicken quesadillas, chicken tacos. Chicken Tetrazzini, chicken with potatoes, chicken salad.

The bird cropped up as young people’s most frequently made dish likely because it’s America’s favorite protein and most affordable, too.

In my unofficial survey of local young people, young men enjoyed preparing meals based on pasta (and often chicken) and hearty dinners like ribs and steak. Young women focused more on salads and vegetable-based fare, but weren’t averse to casseroles with chicken. And they loved pasta, too, dressed with pesto or marinara sauce.

Young folks, it seems, have figured out the deal – when you cook, you have leftovers. Without an enormous amount of imagination you can make two or three meals from one protein.

“It’s a thousand times cheaper to cook and if you cook enough you have leftovers,” said Jessica Jameson, a 25-year-old mom, detailing how she grills chicken for her family one night and turns the leftovers into chicken enchiladas for the next. “I love leftovers,” she said.

Many of us wouldn’t go so far, but you can’t beat their usefulness for filling lunchboxes, providing sustenance when you leave your energy at the office or college and if nothing else, making your refrigerator look like it belongs to an adult.

One dear friend cooks not at all, though she can, and stocks her European-sized fridge with wine, eggs and the occasional bin of arugula. I saw leftovers in there once, but they were from Seasons Rotisserie & Grill. Ah, youth.

You won’t be surprised to learn that most young people who incorporate cooking into their daily lives grew up with parents who cooked regularly.

Nick Anesi, son of Durango Herald food writer Karen, an esteemed cook, says his earliest memories are of being in the kitchen with his mother.

Now 28, single and an attorney, Anesi has garnered a reputation as a fine cook. Using cookbooks and the Internet, he likes to make ethnic foods, even those that he is unfamiliar with. He recently attempted tum yum gai, a spicy, creamy Vietnamese soup made with coconut milk and chicken. It wasn’t as good as restaurant versions he’s had, he said, but conceded it takes time to get a dish down.

Anesi is best known for creating dishes from his ethnic heritage, surprising guests with not just accomplished pasta dishes, but the true test of any Italian cook, well-prepared pizza.

“Pasta or pizza, those are comfort foods,” he said. “If I’m with my buddies, that’s what we make.”

Does he ever eat at a fast-food restaurant?

No, almost never.

“I like eating good food, that’s what motivates me to cook,” Anesi said.

Anesi, Jameson, Barnett and all but two of the 16 young people I interviewed for this article do not, I repeat, do not eat at fast-food restaurants.

You heard it here.

phasterok@durangoherald.com

Patrick Percy and Tessie Barnett are one of many young Durango couples who like to cook together at home. He makes wraps and stir fries while she specializes in vegetarian fare. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Patrick Percy and Tessie Barnett are one of many young Durango couples who like to cook together at home. He makes wraps and stir fries while she specializes in vegetarian fare.

Pat Percy’s and Tessie Barnett’s fish tacos include cilantro, red cabbage, red onions, tomatoes and feta cheese. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Pat Percy’s and Tessie Barnett’s fish tacos include cilantro, red cabbage, red onions, tomatoes and feta cheese.

Pat Percy’s and Tessie Barnett’s dog Jasper looks longingly at their home-cooked dinner. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Pat Percy’s and Tessie Barnett’s dog Jasper looks longingly at their home-cooked dinner.