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Americans Fend Off Sorrow With Laden Fork and Spoon

People are craving sweets, getting together for potlucks, canning goods, baking pies and carbo loading (and therefore exercising).

October 02, 2001|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The hot fruit crisps at Nancy Oakes' restaurant are selling as fast as she can bake them. Daphne Derven has gone on a canning binge. Rachelle Friedman cooked more for Rosh Hashanah this year than she'd ever cooked in her lifetime. Dale Dietert has been walking 10 miles a day--his yearning for carbohydrates has been that intense.

Gretchen Stagg's social calendar is suddenly burgeoning with potlucks and dinner parties. Barbara Fairchild's desk is suddenly burgeoning with Butterfingers and Hershey's Kisses and chocolate-covered soy nuts from Trader Joe's.

It's not the most dramatic fallout from Sept. 11, but it is surely the most fattening: From coast to coast, in big towns and small ones, social networks are buzzing with tales of sudden cravings for food.

"Appetites are roaring," said Barbara Haber, a culinary historian at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. "People seem not only to be eating as if there's no tomorrow, but they're cooking as well."

Though industry groups say it is too soon for hard statistics, those who follow food trends say they sense a change in the nation's eating habits as the shock of the attacks is waning. Baskin-Robbins reported a 4% increase in sales in the week ending Sept. 16. A Safeway Inc. spokeswoman said the chain had a similar uptick in supermarket sales immediately after Sept. 11 (though receipts have since leveled off).

New York-based restaurant consultant Clark Wolf says he has spent the last three weeks advising clients to simplify menus, partly because staffs are going to have to shrink in response to the now-apparent recession and partly because the notion of foie gras and truffles has become all but unbearable to grieving patrons.

Says Wolf: "People just want a glass of scotch and a good steak now."

That sense, he and others say, is based on personal experience and anecdotal information as the rituals of mourning have given way to the reality of a loss that is both permanent and sweeping. Restaurant owners talk of tables that have emptied as patrons' social calendars have filled up with spur-of-the-moment potlucks. Working parents for whom "gourmet" has meant "anything but takeout" report sudden urges to whip up homemade soups and eggplant lasagnas. Newspaper food pages from San Francisco to Allentown, Pa., have overflowed with references to "comfort food" and recipes for wintery one-pot meals.

Some of it is seasonal--autumn is traditionally the time of big eaters--and some is surely hype. But enough of it has been real that legions of calorie counters have reported concerns about maintaining their diets. "This has been a difficult couple of weeks for a lot of people," said Weight Watchers International spokeswoman Linda Carilli.

Those people include Dale Dietert, a trainer for Weight Watchers in Manhattan, who had lost 57 pounds before the World Trade Center collapse and had kept it off by walking two to five miles a day. Since the attack, however, his craving for bread and pasta has spurred him to double his mileage.

"I control ... my urge ... by walking," Dietert panted into a cell phone. "In fact right now ... I'm four blocks from the ... World Trade Center. I've walked 10 miles ... today.")

Haber, the culinary historian, says people like Dietert are not the only ones who are suddenly a little concerned about their waistlines. "I found myself baking biscotti and these Italian sesame cookies and eating lots more of them than I normally do, and I finally started calling my friends to see if this was some sort of aberration," she laughed. "I asked people, 'Are you suddenly eating a lot of sweets?' And \o7 everyone \f7 was! One person told me, 'Are you kidding? The diet is out the window. What can we do but eat cookies at a time like this?"'

Rachelle Friedman, a high school history teacher who lives in Manhattan, says that in her 30-plus years of life, she had never done so much cooking for the Jewish holidays as she did after the attacks. "And labor-intensive food," she marveled. "Chicken soup and kreplach and a plum cake and an apple cake and applesauce. And all on a night I had a blind date and had to get a manicure and be somewhere at 7 to meet this guy."

Gretchen Stagg, a 31-year-old single mother from Mill Valley, says that since the attack, she is suddenly deluged with invitations to eat. "Dinner parties, hot apple cider parties, hot chocolate and cookie parties--way more than normal," she said. "My daughter's godmother came over and picked her up this evening. They're over at her house baking a cake."

Sara Schneider, senior food editor of Sunset Magazine, says socializing may be more on peoples' minds now because the attack made it so clear that friends are precious and life is short. On the weekend after the attack, she said, she had the irrepressible urge to host a dinner party. "I realized I really wanted people in my house, people I cared for, and the response was unusually enthusiastic, not just yes, but \o7 'Yes!'\f7 "

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