As the holidays approach, the usual bombardment of festive advertising is starting to appear on TV screens around the country. One ad in particular has intrigued me.
It shows a woman getting ready to welcome her family over to the house for dinner. In her hand she has a ready-to-eat pumpkin pie that, we are given to understand, she has bought from a supermarket. Meanwhile, she lights up a candle that gives off a pumpkin pie fragrance.
As her guests arrive, our hostess stands in the kitchen holding the pie triumphantly as if she's just pulled it out of the stove. The arriving guests see the pie, inhale deeply and gasp in delight. Freshly cooked pumpkin pie--how delicious! Well, perhaps. Except that the smell is not coming from the pie. It's coming from a candle.
And so unfolds another chapter in the story of home cooking's demise. Here's how it goes: you buy a ready-made meal from the supermarket and then pretend you've cooked it by releasing an artificial odor into the house. Suddenly, the olfactory and the culinary are no longer one and the same.
And the smells don't just come in candles. You can also buy plug-in devices, whose cleverly engineered foodie emissions range from apple cinnamon pie to fruits such as peaches, melons and lemons (some of these plug-ins even alternate between two aromas throughout the day).
It's hardly surprising we're not cooking as much. We are--or perceive ourselves to be--far too busy to do any food preparation (research published earlier this year by the UK's University of Hertfordshire revealed that we are walking on average 10 per cent faster than we did a dozen years ago).
Interestingly, in the US, the decline in cooking is no longer to do with the number of women entering the workforce. The number of women choosing to have children and not to return to work is actually on the increase. However, as a food industry analyst recently told me, this doesn't mean we're about to see a resurgence of culinary activity. Most of today's stay-at-home moms, he says, are no longer interested in donning an apron.
Certainly, food and cooking remain at the heart of popular culture--just look at the number of food shows on television or the ever expanding shelves in the cookery section of America's bookshops. But like gardening or sailing, cooking is becoming a hobby. It's a leisure activity, not a mechanism for survival.
Today, more than half the meals eaten in America are cooked from scratch. But this share is likely to fall. And as a result, we're seeing a rise in the number (and quality) of meals bought from the supermarket, no doubt accompanied by a plethora of smelly candles.
But I'm curious about something. What happens when you don't have the food to go with the odor? Arriving home to the aroma of fresh bakery only to find that there's no sign of any pastry would surely be a frustrating experience? And instead of being greeted with a warm pumpkin pie, all you've got to eat is the remains of yesterday's delivery pizza.
Sarah Murray's book, Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat, is out this month (St Martin's Press)