Everyone should do what they do best. As it happens, I excel at self-pity.
So it was that many years ago, when a friend was telling me about his hobby, I decided to indulge in a brief but satisfying wallow: “I don’t have any hobbies,” I said.
He looked at me in surprise. “You cook,” he said.
I hadn’t thought of it like that. Actually, I hadn’t thought of it at all. I just thought I cooked because I liked to eat. Any enjoyment I got out of the physical act of cooking was secondary, merely a pleasurable byproduct of my desire to keep myself fed.
Hobbyists, on the other hand, become intensely interested in their subject. You know it’s a hobby when they start spending considerable sums of money on the minutiae that define the hobby and have no other use but to further it.
For instance, my brother collects stamps. He has spent untold hours poring over the details of individual stamps, checking for imperfections, observing the perforations, gleaning whatever information he can out of the postmarks and I don’t know what else. He has spent a not inconsequential sum of money buying stamps and stamp books, and going to stamp shows to talk and trade with other stamp collectors.
That, to me, is a hobby. As an incidental benefit, he has learned seemingly everything there is to know about the history, culture and even geography of every country on Earth, including many that no longer exist.
But cooking? Cooking is just cooking, right?
Before I became a food writer, I had another newspaper job that involved writing about something else I loved. It was a subject — I’m not identifying it because I want to perpetuate an air of mystery — that had sustained me through my darkest days, and also my happiest.
But when you think about something all day long, when you analyze it, when you intellectually break it down to see how it works, then it becomes something less than it once was.
That’s when it becomes a job.
I have been cooking for 40 years, and enjoying every minute of it. Not only do I love the creativity of throwing ingredients together in a hot pan, or slowly heating an assembly of meats and vegetables in the oven; I get to eat a delicious meal when it is done as an added benefit.
Along the way, I have picked up some knowledge about the subject. But that doesn’t make it a hobby, does it?
Regular readers will know that during the current pandemic, I and basically everyone I know regularly started baking bread. But I have continued doing it, turning out two or three loaves a week. I continue to tweak my recipes and technique, making slight adjustments that incrementally refine and change the end results.
The bread I make most frequently uses four different kinds of flour: all-purpose, bread, whole-wheat and a fancy all-purpose flour made from crunchy winter wheat.
But even that was not enough for me. I craved, absolutely craved, a French-style flour that is high in minerals and has more protein than all-purpose flour but less than bread flour. Obviously, you can’t make a true French-style baguette without French-style flour.
I recently bought six pounds of it. Including shipping, it cost me 30 bucks. I quickly set about to make a batch of three baguettes. They were absolutely heavenly.
But then it struck me: I’m delving into the minutia of flour, its protein and its minerals. I am spending a fair sum of money on highly specialized ingredients.
Maybe I have a hobby after all.