On the pleasures of hobbies
My friend Marilyn, at Simmer Till Done, told me a story from her culinary school days that has stuck with me for months. Her instructor used to say to those who didn’t work quickly and efficiently, “you scrape the bowl like a housewife.” That line made me laugh when I first heard it and it makes me chuckle every time I remember it. I like to cook and bake, at least sometimes (the impulse comes and goes) and I am the first to admit that I scrape the bowl like a housewife. That is, I take my time turning over the pages of the cookbook, trying to decide what to make, usually in intense consultation with my daughter. Then, we gather the ingredients, notice that we are out of baking powder, and wander over to the market, collecting some bagels and milk while we’re at it. When we get home, we remember that the big mixing bowl is full of apples and so we have to relocate the fruit. After that we may start measuring and chopping and stirring, possibly pausing in our labors to answer the phone or check online to find out how to substitute cocoa and vegetable oil for baking squares, which we forgot to get when we went to the market for the baking powder.
I love the Sunday afternoons when Jessica and I do this, and when I’m feeling particularly engaged in the process, I dream of shiny kitchen tools and gadgets that would make preparation easier, although I know all I really have to have is a good knife, a big bowl, and a couple of pans. Some years ago, I used to think about going to culinary school so that I could master the tricks of the trade. I would really like to make a better ganache than I know how. And I’d like my pie crusts to turn out right every time, or at least more often than they do.
But Marilyn has cured me of my culinary school daydream. Culinary school, she tells me, is like bootcamp, only more dangerous. The purpose is to turn talented individuals into chefs, into professionals, into people who can run restaurant kitchens. I only want to figure out how to avoid Jessica asking me, “Are meringues supposed to be flat as a pancake?” In other words, I’m a hobbyist who’d like to be a bit more accomplished than I am. I have absolutely no interest in becoming a professional. Running a restaurant kitchen bears only the most passing resemblance to my Sunday afternoons with Jessica, and that only because they share the common denominator of food.
I think of this a lot when I talk to writers who are trying to make the leap to being professionals. Being a professional is a world away from being a hobbyist and doing something just because you enjoy it. And there’s nothing wrong with preferring to keep your writing as a hobby and not trying to turn it into a paying proposition. And if you do — be prepared for the profession to have not a lot in common with the hobby.