In the New York Times, there is a piece by Julia Moskin about being a ghost writer for cookbooks. As I read her descriptions about what it was like to work for various chefs, I thought, “There is no bloody way I would want to do that.” Many of the chefs she worked with were rude, difficult, egocentric blokes, and one even had a wife who was so insecure that she didn’t want Moskin’s name on the cover of the book. Why do writers do it? Because it can “be a gateway to better things.” (Sounds a little bit like a drug, doesn’t it?) Regardless of the “gateway,” most cookbook ghost writers don’t last very long in the job.
But perhaps the most damning statement is that in some cases, the chefs don’t even supply and test their own recipes. “At the most extreme level, a few highly paid ghostwriter-cooks actually produce entire books, from soup to nuts…One recent best-selling tome on regional cooking was produced entirely in a New York apartment kitchen, with almost no input from the author.” Makes you want to run right out and buy a chef’s cookbook, doesn’t it?
But even more curious, at least to me, was the following: “The authors most likely to write and thoroughly test their own work are trained cooks who do not work in restaurants, like Molly Stevens, Deborah Madison and Grace Young, and obsessive hobbyist cooks like Jennifer McLagan and Barbara Kafka.” (The emphasis is mine.)
The obsessive part I get. Many cooks are food obsessed—I plead guilty to that charge—and cooking can be a natural extension of that obsession, especially when you can’t afford to eat out very often. It’s the “hobbyist” part that brought me up short. Cooking as a hobby? I had never considered something so essential as cooking to be a hobby. To me, a hobby is a slightly frivolous albeit enjoyable pastime such as collecting stamps or flying model airplanes.
Cooking, on the other hand, is what you do to ensure that your household has meals that both taste good and are good for the body. In addition, what we eat influences not only our health but also the health of the planet. (Pesticides, hormones, industrial animal farming with its manure lagoons. You know the drill.) When we buy local, when we buy organic, when we buy eggs from hens that have been treated humanely, we go beyond the personal to a larger way of thinking that can have profound effects on our society and even the world.
Cooking as a hobby? I don’t think so. Cooking is far too important to be reduced to a hobby.