There was a time when a McDonald's burger was good enough for me. One would be hard-pressed to convince me there could be a better burger. And then I ate a better one — a much better one. It was a burger chain in San Francisco, called Super Duper. It was a messy affair, dripping with bacon fat with a medium-rare patty, it was nothing like any McDonald’s burger I had before. It was a greasy & blissful meal on a beautiful sunny California day. I don’t think I have ever had a McDonald's meal afterwards, at all.
I am one of those people who are inclined to distil functionality from a form in almost every aspect of life; the kind of people who judges the quality of an apartment by the number of walls the apartment consists of. A burger for me was just another sandwich, just a fatter one. There wasn’t much of a difference between a good burger and a bad burger in my line of thinking.
How good can a burger get?
That would have been my answer if you had asked me that question. In my mind, it was just another glorified sandwich. Without going into the nitty-gritty of what constitutes a burger — what was eye-opening for me was the stretching of my perception of quality. After the first bite of that burger, the line between form and function wasn’t as clear as it used to be. It was an indication, that I was unaware of a few dimensions in life, at least in terms of burgers.
Joe Pinsker once wrote on The Atlantic,
Depending on the context, eating the same thing every day can come off as a moderately charming quirk, an indictment of one’s lack of creativity, or a signal of professional focus and drive.
Joe kept writing…
Many of the people I talked with emphasized the stress-reducing benefits of eating the same thing each day.
He recounted anecdotes of individuals from a multitude of walks of life — individuals I could relate to. I used to cook the same meal for months at an end before I would switch to a different meal, and then I would cook that until I got bored of it. I never shopped for clothing. I refrained from buying anything other than the bare essentials. I barely thought about buying pieces of furniture or kitchen tools — all in all, whatever I had, worked and that was enough. I never considered that such mundane things in one’s life were worth improving upon.
And then I had a good burger. Gone were the simple days of owning two duffels and a mattress. Super Duper burger is by no means the most amazing burger I ever had. But what eluded to me wasn’t the fact there are always better things, but that there is a case to be made about the betterment of seemingly mundane things.
Food was never something I was into, it was mostly just — food. Neither did I ever think too much about speciality coffee, or audio quality. The same was for photographic equipment. Or writing instruments. I didn’t believe that anything that’s enabled by economic privileges would enable me to improve anything in my life. But it did the moment I turned it into a little self-contained hobby — if you can call looking for new burger joints in town a hobby.
A few years after the burger episode, a colleague of mine and I were looking for a place to eat lunch in the city of Hamburg. He gave me a rundown of places he would prefer to eat a burger at. Then I made the fortunate mistake of asking him how did he judge these places. He had eloquently put his reasoning forth,
I judge each burger place by a baseline, that’s a cheeseburger. If I don’t like the cheeseburger, I probably won’t like the burger place. And then I take into account specifics such as bread quality, the juiciness of the meat, medium rare of course, and the cheese. The burger should not be too soggy to drip off my hand, but neither should it be too dry to warrant a coke.
A had met a man who thought so deeply about how burgers that he had developed a methodology for understanding burgers. I don’t know if food critics will agree with his reasoning, he is also a big proponent of eating burgers with hands — but what had piqued me was that he made his liking of burgers into a hobby, albeit a non-standard one, but still a hobby.
I have met a variety of people over the years who obsess over details that for you and me, would be pointless. But if you manage to not go to an extremity, you might want to consider this; almost every kind of acquired taste we have developed is probably a result of deliberation in constructing a little hobby out of almost thin air.
Today, while sitting at a bar, after ordering an unusually conscious choice of drink, I realised that I also have developed such acquired tastes over the years. I talk endlessly about the difficulty of video games and why it’s important. I also tend to weigh my coffee beans and water for brewing coffee. I am quite picky about what sound system I want to listen to music on. And I harbour very strong opinions about un-photogenic cars polluting otherwise beautiful cities. These acquired tastes — like burgers — did indeed come about by turning something mundane into a hobby, ostensibly speaking.
The beauty of such mild underhanded obsession in this day and age of globalization is that it almost always open up worlds to explore, and as Tim Wu puts it,
I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival.
Even if it means building up one’s island in Animal Crossing, or cooking the perfect scrambled egg, it’s almost always worth exploring. And if you aren’t obsessed with something, what are you really doing?