Let's not mince words: 2020 has been an extremely tough hang. It sucks, frankly. We're three months into a viral pandemic that continues to kill thousands of individuals both in the United States and abroad, and now numerous instances of police violence against black Americans have urged protesters to take to the streets despite the underlying health risk (and the potential for more violent interactions with law enforcement). To make matters worse, no one still has any idea what a post-pandemic society will look like.

Our lives have inevitably changed forever, and we haven't even hit July. So, occasionally, we all need whatever bit of temporary respite we can find. COVID-19 has, naturally, also halted some of the most basic kinds of past hobbies—playing sports, eating out or having guests over, traveling, etc. But it hasn't drained every ounce of relaxation from the world yet, judging at least by some of the weekend hobbies still being clutched tightly around the Orbital HQ.

  • At top, St. Louis ribs, dry rubbed. At bottom, a tri-tip that got a quick sear and then about 40 minutes of smoking with oak, à la Cold Spring Tavern outside of Santa Barbara, Calif. Eric Bangeman
  • Dry rubbed chicken wings, hickory smoked Eric Bangeman
  • A pair of turkey tenderloins smoked with apple wood Eric Bangeman

Hickory, oak, or mesquite tonight?

I'm a serial hobbyist, taking up new pastimes and then giving them up when I get tired of them. Hence my coin collection that has been untouched for most of the past decade and the empty fishtanks in my garage. But one hobby I've held on to, and have invested more time into, since the pandemic reared its ugly head in the US: smoking meat.

I purchased a kamado grill in 2008, and over the past 12 years, I have been honing my grilling and smoking skills. In addition to the lump hardwood charcoal, I keep cherry, apple, hickory, oak, and mesquite on hand. Although I have a couple of store-bought rubs (one from Moonlite Bar-B-Q in Owensboro, Kentucky, and one from The Loveless Cafe in Nashville), I prefer to make my own using Alton Brown's 8+3+1+1 formulation.

I'm no expert, but I have seen some recent improvements recently. First, I make sure to brine my poultry. I've made this recipe for bacon-wrapped turkey tenderloin twice in the last couple of months, and the brine mitigates against my biggest problem with smoked turkey breast—dryness.

Second, I've cut back on the amount of smoke. I try to use just enough so that the smoke from the added wood chunks dissipates about one-third of the way through the cook time. That results in a great balance between the flavor of the meat and smokiness.

Since the pandemic started, I've smoked turkey breast, pork shoulder, chicken wings, and a chuck roast. The chuck roast was amazing—it was about 3.2lb and took 7.5 hours of smoking, including spritzing it with beef broth throughout the first three hours on the smoker. The result could be best described as "pulled beef."

The other advantage of smoking is that it's time consuming, giving me something to do on a Saturday when I'd otherwise be at a local rugby pitch coaching a referee or watching one of my kids play. That's what I'll be doing this weekend, in fact. I have two racks of St. Louis Ribs that are going to be spending the day on the smoker. Here's the recipe if you're interested.

Eric Bangeman, Managing Editor

Enlarge / A bike of roughly the same vintage as the author's normal ride.Billy Meinke / Flickr

Finding time for elbow (bike) grease

One of my hobbies is cycling, but the pandemic has caused me to add a related project: rebuilding an old bike. Over 25 years and many thousands of miles ago, I bought a Trek 1200 road bike. Over time and a number of moves, things got knocked a bit out of alignment, and crowded New York City apartments made it hard to do basic maintenance. With all those miles, a few of the parts were due for replacement. It still worked, but not especially smoothly.

So, a couple of years back, I got a modern replacement, which was incredibly smooth. But I kept the old one around for cases where I didn't want to risk my latest and greatest. And in the naive hope I might have some time to spare during the pandemic, I found a reasonably priced set of parts for it on eBay. Would it be possible to buy a tolerable new bike for the amount of money I'm spending to refurb the 1200? Probably. But all those miles left me with a bit of an attachment to the old ride.

I'm now about halfway through putting together my hybrid of new and old. Hopefully in a month or so, I'll be able to take it for a ride—and it'll be as smooth as when I first bought it.

John Timmer, Science Editor

Listing image by Joanna Opaskar

  • This time, the most important room in the Salter house has nothing to do with Wi-Fi connections… Jim Salter
  • Presumably kinda/sorta what Jim does (as dramatized by this 1983 picture of Charles Hirsch chopping vegetables in his kitchen). Ross Anthony Willis/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Different kind of measurement

The only hobby I really have time for these days is playing the home version of Iron Chef. My wife identifies a selection of fresh vegetables that she would like to disappear from the refrigerator or shelf tonight, and I figure out how to slice them, dice them, season them, and apply heat to them to create a tasty meal.

I'm not much of a "recipe" kind of person, but in the last few years I've made an effort to quantify how much of things (such as salt) I use. So instead of painstakingly adding little by little over several iterations, I can just dump in, e.g., "one teaspoon" and be pretty much done. Or at the very least, I'm done but for a small adjustment after one taste test. These days, no more cautiously stepping through half a bowlful of almost-ready food taste-testing along the way.

Jim Salter, Technology Reporter

  • Goey cinnamon buns Beth Mole
  • Mmmmm. Beth Mole
  • Yum. Follow the recipe to get ready for the fire. Beth Mole
  • Let the cherry sauce set. Don't succumb to the pressure. Beth Mole

Pandemic baking

Like lots of people, I've been baking (and eating) my way through the pandemic. Baking is a longstanding hobby of mine, and I wouldn't say I've been baking more during the pandemic, but I've definitely been savoring it more. It's relaxing, fun, and always a great way to take your mind off current horrors—plus, afterward, when the crushing dread returns, you have something scrumptious to eat along with your feelings.

Despite the trend, I haven't been in the mood to make sourdough bread. Instead, I've been bouncing between my go-to, comfort recipes—like fudgy, triple-chocolate brownies and gooey cinnamon rolls—and things I've never baked before—like spotted dick soda bread and a new-to-me recipe for cinnamon-raisin oatmeal scones. I'm currently obsessed with the Cook's Illustrated recipe for yeasted waffles, which was definitely a pandemic find. I tried them out when I realized I had run out of an ingredient I needed to make my usual waffle recipe. Luckily, the yeasted waffles are everything I want in a waffle: wonderfully crispy on the outside, tender and airy on the inside. They have a definite tangy, yeasty flavor—and I'm a fan. Also, they're incredibly easy to make; I'm not even sure I can call it baking. You just whip up the batter the night before and let the yeasties do their thing in the fridge until breakfast time. Then, it's only a stir and you're ready for the waffle iron. It's perfect for those of us who are not so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the mornings.

I'm not yet sure what baking adventure I'll go on this weekend. Part of the fun is spending the week daydreaming (and drooling) over the possibilities.

Beth Mole, Health Reporter

  • Why do I have animal and food pun cards laying around the house? Beats me, but might as well use 'em. Nathan Mattise
  • Damon Berryhill is screaming to be doodled on in Sharpie. Thinking about possibly just sending to a new father in my life after drawing a speech balloon: "Daddy? Daddy." Nathan Mattise
  • Sometimes, you even get letters in return with occasional stuff! Shoutout to Ars Emeritus Editors Sean Gallagher and Cyrus Farivar for excellent stickers. Nathan Mattise

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