Food Biz

What I’d Tell New Food Bloggers, 10 Years After I Started Smitten Kitchen

September 21, 2016

Let's say the year is 2006 and you like to cook and write and always thought it would be nice to do something with this somehow, but nobody is exactly knocking down your door inviting you to. I mean, why would they, really? You don't know anyone who knows anyone at a glossy food magazine. You haven't done time "on the line," a turn of words you only recently read in a Bourdain book. You haven't been to cooking school and you're probably not going to quit your day job to do so because what little it pays barely covers your part of the rent, nonetheless new degrees with dubious promises of return on investment. Your path through the doorway of whatever a food writing career might look like doesn't exist.

But you might start a food blog. Actually, you probably already did. It's all the rage, after all. Or it's just about to be.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Not that I knew it at the time. At the time, I was just another 20-something who hated my so-called career and wanted to bake cupcakes all day. (Also all the rage in 2006.) I had a lot of opinions about cupcakes, however, such as the fact that most of the recipes out there were underwhelming and that a lot of bakeries were selling very boring ones: bland chocolate and vanilla on repeat ad nauseum. Cupcakes were tiny cakes; why did they never taste like the great big ones like pineapple upside-down, coconut chiffon or Brooklyn blackout? And so I bought a domain name and had a friend install Wordpress on it and started yammering away. I fully expected Smitten Kitchen to be a 6-month endeavor; nobody was going to read about cooking from an opinionated non-expert. There were food bloggers already out there with actual cooking skills and impressive depths of culinary knowledge and I, well, I probably had some nerve.

That's not what happened, though. Instead, I found I had more and more people visiting each week. Someone recognized me in a grocery store from the tiniest thumbnail of my face on the About page. Someone else asked me when I was going to write a cookbook, a comically absurd suggestion—lady, I don't even know how to cook rice. (Yet.) But a few years on, I did. Not long after, the demands of my site and ad returns allowed me to bid my day job sayonara, trading a cubicle for a sofa. A couple years after that, I did write a book. I went on a book tour; I went on QVC (I was terrible—promise you won't Google it); The Today Show came over (even worse— remember you promised); and a lot of people wrote articles about food blogging along the lines of "Whodathunkit!"

Photo by James Ransom

Food blogging, in the eyes of other people, was many things: this wild disruptor that came out of nowhere, a shameless explosion of unprofessionals trampling the gates of food writing's exclusionary system, the ticket to big money and a new career, or unforgivably dull unless it served a niche. Yet to me—something I'd insist every time I was asked—it was only one thing: a format. I'd bristle, perhaps defensively, against the idea that food blogging was something other than food writing, that it was a thing apart just because anyone could do it. Blogging was simply a way that people who weren't being invited to publish by people who published could publish anyway, I'd have told you. But it's hard to read that sentence now and not see how much bigger that made it than I flippantly gave it credit for.

I fully expected Smitten Kitchen to be a 6-month endeavor; nobody was going to read about cooking from an opinionated non-expert.

The fact is, Smitten Kitchen didn't happen in a vacuum. All of those big media properties that weren't going to hire a newbie like me were also very slow to take to this whole Internet Website thing. Print writers considered web writing a demotion, even more so in the earlier days of the web. And print publishers felt that putting their work on the web was akin to giving it away for free. In this void, self-publishing flourished. Little know-nothings like me could cook and take cooking apart every day— and away from the filters, word counts, weary scrutiny, and fact-checking demands of established publications—and share what we learned with anyone who wanted to listen. It wasn't terribly long before you might even mistake some of us for know-somethings.

Seeing it now, it was a pretty democratic process. Have something to say? Say it well, and people will find you. Say it well enough often enough, and people will ask you to say more. Keep at it and your great Aunt might tell you at Thanksgiving how much she and her friends at the bridge table love your "blob."


10 years later, a lot looks different. The web is an explosion of food content, and distinctions have largely eroded between big publishers, small publishers, and blogs. Competition is fierce in a crowded space; everything is glossier and many feel the barrier to entry is higher.

So let's say the year is 2016 and you like to cook and write and always thought it would be nice to do something with this somehow, but nobody is exactly knocking down your door inviting you to. Would you start a blog?

This is where I long-sigh, take a drag off some imaginary cigarette, hoping with enough filters you'll mistake me for an old-school French movie starlet, and say "Honey, why are you asking me?" This is where I—basically a grandma in blogging years and still at it—am supposed to say it mattered or it didn't or it still matters or perhaps everyone else is just doing it wrong. I am sorry, but I have no such wisdom/arrogance to impart.

But I do know this: Almost everyone I knew in the early days who was rather good at it and wanted to stick with it has turned it into something else—either hired to write, cook or edit full-time by a bigger outlet, has a mini-empire of their own or has opened a restaurant or catering company, or is a professional food photographer or cookbook ghostwriter. The field may be more crowded now than it has ever been, but as long as people are reading about food and hungry to cook dinner, not the same dinner they always cook, an "in" exists. There's a way for someone who doesn't want to do things the way they've always been done, and who is eager to sharpen their skills, to put themselves out there and find people who will listen.

Deb Perelman is our latest Writer in Residence—stay tuned for more from her on the site, and head over to Facebook this Friday at 4:15 P.M: She'll be cooking one of her most popular Smitten Kitchen recipes with us on Facebook Live.

47 Comments

cosmiccook February 25, 2018
I first tried homemade ricotta with your recipe. Love your caramel cake on 52 and the cider caramels! I enjoy your blog enormously! As a 60 somethings we started a blog as a result of our Mardi Gras "Krewe" and the constant requests we got for cocktail recipes, food and bar recommendations as well as cooking questions and appeals for dinner invitations! Unfortunately we are struggling due to the MECHANICS of blogging--not the material or writing! Apparently there are many blog host sites, marketers & designers but no real tutors--we've had 3--and we've gotten 3 different answers to questions. So if any of you bloggers are looking segue into a different career--maybe tutoring for us late to the game and lingo is an option. Our blog is TheWildCocktailians.com. And I need to post our most recent blog!
 
Anne M. October 4, 2016
Deb, your words are wise and witty. I could go to myriad recipe sites, but I always come back to yours because it's written so well. Sometimes I continue reading, even if I don't like the ingredients in the dish du jour, because you are a born storyteller. I'm so glad you ditched the cubicle and carried on with the prose. Agree that no matter your passion, it's important to find your niche. It's out there and half the fun is the digging....sometimes?!?
 
Stefanie S. October 4, 2016
The computer wasn't my thing in 2006 (still isn't if I tell the truth) so I started an old school free monthly paper newsletter, Hogtown HomeGrown, which is turning 10 this year. I admire your skill at turning your endeavors into a career!
 
Alice L. October 2, 2016
I feel so grateful to read this article while I just started blogging 5 days ago, English isn't my first language, it would be a shame if I publish something full of grammar mistake. Your words released my fears,when I read “ Food blogging, in the eyes of other people, was many things: this wild disruptor that came out of nowhere, a shameless explosion of unprofessionals trampling the gates of food writing's exclusionary system" . I am just can't wait to write more and discover how far a non-native speaker can go.
 
Soozll September 26, 2016
I found Smitten Kitchen via google while looking for a recipe. I stayed because your questions about the featured recipes were mine. You shared your process to a solution and all with the voice I (now) hear in my head. If that weren't enough, you replied to any additional questions or comments that I posted in your comment section. What's not to love? You discuss,
 
Soozll September 26, 2016
...for some reason my comment posted before I was finished..but I'll leave it as I got through the most important throught. Thanks, Deb, for all you do.
 
Jenafer H. September 25, 2016
Deb, I have been following you for years and cook from SK often! I am about to dive into food-blogging myself and appreciate your perspective! Who know if anyone will read my little blog once I get it going, but I know I will love doing it!
 
Christina @. September 25, 2016
I wish all the successful "big" bloggers would be as wonderful as you, Deb, as you are clearly talented and deserving of your success. I've now been blogging for about 5 years, and everyday see so many recipes from fellow bloggers with "only 3 ingredients" (cool whip, cake mix and a can of coke), bloggers who can't spell or string a sentence together to save their life, and yet have MASSIVE numbers of followers. Yes, everyone has their own audience, but it seems that the majority of people still want to use canned, boxed and processed convenience in their recipes versus cooking real ingredients from a recipe from a site like SK. I think it's very sad.
 
kim September 25, 2016
I love SK, and cook from it frequently! I have to say, what Deb does NOT have, for which I am very grateful, is that sort of oh so cutesy tootsy, hokey folksy, aw shucks tone that so many home based self taught cooking blogs have. I'm not describing it very well perhaps, but some of the "biggest" food bloggers utilize it, and while Deb is down to earth, she takes the food and ingredients and process seriously, she is not just "slinging things around". That overly down home tone drives me cuh crazy, and there are a good handful of blogs I completely avoid because it. For me, she strikes just the right note between working, cooking Mom living in an urban environment, making food that can be done and enjoyed by just about anyone. I don't know how she's managed that, but I'm sure glad!!!
 
Debby W. September 25, 2016
Great article. It sums up everything I believe in... I myself am new to blogging and it's such freedom of speech. Can't wait to look at SK.
 
marinaz56 September 25, 2016
I've been following Deb's blog for years like others here. I stumbled across her looking for a chocolate chip cookie recipe and she's now my go to along with my first James Beard for cooking. She makes things that look delicious, and unlike other food blogs I've tried, they really are delicious! Thanks for featuring her. And Deb, you know I'm going to have to google your QVC appearance. Like your recipe for brown butter rice krispy treats, it's an irresistible temptation!
 
Laura D. September 25, 2016
Deb, you are such a great writer. I want to be friends with you after this. You are so real, and that is one of the best qualities in a person. Food blogging is a strange medium, I have found having been at it for six years, and while sometimes I'm not so glad I am a part of it, I am glad you are.
 
mgn99 September 25, 2016
Personally one of the reasons that I love Smitten Kitchen is the lack of sponsored content. It gives the impression that you're writing because you love the foods and the food as much as the rest of us.
 
mgn99 September 25, 2016
love the writing and food. urgh. And that is why I'm not a writer!
 
Jenny A. September 25, 2016
I agree with Chefzilla that Deb's wonderful writing and sense of humor is what makes me eager to open up my email box in the morning to see if a new Smitten Kitchen post is there. I read it before and thing else. In the beginning, I got hooked by the beautiful & instructional photos and the step-by-step, kitchen tested recipes. But as blogs flourished, I could see that SK really had something special and I hope that 10 years turns in to 20.
 
10 L. September 25, 2016
So true! Not all food blogs are equal. Many people do just want to find good recipes or pretty pictures but I always look for something deeper than that, good writing and an authentic voice. Deb has managed to bring all of those things together with humor and charm. The Ten Legs in my kitchen vote for 10 more years in hers.
 
Jasline September 25, 2016
I've been a silent follower of Smitten Kitchen for years. Absolutely love her recipes - just made her chocolate banana cake... soooo good!
 
Yuri September 25, 2016
Great article. I love food blogs and constantly reading and subscribing to more than I can handle. Keep it up!
 
Debbi Y. September 25, 2016
From a food blog reader … I would like to humbly suggest that photos of a finished product, sometimes with a bite taken out, or spinkled with a little cocoa powder, or otherwise artfully staged, don't have to be repeated endlessly. What I love about SK it that the photos actually instruct – and you don't have to scroll down and down and down to get to the meat of the post, which – for the one doing the cooking – is the list of ingredients and the instructions. I click away from posts with endless photos of the food. Make those photos work for you, not against you.
 
koechin September 25, 2016
AMEN!
 
Deeba R. September 25, 2016
I've followed you for years Deb, smitten by SK, and I've hung in there too. I began blogging in 2007. It's been a fun learning experience but heck yes. hings are so FIERCE now. Thank heavens for hungry folk!! I too think you are great !!
 
Diane September 22, 2016
Love Smitten Kitchen!! I think you're great!
 
Rick September 22, 2016
I think Deb did two things right in 2006 that still matter today. First... focus. Yeah, it's about a lot of different foods now, but it sounds like she started off on cupcakes. If you searched for cupcakes and wanted cool recipes it wouldn't surprise me that SK came up a lot then (maybe now, too). Occasionally, I'll search for something specific like a Korean dish and almost always a site that's ALL about Korean food will show up. I recently started looking into Roman recipes and while there's a lot about more standard, well-known Italian recipes out there, there's still not a lot about the food around Rome, specifically. So, start with something you're passionate about and ideally that's not covered by dozens of other sites.<br /><br />Second, the writing. She let's us see a bit of Deb and writes more than merely recipes. That's always engaging and entices some people to come back again and again. So... let readers see at least a bit of the real you.
 
A M. September 22, 2016
Deb and Smitten Kitchen is one of the reasons I took the leap into the food blogging world. It's definitely been a learning curve, but I'm loving every minute of it!