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.
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!"
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.
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.