A week after sitting down with Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes, I got to reminisce with another seminal food blogger: Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen. Deb started Smitten Kitchen in 2006, the same year that Serious Eats launched. Twelve years later, Smitten Kitchen has millions of readers who come to the site for both her fine recipes and her realistic portrayal of her insanely busy city life, testing recipes and posting on her blog with two young children underfoot. Somehow she’s managed to also write two best-selling cookbooks, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, and her recently published Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites.
When I posited that one of the reasons Smitten Kitchen resonated with so many people is Deb’s ability to laugh at herself and readily admit to failure, she responded, “Yeah, I thought that was so strange, that we were supposed to pretend we were perfect. How hard would that be to maintain? I’d last maybe a day, like a week perhaps…That’s not life.”
What explains the success of Smitten Kitchen? Deb isn’t sure, but she said, “I’m hoping that I’m speaking about things in real language. I hope that I’m not pretending to be something I’m not, pretending cooking is something that it’s not. I just think, ‘Okay, so this is super hard to try to cook this with like a kid underfoot.’ Why would I lie about that? Because this is real and we’re all dealing with this. I kind of do it [the blog] to share the burden a little bit, like, ‘Why should I feel like I’m carrying all this myself when we’re all dealing with this?'”
Perelman is ever hopeful, whether it comes to the latest recipe she’s testing or the future of food blogs. “I really do like the fact that that you can have a long, crappy day, and make a recipe that’s new and fun, and it can be the highlight of your day.” As for food blogging, Deb said, “You know, it didn’t begin and end with me, and…I know that blogs sound like a very dated thing, but I always feel like if you’re trying to get yourself out there, put yourself out there. So what if you have ten people reading? When somebody wants a link to your clips, there it is.”
For more pearls of wisdom from Deb Perelman, check out part 1 of her Special Sauce interview.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Deb Perelman: I know this sounds crazy, but like 10 years later I’m still terrified. I have no-
EL: Wait, you have a book that’s sold like over 300,000 copies.
DP: I know.
EL: You need to stop being scared.
DP: I know. I think it’s okay. I’m just going to stay scared.
EL: This week, as part of our Internet Pioneer series, we are thrilled to have Deb Perelman, Smitten Kitchen’s founder, writer, chief cook, bottle washer. All the things that are Smitten Kitchen, it’s Deb’s fault. Anything that you want to blame on Deb-
DP: I’m here for it.
EL: She is the author of two best-selling cookbooks, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, and her latest, Smitten Kitchen Everyday, and she of course is the founder of smittenkitchen.com. Her latest book is called Smitten Kitchen Everyday, Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites. Welcome to Special Sauce, Deb Perelman.
DP: Thank you for having me on.
EL: You and I are two of the dinosaur food bloggers that still roam the Earth.
DP: I’m still in my 20’s, don’t tell anyone otherwise. I know, I can’t tell people how old my blog is anymore, they’ll start doing the math.
EL: No, that’s what happens to me.
DP: Does this blog make me look old?
EL: But we are still standing, doing our thing, and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s so great to have you here. We have so many things to talk about, because we started at the same time in the food blogosphere.
DP: I remember this. I remember it was just around the same, and it wasn’t such a big place, the food blog world, so it was notable, and you had such grand ambitions.
DP: You’ve done it, and I had no ambitions. I’m still kind of flopping around trying to figure out what I’m doing right now, and I just think it’s really kind of amazing that we’re both still doing it.
EL: I know. It’s actually incredible, and what is great about you, and when I was doing my research, is that the people that tend to last, you know like Miles Davis once called Gil Evans the “long distance original”.
EL: I think that there’s something about doing something and getting better and evolving. and when I look at Smitten Kitchen now, and the books you’re writing, and everything else you’re doing, and then when I think about what it was like when you first started, we have to be like sharks. If we stop moving we’re dead, you know?
DP: No, I don’t want to stop moving.
DP: Also, I rather enjoy the process. Sometimes I feel like it could be a little bit dangerous to have an end goal in mind, because then you’re either doing it or you’re not doing it, and everything you do is in relation to that point and what happens when you get there. But if you really like the process and you hope to keep doing this for the length of your career, you might look at it as continuous.
EL: Yeah, for sure. Tell us about life at the Perelman family table growing up.
DP: At the table growing up, very normal. I grew up in New Jersey, the suburbs, nothing fancy. My mom didn’t know how to cook when she got married, I mean how could you even, like how was she even allowed to get married? It was 1968. My mom didn’t know how to cook, and she always tells this story how my dad was super into like Szechuan food, there was like one-
EL: Wait, in 1968?
DP: Yes, there was one Szechuan restaurant, he says, in the Upper West Side at the time, and he took my mom-
EL: Was that the place at 105th? I think I used to go that restaurant.
DP: My poor mother grew up in this German family where they didn’t even use garlic, it was too scandalous a seasoning. My dad took her to this Szechuan restaurant on their second date, and my mom got so sick from the food. Then when she was going out with him again, her mother was like, “You’re going out with him? The man who made you sick?”
EL: That’s awesome.
DP: That is way back. Anyway, so my dad liked to cook stir-fries, and I don’t know, “dad food” to me, where it just seemed like dad food, and my mom didn’t really know how to cook anything. But she was watching PBS one day, and on came The French Chef. It was Julia Child and she was making asparagus, and omelets, and rice dishes, and my mom was like, “I want to eat that.” She taught herself to cook from Mastering the Art of French Cooking-
DP: Which I would say is probably the only thing unusual about my suburban upbringing, that there’s abnormal amount of asparagus and artichokes and quiches.
EL: She was like Julie Powell, but she didn’t blog about it.
DP: She didn’t blog about it. My mother will never have a blog.
EL: Were you one of those kids that was always getting in the way in the kitchen? Were you interested, or were you just like, “Eh, it’s fine. Dinner’s good.”
DP: No, I was interested, I wasn’t cooking that much though. I’m sure my mom just wanted to do her thing. She would definitely get me involved a little bit, but I didn’t cook a lot growing up. I wasn’t like one of these culinary wonders, I wasn’t, you know-
EL: Right, like putting the stool up so you could be at your mother’s height.
DP: Exactly. Mostly I remember just cooking not being a weird, difficult, or different thing. It was roast chicken, and rice, and a vegetable, and a salad each night, it wasn’t like something elaborate or crazy, it wasn’t like we were eating particularly unusual food for the time. I always got a real kick out of the fact that my mom had this thing for French food.
EL: What about like at the high school cafeteria, like did you really care about what they were serving? Like Wednesday was the English muffin pizza day at my junior high school, man, and I remember that like it was yesterday.
DP: No, it was not exciting at all. I went to a small high school, the cafeteria was not really a place where a lot of people ate, and I understand it’s gotten better in the years, but I think I ate terribly.
EL: Were you particular about the pizza place you would go to, or the burger place, or not really?
DP: Once we were allowed to use our cars to go out for lunch, I think that was a privilege for the upperclassmen, we would go out and get, you know because this is Jersey, we would go to like a pizza sub shop. I didn’t eat meat at the time, I was a vegetarian, I was very opinionated 13-year-old who decided I wasn’t going to eat meat anymore.
EL: Now you’re just an opinionated older-than-13.
DP: Yes, just a little tiny bit. I remember my friends would get these sandwiches with all the meats and whatever on them, probably what we’d call an Italian sub now; though if you say that to an Italian, they’ll say, “What are you talking about? I have no idea.”
DP: I would get it with cheese instead, and it was definitely an early food memory, because I loved the way they put the oil and vinegar dressing on it, versus like the swath of mayo and mustard. I still love it.
EL: When you were growing up, did you ever think about writing about food as something that could be a profession, or that wasn’t even a distant flicker?
DP: You know, I would say more closer to college and stuff, but I guess I both always thought I would always know how to cook, and also thought that I didn’t know … It was sort in between, where I just kind of thought at some point you’d figure it out. For me, college and post-college was realizing that I hadn’t figured it out, that I didn’t know how to cook things, and wait, I don’t actually know how to make cornbread, or a yellow cake, or sauce from a can of tomatoes. I was like, “Where did I miss this? How did I not learn this?” As I was starting to figure it out, this is where the opinionated thing came in where I would think, “I don’t like this. Wait, this is a terrible recipe,” and the blog was just a natural outlet for sharing what worked and what I hated.
EL: You went to GW in DC.
EL: You majored in psychology, which you say is great for dealing with commenters on blogs. I love that, I love that line.
DP: Also for an eight- and a two-year-old right now, yes.
EL: Then you came to New York and you were an art therapist, right?
DP: I was. I never knew what I wanted to do with my life. I was actively envious of people who said they wanted to be anything, and were clear on what their path was, even if it was an accountant or something. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I majored in psychology and I majored in fine arts, which were two things that I was interested in. Then I heard that you could become an art therapist with this master’s degree, and I was able to get into this program where you were just did a five-year master, where you were just doing it for one extra year. Then, boom, so I was able to move to New York with this specific job. It seemed great, like I had it all figured out. I had a master’s, I had a career path, and I was doing it for probably about a year before I realized that this was absolutely not-
EL: Not for you.
DP: Not the right fit at all, and I did it for another three, four-
EL: With one foot out the door.
DP: Kind of just trying to figure out like, “Is this it? Is this adulthood? Is this all there is?”
EL: Yeah, and that’s interesting, yeah.
DP: I was like, “How many years ’til I retire?” Like really, in your 20’s, to think about that.
EL: That’s really funny. Our managing editor, her mom is an art therapist at Riker’s.
DP: Wow, good for her. That is incredible.
EL: Which really must be intense.
DP: It must be really intense. I just don’t want to get started on Riker’s, but yeah, really that’s amazing that she’s doing … Maybe if I had fallen into something that I would find profoundly inspiring, it might have been different, but I just found myself sort of stuck in this place where it was clear it wasn’t going to anywhere, that I’d be doing exactly this forever, and I didn’t enjoy it.
EL: You were passionately cooking when you weren’t working at the job you hated?
DP: Yeah, in the evenings, on the side I was trying to write a little bit. Before I had Smitten Kitchen, there was just a blog called Smitten.
EL: Right, which some people have called a dating site. Was it really a dating site?
DP: It was like, I didn’t know how to … You know, here’s the thing. I started blogging in 2003. You didn’t need to have an SEO strategy. You didn’t need to have a topic., you just blathered.
DP: I was just blathering, and yes, I was going on a lot of dates back then, so there were some bad dating stories. There were also stories about living in New York, and how bad people are at hailing taxis. It was maybe a little less nice than I am now.
EL: Right but it was sort of about your life in New York, which is what blogs were, they were online diaries.
DP: Yeah, it was just a little bit of storage. I found myself getting more and more interested in the cooking and the food, and by 2006, I just went full food.
EL: You went full food, so you changed the name to Smitten Kitchen.
DP: I literally left the site up and I said, “This has been fun, come find me at Smitten Kitchen,” and I think I had the archives up for like 10 years before I forgot to pay the hosting bill. I literally don’t even know where the archives are right now, like they’re in the ether somewhere.
EL: That’s fascinating, because it was the same time that we started Serious Eats. I remember because one of the things that I still want to do and that I still do at Serious Eats is I try to find all the talented young people doing their thing, and you were one of them. I actually uncovered three blog posts you wrote first in 2007.
DP: I completely forgot about this. I’m almost, I’m like, “How bad were they?”
EL: No, it’s true.
DP: How bad were they? I know you wouldn’t put garbage on your site, but you also let me write back then, so I don’t know.
EL: This is what we wrote: “Before we begin the feature presentation here, we’d like to introduce the author of this post. Deb Perelman, whose work you may already know from Smitten Kitchen, will be joining us weekly to write about current trends in the food world. Say hi in the comments, and now on with the show.” You did a piece on McDonald’s in France, how to be a green cook, and what if “Ratatouille” had been “Mulligatawny,” all in August of 2007.
DP: I’m almost, I’m just like, “I don’t think I’m ready to read this.”
EL: It was really funny. You started writing Smitten Kitchen, and were you like, “Wow, this is amazing,” but you didn’t think you could actually make any money from it, right? Like what was the impetus and what was the experience like?
DP: I thought I’d do it for like six months, I felt like there were food blogs out there, and that they were generally written by chefs and cooks or people on the line or people going to cooking school or people who know a certain kind of food very well. They had a point of view and I didn’t have a point of view, and so I kind of just thought it would be like a six-month endeavor, and then I’d figure out what I actually wanted to do with my life after that.
EL: What’s funny is maybe you didn’t have a fully-formed point of view, but you had a writing voice.
DP: Interesting. Maybe that’s something I had honed in the Smitten years.
EL: Yeah, or you know I mean I think that’s what really separates great blogs from the rest of the blogging world, is people with distinctive voices. I remember you, even in the beginning, you were very very quick to articulate your limitations in the kitchen. That was part of your charm, and I think it’s part of what people identified with.
DP: Yeah, I think I have so much, I’m such an angsty person in general, that when I would find a new piece of angst, I’d be like, “No, I’m just not doing this,” and it became actually a way to put my foot down and demark what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do, which definitely helped me, but I still don’t actually know what my voice is. Like I mean that’s great if somebody else does, but I don’t have a real sense of that. I just know what I like, so yeah.
EL: You’re very much like Kenji in that, and now Daniel, and even Stella-
DP: That’s very flattering.
EL: In that you were not afraid to admit that something didn’t work, you never-
DP: Yeah, I thought that was so strange, that we were supposed to pretend we were perfect. How hard that would be to maintain, I’d last maybe a day, like a week perhaps. It would seem like, I didn’t understand why you were supposed to pretend that everything you did was perfect the first time. That’s not life. Also, I was very aware because I’m an OG blogger that most people retired their blogs very early on, or after a certain period of time, and in general, at some point they became work for them to keep up. I always thought, “How do I make this not feel like work?”, and I’m like, “Well, if I’m not pretending to be somebody that I’m not, and I’m not doing something that I do not enjoy, why would I get tired of it?” I’ve always been kind of hyper-aware of when stuff is getting in that’s making it less fun for me, and figuring out how much I have to do that.
EL: That’s interesting, yeah. I remember in one of the interviews I read with you, you talk about that you, like most bloggers, you did it because the gatekeepers weren’t letting you in, right? You wrote to a food magazine asking to be an intern, and you said you never heard back.
DP: I know, shockingly. Then it’s like, look at my resume, what was I doing? Nobody knew who I was, but I also had no connections, which let’s not pretend that’s not the real way, especially in New York media, where a lot of people … I’d like to think it’s changing, that the web could democratize the process, where you might be able to run your clips online by having a site, and that’s great, but the reality is most people, when I ask them, “Oh yeah, how’d you get in there?”, they knew somebody, or somebody knew somebody.
EL: Yeah, for sure, yeah.
DP: I knew nobody. I don’t hang in media circles. Anyway, I didn’t have a way in the door, and I also didn’t have a resume where I could really act outraged about it, so let’s be realistic. Yeah, I didn’t really have a way to get in, and so you do have this period of time where a lot of the big magazines and newspapers didn’t really know what to do with the web, and in that void, I think all of our independent-
EL: For sure. For me, you know it was a matter of, I was a reasonably successful freelance writer, I was writing for the Times regularly and Gourmet and all that stuff, but I was so sick of pitching and having to get past the gatekeepers. One of the great things of course about the internet and the blogosphere is, I used to tell people, “Here’s the pitching process at Serious Eats when I started it: ‘Ed, I want to do a story on hamburgers.’ ‘Great idea, Ed, you should do it.’,” you know?
DP: It’s absolutely true, I mean again, you were the editor, so you could say, “This is really not as strong of a piece it could be,” but it was just a chance to get some of these ideas out there to build a resume. Even, you know I’m asked quite often like, “Would you still start a blog today?”, and I’m like, “Obviously the world is very different on the web, but if you have some stories you’d like to get out there and nobody wants to publish them, why not build your own place where you could hold your clips?”
EL: Right, no, it’s true. The other thing that was happening in 2006, when we both started, was because old media was still keeping people out rather than letting them in, it left for me, as someone who realized that I was the crazy old guy with a lot of ideas, and who wanted to discover all these voices that were on the web that the old media publications didn’t recognize. You know, even Kenji, yes he was ready for Cooks Illustrated, but they didn’t let him write in his own voice.
DP: No, this is true, this is really true. Yeah, because you hear that he’s the guy who did the vodka pie dough that we were all making that year, but we didn’t know it was him.
DP: Now we hear from him, and it’s great to know how he sounds.
EL: Right, because when you were writing for Cooks Illustrated and working for Chris Kimball, you wrote in that sort of omniscient, very basic, just the facts ma’am, because that’s his thing, and he does it really really well. I’m not criticizing, but the idea that Kenji wrote that pie crust recipe, and yet you compare that to one Food Lab column, it’s like this is a different writer.
DP: It’s really fun too, and it’s far more engaging, everybody knows his name.
EL: Did the site take off right away? I mean, it’s huge now, right? But was it a slow build, or was it a rocket blast-off?
DP: It was actually very steady from the beginning, and it was very, there was really no … Except for like releasing first book and maybe a bump in press, you know so you have a lot of people writing about it like, “We just discovered this new food blog,” but that was 2012, there hasn’t really been any major jumps, it’s been very slow and steady. I like that, because you know like the drive-by traffic that comes if you’re on the front page of Reddit isn’t really sustainable.
DP: But if people are actually just showing up, and more people each month, and it’s like slow and steady, I feel like that’s the way you build an audience.
EL: There are peaks and valleys, right?
DP: Of course.
EL: I’m sure there are times when our traffic has gone down, or will go up, and then there’ll be a plateau, and then we’ll dip slightly, but the one thing that I don’t think people understand about blogs that have been around a long time is you get the benefit of the years of Google juice. You have years worth of Smitten Kitchen recipes on the web. As we know, very little traffic comes to your homepage these days.
DP: Of course, of course, yeah, absolutely, so the longer you’ve been doing it, the bigger the site is. You have these sites that maybe you don’t hear that much about, but they have massive archives, and when you Google for a recipe, you land on them. I don’t think that my Google juice is quite like what it should be, because I’m not somebody who pays attention to things I’m supposed to be paying attention to web-wise, but yeah no, but I have over 1,200 recipes on the site now, which is crazy to me, I’m like, “When did that happen? I just started this.”
EL: It’s interesting, I mean you say you weren’t consumed by SEO questions, but I have this theory, and I wonder what you think of it, when I think about you, and Meg Hourihan, and Heidi Swanson, and Elise Bower, all of you started around the same time, give or take a couple years, but you’re all seminal food bloggers doing great stuff. I regard you as a technology person as well as a writer, and someone who’s passionate about cooking. Do you regard yourself that way, do you see that common thread?
DP: I feel like I know a lot about the technology of the web, news, distribution, I’m very interested in journalism and where it’s going.
EL: You wrote for a while.
DP: Yeah, I mean that was just sort of the job I could get, but yeah, it taught me a lot. I mean, I really am glad I spent a couple years writing news articles, to really know what news is, why we need it, and what a reportorial voice is. Speaking of facts and not editorializing, I feel like you should know when you’re editorializing and when you’re not.
EL: Sure, which a lot of bloggers don’t.
DP: Because it’s like, yeah, we all came through the web and it didn’t matter, but it does matter.
EL: Right, and you learned it writing for a technology trade magazine?
DP: Yeah, I mean this is like really un-sexy stuff. It was just, yeah I was writing about stuff I didn’t even know that much about, but I had to learn. That’s actually helped me a bit when I am trying to get into a new dish, I’m like, “I actually know nothing about this dish, where do I start? I’m going to start by researching, I’m going to start by finding out who’s making it, how they’re making it,” and there’s of course many tools available, you don’t need a fancy subscription these days.
EL: You kept your day job for a while, right?
DP: Yeah, about two and a half years.
EL: Did you really think once you started that it was going to be the way you could make your living?
DP: I feel like about a year in, about a year to a year and a half in, I was definitely thinking, “Could this actually work, like could I …” I always had ads on my site, like I always felt like it was weird back then if you didn’t have ads on your site, and then you put ads on your site and we’re like, “Ugh, this is about the money,” which is so gendered and there’s so much else going on there, but I just decided I was going to have ads on from day one, and if they made $10 a month, they made $10 a month, and if it turned out that they made more, at a certain point I was like, “Wait a second.” I mean, not like I had an amazing salary, I wasn’t like a financial person downtown. As it started approaching my salary, I just thought, “If I could break even, I’m out.”
EL: Right, and so you would either sign on to one of the ad networks, which were very big in those days, or Google AdSense or Blog Ads or whatever, right?
EL: It added up to a living. Your husband was still working at his day job?
DP: He still is, my husband still has his day job. I mean, he’s had a couple day jobs since then, but yes. We never did the whole “this is the family business” thing. I just really value my relationship with my husband, and I want us to like each other. He definitely has helped out quite a bit behind the scenes over the years, but very much it’s my job and that’s his job, and I think it’s probably for the best.
EL: It can be challenging, you know my wife is my agent.
DP: Okay, that’s a classic love story.
EL: Yeah. We’ve had our moments, you know but we’ve known each other, we figured it out the other day, 40 years, which is incredible.
EL: You had your day job, then you quit, and were there some scary moments after that, or was it still pretty consistent in terms of you were making enough money in between you and what your husband making, you were always okay?
DP: My thing is I needed to be okay on my own money.
EL: Got it, that’s just the way you think.
DP: Yeah, like I mean that’s great that my husband has a job too, but if I cannot make what I would need to live in New York City, I’m not judging anyone who isn’t in this kind of situation, but for me, I always just needed to feel like I was pulling my own weight and able to do … If it wasn’t this, it was going to be something else. I actually stayed with a competitor for my original job for about six months doing some contract freelance blogging, basically, but it was very clear that I think I was not putting the time into it that I needed to, and of course it was scalable income, so I was just working less and I made less from that.
EL: Got it.
DP: In terms of scary, I know this sounds crazy, but like 10 years later, I’m still terrified. Like I have no-
EL: Wait, you have a book that sold like over 300,000 copies, you need to stop being scared.
DP: I know, I think it’s okay, I’m just going to stay scared. I’m just saying that I don’t have any guarantee of income next year, like nobody is like … You know what I mean? I’m just saying, I’m glad it’s going well, but I think it’s really important to know-
EL: It could all go away tomorrow.
DP: It could all. I’m really in my head, maybe I worry too much, but better than being overly confident that things are going to be okay. I’m in awe of confident people. Yeah no, so I’m just like, “I don’t have a …” Now of course in the 10 years I’ve been doing this, most people have lost their security, like it doesn’t mean what it once did to have a job or a career path.
EL: No, there is no linear career path anymore.
DP: There isn’t, but I feel like I’m hyper-aware of the fact that I’m very much in this on my own, and there’s no guarantee of income.
EL: I want to talk about voice, which we’ve talked a little bit about, because I think it was the Smitten Kitchen voice that resonates with your readers and your community. I would describe your voice as self-deprecating, you’re revealing to a certain extent, but not too much information. There’s no TMI.
DP: Good, I hope not.
EL: I think people identify with you because you are very upfront about the challenges facing you as a working mom, to keep your family together, what’s the life/work balance like? You really are serious when you say you can’t articulate what the Smitten Kitchen voice is?
DP: I know what I’m hoping to do in terms of how much it succeeds. I can’t read my site from outside.
EL: What are you hoping to do?
DP: I’m hoping that I’m speaking about things in real language. I hope that I’m not pretending to be something I’m not, pretending cooking is something that it’s not. Yeah, I mean I just think, “Okay, so this is super hard to try to cook this with like a kid under foot.” Why would I lie about that? Because this is real and we’re all dealing with this. I kind of do it to share the burden a little bit like, “Why should I feel like I’m carrying this all myself when we’re all dealing with this?” I think we all feel a lot better. I like that, but I also want to kick a little bit of like, it sounds kind of corny, but a little bit of hope into it, because I do really, and I’ve said this in the intro to the last book, and I know it sounds a little corny, but I really do like the fact that you can have a long, crappy day, and make a recipe that was new and sort of fun, and it can be the highlight of your day. Like it often is, like, “Wow, it was a lousy, rainy, disgusting Monday, and then I made …”
EL: But you made an awesome mac and cheese.
DP: Yeah, like, “That was super, I did not expect to have a good meal, I did not expect this to come out that well.” I love that, and I love chasing that.
EL: It sounds like your voice is you. It’s not like there’s a voice, there’s your artistic, creative voice, and then there’s Deb Perelman’s real voice. Is that true?
DP: I hope so. I don’t know how to be anyone else, but I definitely remember in like the early blogging days, it was always this thing where you would meet somebody whose site you liked, and you’re like, “Wow, they sound so different in person.” That was definitely a fear of mine, but it was just something in the back of my head, I’m like, “It would be weird if somebody met me and they were like, ‘She’s so different in person,'” and then I remembered I don’t actually know how to be anybody else, so hopefully it’s consistent.
EL: Do you think someone can consciously try to develop a voice that will resonate? Your voice obviously resonated, and I was very fortunate that the Serious Eats voice resonated with our community.
EL: You know, and this is what I tell people, that voice is really what drives the success of any media vehicle.
EL: More than anything else, because it’s so crowded out there. If you want to do a blog on what you had for breakfast, it’s probably not going to resonate with very many people.
DP: Unless you have a very strong voice, but I also wouldn’t want somebody who was just getting started to worry that they hadn’t developed their voice. Don’t wait to develop your voice, just start writing. Start writing, write bad things, write good things, slowly, because that’s it. I mean, you could read early posts on Smitten Kitchen, they were like, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was trying to figure out what it sounded like when I talked about food, even though I’d been blogging for years, I didn’t know what I was going to sound like-
EL: That’s interesting.
DP: When I talked about food, and I was trying it out. Give yourself the space to figure it out, you will get there.
EL: Right, and it’s just exercising that writing muscle that does it.
EL: I wrote, you probably don’t know this, I wrote about music for a long time.
EL: About pop music and jazz, but you know what? I never developed my own voice, I always just ended up aping the voices of the rock critics and the jazz critics that I loved, but as soon as I started writing about food, people would say, “Oh, it’s like you’re talking to me, this is the way you talk about food.”
DP: That’s a really good way to think about it too, it’s true, if you never feel comfortable. That’s okay too, and we all start with turns of phrases and energy, like sometimes I will read something from somebody and feel re-infused with energy to write my own stuff. I think that’s fine, you know as long as you know what you’re borrowing from and how much you borrow.
EL: Right, yeah, it’s true. That’s the other thing, is you’re not afraid, you wrote a post, your most recent post was about Stella Parks, our pastry wizard.
EL: You were like, “I love the fact that I don’t have to start from scratch, so I made her Fig Newtons recipe, because Stella is awesome,” and you weren’t afraid to say, “Okay, but I changed this and I changed that,” but I didn’t think you were being critical, it was just like you were adding your voice to hers.
DP: Thank you, I actually worked, that post took me … Because I made those about eight weeks before I even put them up, it actually took me that long. I spend much longer on posts than I used to, trying to figure out how to express the respect that I have for all the work she does, while I had a little bit of problems with this and that, but they were just little things, they were like, “It is a good recipe,” and trying to like just … I won’t hit “publish” until I really feel like when I read it back, it says what I want to say, and nothing that makes me cringe. Cringing can happen later.
EL: I still cringe all the time.
DP: You know, it’s a fantastic recipe. Also that is another thing, is I really feel like there’s this, I don’t want to say it’s a “disease”, because it’s like obviously I know why this has to happen, but everybody feels like they need to invent their own Fig Newton recipe, but so often what they’re doing is they’re borrowing from existing ones. That’s maybe a bad example, because it sounds like I’m talking about this specific thing that happened and I’m not, I’m being vague because I’m being vague. The thing is that I wanted to have a place where I could show respect for … Like I’ve always wanted to make Fig Newtons, and then Stella wrote her book and I’m like, “Oh, there’s the recipe I’m going to use, I bet that this is good …”
EL: Right, but a lot of people wouldn’t have the confidence to just acknowledge that.
DP: That’s the worst thing in food, is to not talk about it. You did not invent lasagna, you did not invent pasta, like none of us did, so talk about where you learned this technique. It is a more interesting story. Write a better story.
EL: You are a really good storyteller, and that’s what also separates great food bloggers from the rest of the food blogging world. You know, I was struck by something you told the New York Times in 2012, when the interviewer asked you for the secret of your engagement with your readers, you said, “I wouldn’t say I set out to have a successful blog. I certainly didn’t set out to write a cookbook. I think sometimes if you’re coming at it saying, ‘I want to be really successful,’ it doesn’t work that way. I kind of fumbled my way into it, and I did it because I liked it, because I really enjoyed doing it, and I’d do it either way. Hopefully that comes through, and it’s not as urgent that I grow my readership or sell a lot of books. It’s just this cool thing that’s come out of it.” I was so struck by that, because that’s a lot of what I was thinking about at Serious Eats, even though I took in investor money and I did set out to become a successful business and all that, but it’s-
DP: It’s pretty smart thinking, and probably relates to the fact that you’ve had a little more life experience, and you knew that it’d help to have a business plan, you know?
EL: Right, but still, you know people say, “So, we sold the site as you know a few years ago,” it’s like, but to this day, people say, “Well, are you going to retire, like what are you going to do?” I would do the same thing that I’m doing now. I will probably be doing the same thing until they roll me out horizontally from our apartment, you know.
DP: Hopefully it’ll be quite some time, but yeah no, I know what you mean. That’s the real great luxury and luck in this world, is to find something that you would just do regardless. I do feel like that, and I mean I say I would, “If this doesn’t work, I’m going to have to get another job.” I don’t have, like not working is not an option, so then I’m like, “Well, I hope I can still fit it in in my free time,” which is exactly where I started.
EL: Yeah no, it’s true, and it’s true of you and me and so many other seminal food bloggers. It started with the fact that it’s something we love to do, and that in a way, we felt we had to do. It required a focus and it did require a voice that resonated. As you say, maybe that voice wasn’t there when you first started, but it quickly developed, at least as far as I could tell. If you resonate with your readers, it’s something you love to do, and you have a focus, and you clearly have all those three things, then it allows for the possibility of something wonderful happening.
DP: I hope so. I hope so, and I hope that can happen for somebody today too, because it’s like, you know it didn’t begin and end with me, and I just think I know that blogs sound like a very dated thing, but I always just feel like if you’re trying to get yourself out there, put yourself out there. So what if you have 10 people reading? When somebody wants a link to one of your clips, there it is.
EL: Yep, it’s totally true.
DP: I mean, yeah, I couldn’t sell this, but I think it’s a really strong piece and it should be read.
EL: Yeah, so Deb, we haven’t even gotten to your cookbooks and your web TV series.
DP: It’s okay.
EL: The further iterations of the Smitten Kitchen phenomenon. We’re going to wrap up this episode of Special Sauce, and then you and I are going to get to all that other good stuff in part two of This is Your Life, Deb Perelman.
DP: Thank you, sorry.
EL: So long, Serious Eaters, we’ll see you next time.