THE YEAR I BECAME A FOOD BLOGGER
It wasn’t until very recently that it hit me. I was in my ‘mom clothes,’ make-up-less and a little disheveled, out running errands as I might typically do on a Monday morning while the kids are in school, when I stepped into JoAnn Fabric two towns over. With a stack of fall fabric in my arms, I met with the woman at the cutting table and asked for a quarter-yard of each.
“What are you making?” she kindly asked, as they always do at the cutting table.
“Err… nothing.” I hesitate, then reply, “I use it for food photography.”
She brightens, and I can tell this isn’t a reply she hears often in the fabric store, “Oh how fun. That would be the ideal job. I love to cook.”
And then I said it, for the first time ever -in public- to a complete stranger, “I am a food blogger…” It feels strange yet familiar on my lips and echoes a bit in my head, trying to find a place to settle.
The response I got was not at all what I was expecting. Before I got the words completely out of my mouth, she stopped abruptly, eyed me closely, and said, “Wait, you’re Maya, aren’t you?! I made your Caramel Apple Pull-Apart Bread a couple of weeks ago!”
We went on to talk more, but I’m sure I became a blithering idiot at that point because I was completely stunned, caught off-guard. Utterly humbled.
That was the moment it really hit me. Food blogger, indeed.
WHY FOOD IS IMPORTANT [TO ME]
I have heard rather embarrassing stories about the tiny toddler version of myself singing, on many occasions, a captivating rendition of “Goodnight Dishes” to all of the pots and pans before closing the cupboard doors in one of my childhood kitchens in Pasadena, California. I don’t remember it, but everyone else in my family seems to. What I do remember is my grandmother’s bright kitchen in Azusa with a door-less pantry (a favorite play space of mine), big work island (at least it seemed big at the time when I would sit upon it), pea green refrigerator, and built-in nook with bench seating and table where I would eat my breakfast of hot cereal with milk, raisins, and sugar or soft-boiled eggs on toast. I remember the step stool I stood upon, the Broadway musicals playing on the old record player, the homemade yeast breads we would knead together on the countertop, and that first taste of yeasty bread dough, which to this day, I still love. Even washing the dishes in grandma’s kitchen was fun – rags and bubbles, warm water, and the clank of pans making the sweet music of things homemade.
My grandma’s cooking philosophy has always been wholesome and homemade with thriftiness and resourcefulness built in. There was never anything fussy or fancy about it, just simple, fresh food from scratch. She kept a garden outside the kitchen door. There was an enormous avocado tree where I would swing the summer days away and watch more avocados than we could ever eat drop from the branches to the ground below. I also remember fresh figs and sneakily picking all of the strawberries before they were just right. And as a special treat, a long walk to the store for a 25-cent Thrifty ice cream cone. These are some of my very best childhood memories.
But there were many other years, harder years, when I lived far away from grandma’s house and food was often scarce. We moved around often and I learned quickly – by experimentation coupled with desperation and sheer necessity – to make something out of nothing, much out of very little. I’ve heard it said that food is something we so often take for granted, until we don’t have any, and then it’s all we can think about. This is very true. There were seasons throughout my childhood when I experienced what it means to be food insecure.
More than one in six children in the United States today is food insecure, which means they do not know where or if they will get their next meal. I was one of those kids once. I could go to school with an empty stomach and no lunch, and come home to watch cooking shows on PBS (pre-Food Network) and learn how to make food I didn’t have. Food insecurity has given me a deeper appreciation for food and a much deeper awareness of those who struggle every day with hunger across the globe. There are many times when food blogging in the broadest sense of the term seems to live in stark contrast to the concerns of world hunger – to glorify food and how much of it we have, while turning a blind eye to those who need it most. I struggle with this tension every day, because I understand it, because I’ve lived it. And I hope to be a blogger who can help change it.
I’d like to give a special word of thanks right here to all the people who noticed me when I was a hungry kid and who shared what they had with me, although most of them will probably never read this. Because it matters. Because it makes a difference. Truly.
I knew very early on, although I couldn’t fully articulate it, that I wanted to grow up to be a woman who feeds people as an act of love, that I wanted to have a family and friends who gathered around a table, around food made with my hands. The hope is that somehow, providing for people in that very basic, consistent way, would make them feel valued and significant, connected and nourished. Food blogging has become an extension of that desire, to be there for my readers in a consistent way, and give them means to extend love and hospitality and good food to all of their family and friends – and thereby I get to feed more and more people every day vicariously through each of you.
A FEW THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT ME
- I’m short. Have-to-hop-on-the-countertop-to-reach-the-top-shelf short. 5 feet, 1 inch (and that one inch is generous). I prefer to be called “fun size.”
- I was born in Hawaii. The dark cutting board I use most prominently in my food photography was handmade by my mother, who passed away earlier this year, out of Hawaiian woods. Her signature is engraved on the back.
- I dance in the kitchen… regularly. Often. Oh yes. This is embarrassing.
- Almost all of the dishes, pots, pans, utensils, glasses, etc. in my kitchen were provided by our church family because we sold all of our kitchen stuff when we made the move from California to Alaska. Our kitchen was well-stocked when we arrived. Our church is amazing.
THE NITTY GRITTY DETAILS
On to the numbers. I’m not a numbers person. Never have been. But, Pastor Alaska is. And he assures me that many of my readers are as well and would care deeply to see the hard facts about Alaska from Scratch’s first year. I hope he’s right, because I certainly don’t put this out there to brag, but rather to say thank you and to celebrate. Because these numbers all represent a reader, a recipe-maker, a friend. And for each of you, near and far, I am truly grateful.
Fall 2011 – 7,392 pageviews
Winter 2012 – 60,882 pageviews
Spring 2012 – 210,883 pageviews
Summer 2012 – 314,838 pageviews
Number of Pageviews (all-time, 12 months): 593,995
Number of Pageviews (last 30 days): 148,413
Top 10 Cities: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, Seattle, Houston, Washington D.C., Denver, Anchorage
Top 5 Countries: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany
Number of Countries/World Territories to Visit Alaska from Scratch this Year: 186
Number of Posts Published: 228
TO ALL THE BLOGGERS AND WOULD-BE BLOGGERS OUT THERE
A note about numbers. You can’t obsess over them. Don’t allow the bad days to get you down. And you can’t allow the good days to change you, either. The first time one of my posts went viral, I was terrified. I came home from church like any other Sunday last spring and found my inbox exploding with emails, my traffic was through the roof, and all of my social media was going berserk. I was extremely excited, but extremely overwhelmed. I imagined that this is just a glimpse of what every hour looks like for bloggers like The Pioneer Woman and shuddered.
Suddenly I began to become very intensely aware of the thousands of people who might care about what I put on my grocery list as if they were all looking over my shoulder and I started to unravel. When I truly took in the numbers, put faces to them, considered the sheer depth and breadth of it all, it had the potential to change me. It would be easy to allow myself to be influenced by trying to please the masses and to keep up with all the popular trends, but then I would slowly no longer be me and no longer be the person behind the Alaska from Scratch that all these thousands people have come to love. I had to stay grounded. And there will be times when you will, too. And so, I hold my numbers at an arms length. I peek at them, I thank God for them, and try my hardest to go about my day-to-day life despite them.
I hesitated to include blogging advice here, because after all, I’ve only been doing this for a year and there are many other more-experienced bloggers out there. But, since you’ve asked, I am happy to share some of the tidbits I’ve learned over the past twelve months.
-I didn’t enter into food blogging with a desire to make any money or to become popular or to compete. If you are considering becoming a blogger for these reasons, don’t. Your readers will pick up on it and you’ll get burnt out. You should blog because it’s a natural extension of who you are and because you love to do it. Whether money or popularity come, they should be perks, not motivators. This is a tough industry out of which to make a career. It absolutely does happen, but you have to have the love of blogging and your subject matter to get you and your readers through the long haul.
-Post consistently and often. This is important while you’re getting established as a blogger. Of course, quality trumps quantity. Don’t publish a throw-away post just to put something out there. Consistently post quality material on a schedule, so there becomes a rhythm for you and your readers. Resist the urge to post things as soon as you write them, at any time of day or night. Try to schedule your posts to be published at the same time every time. I often schedule my posts to go live at midnight Alaska time, so they’re up and ready when the East Coast wakes up in the morning (4 hours ahead of me). If I posted at 8pm, a good deal of the country would be sleeping and if I waited until I got up in the morning, it would be halfway into the day for many of my readers and I would have missed their morning internet traffic. In the same way, I have a rhythm with how I publicize my posts on social media and sharing sites, respond to emails and comments, etc. This takes planning and discipline, but it’s worth it. Your readers need to know they can count on you to show up.
-Create community. I launched my Alaska from Scratch Facebook page, Twitter, and Pinterest accounts in the middle of February, four months after I began my blog. In hindsight, I would have done it sooner, probably two months in. Early on, I felt that I wasn’t entitled to begin publicizing my blog on social media (other than my personal accounts with friends I already had) until I was better established as a blogger. However, I now know that those social media outlets are a huge means to becoming better established. Get connected, find your audience, and create a community of readers and fellow bloggers. Genuinely care about what your readers like and dislike, ask them questions, respond to their comments and concerns, and interact with them daily. Share inspiring tips, photos, other sites you love, and insight into your day-to-day life with your fans.
-Ah, photos. I love them. They are vital. With the massive growth of image-based sites like Pinterest and Instagram, photos are king. Take beautiful and inspiring photos and share, share, share them. I wrote an article about Food Photography here.
-Do your research. Get to know your subject matter more every day. Watch t.v. shows, read other blogs, magazines, books, and be familiar with the current trends in your field. Allow yourself to be inspired and educated and then share that inspiration and information with your readers, while remaining true to yourself and your point of view. Grow and your readers will grow with you.
-Get an excellent web developer or become one (or you could marry one like I did). There is so much that goes into the backend of a blog, from the design, to the maintenance, to the Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Alaska from Scratch wouldn’t exist without the very hard and dedicated work of Pastor Alaska at Streamline Web Design.
-Search. Engine. Optimization. – I could easily title my posts “The Moose That Made Me Late for Church and What We Ate Afterward” and probably get a good laugh from my readers. But, the delicious recipe for Black Bean Chili tucked away at the bottom of the post will be lost forever because no one is ever going to Google “The Moose that Made Me Late for Church” especially when looking for a recipe. Also, while you may have made The Most Amazing Fabulous Gorgeous Nutella Brownies Ever, you’re better off titling the post Nutella Brownies and then gushing all about how amazing they are within the post. Keep your titles simple so that people can find your site through search engines.
-Mr. Typo and Mrs. Grammatical Error are not your friends. Yes we all make mistakes, especially when we’re writing thousands of words a week. However, chronic typos and grammatical errors can send your readers elsewhere. Be sure that you’re taking the time to edit, proofread, and spellcheck.
-Join an ad network or blogging community. I highly, highly recommend BlogHer. Find a network relevant to your field and get cozy.
-For food bloggers specifically, I have read and highly recommend Food Blogging for Dummies by the fabulous Kelly Senyei. I have corresponded with her on a few occasions and she really is lovely.
-See the I’ve Got Nothing But Love For You section below for sites that have been instrumental for me.
Have more questions about blogging? Your questions are always welcome via comment or email.
THE “I’VE GOT NOTHING BUT LOVE FOR YOU” SECTION
1. Pastor Alaska – he was the very first one who encouraged me to become a food blogger. And he was relentless. When I was convinced I didn’t have anything new to offer the blogosphere, he told me otherwise. He is also my outstanding web developer who makes the website possible and my hard-working taste-tester as well.
2. My three kids – who inspire me to cook every day with love and challenge me by being picky and fickle at the table.
3. Our church family – who invited us to Alaska and who love us and support us every single day. It is a privilege to pastor such an amazing community.
4. My friends and family who read Alaska from Scratch from the very beginning and spread the word.
6. To all those who have featured Alaska from Scratch (including but not limited to): ZipList, Gourmet Live, Huffington Post, Yahoo Shine, Heidi Klum, Foodgawker, Tastespotting, Tasteologie, Serious Eats/Photograzing, Tasty Kitchen, The Kitchn, Yummly, Foodista, Hellocotton, Cooking Channel, Cooking Club of America, and StumbleUpon.
Well, this brings the year I became a food blogger to a close. It’s been an incredible year. Thank you for being a part of it. Here’s to the next chapter. Alaska from Scratch is here to stay.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,” – Matthew 25:35