On a Sunday afternoon in Seattle, Jessie Oleson, 29, is on a mission to find deep-fried, handmade pies. Acting on a tip in her self-appointed role as “Cake Spy,” Oleson is going to sample these carbohydrate-laden confections incognito and then report her findings on Cakespy.com.
Oleson began the popular blog in the summer of 2007 to marry her three primary passions: writing, illustrating and baked goods. She was an art director for a refrigerator magnet company at the time, who was also busy sampling cakes for her upcoming nuptials.
“I felt like a spy tasting wedding cakes,” Oleson jokes.
“I enjoyed my job and something was being fed artistically, but I knew something was missing so I started a blog,” she adds. “I didn’t even know what a blog was!”
Oleson’s love for dessert deliciousness began long before the blog, however. According to her mom, after learning to say “mommy” and “daddy,” Oleson’s next word was “chocolate.”
“I just knew a good thing when I tasted it,” Oleson says.
Over the years, her love for baked goods evolved into something of an obsession, inspiring the idea for CakeSpy.com, which has evolved into a national sensation. In addition to being one of Gourmet’s favorite food sites in February 2011, CakeSpy.com had successfully sold retail items on Etsy before creating its own site, CakeSpyShop.com.
Most recently, Oleson opened a retail store on Pine Street when a local boutique gave her the opportunity to buy its space. The shop features gifts, gadgets and artwork by 100 or so local artists. Many of the items include the Cake Spy’s whimsical cupcake illustrations.
“These projects are an extension of myself, so it is very meaningful when people respond well,” Oleson says.
Next up for Cake Spy is a cookbook titled Recipes for a Sugar-Filled Life, to be published by Sasquatch Books this fall. Oleson says the book will include recipes she's adapted or her own 'over-the-top' recipes like Cadbury Crème Eggs Benedict.
Why have Oleson and her projects been so successful? Some, like “frantic foodie” Keren Brown, credit Oleson’s genuine personality and her sense of humor. Oleson, however, is a bit more humble.
“I want to make the world a little bit sweeter when people visit my site,” she explains. “I want to have a small impact on a lot of lives.”
In July 2004, Molly Wizenberg began her Orangette food blog to fulfill a creative yearning. Tired of writing in graduate school for professors and grant committees, she was eager to write for herself and to explore one of her passions — food.
Seven years later, the 32-year-old Wizenberg is still blogging, but now she has a husband, a successful book and a hot new restaurant.
She fell in love with food when she was 17, visiting a bed-and-breakfast in Maine where she and her family enjoyed an “over-the-top four-course breakfast.” At that point, she realized that food made her feel awake and taken care of. By the time she was a senior in high school, Wizenberg recalls, “cooking had its hooks in me.”
Wizenberg eventually left her graduate program in cultural anthropology to explore her love of food.
“I always thought it would be amazing to write for a food magazine,” an enthusiastic Wizenberg says. “A journalist friend recommended starting a blog, so it became my place to write and have fun.”
After just a year, Wizenberg noticed that traffic had grown steadily, she was being nominated for blogging awards and she was getting mentioned in the press.
She also garnered the attention of one particular reader,
Brandon Pettit, a chef from New York. He had found the Orangette blog
through a friend
who told Pettit, “This is the woman for you.”
That same year the couple opened Delancey, a cozy pizza restaurant in Seattle’s Whittier Heights neighborhood. Wizenberg says she isn’t fond of restaurant work though, so Delancey is really “Brandon’s baby.” Instead, Wizenberg focuses on literary pursuits including her next book, a memoir about opening the restaurant, which is due out in spring 2013.
Though Wizenberg didn’t have expectations when starting the blog, she takes great pleasure in hearing from readers she has inspired to cook.
“Food is an incredible lens through which to see the world,” she says. “Cooking and eating are an invitation to slow down and spend time with people we care about.”
SHAUNA JAMES AHERN
A serious food lover, Shauna James Ahern — better known as the Gluten-Free Girl — spent much of her life feeling sick, sluggish and sometimes depressed. It got so bad that she was sleeping 18 hours a day, was constantly in pain and had completely lost her appetite. Unable to enjoy meals with her family and friends, Ahern was miserable.
Her life changed in 2005 at the age of 38 when she was diagnosed with celiac disease. Caused by intolerance to gluten, its symptoms include fatigue, weight loss, gas and bloating. Following her diagnosis, Ahern went on a gluten-free diet and felt better within weeks.
“It was such a huge joy to feel better,” Ahern says.
Now at 44, she is healthier than ever and enjoying life with her husband Danny Ahern and their two-year-old daughter Lucy. She has taken that energy and funneled it into her blog, appropriately named Gluten-Free Girl. She began writing the blog daily in the midst of her diagnosis to share her thoughts and frustrations about the disease.
“I was pouring my heart out. I was mad,” she explains. “I was writing out of pure passion.”
Ahern’s writing and the blog site resonated with readers, including Danny Ahern, a chef, whom she met in April 2006. They married a year later, and the blog has become an extension of their relationship. Together they are raising their daughter, sharing stories and recipes, and recommending resources and other sites to improve the lives of others.
The blog has grown to 500,000 visitors per month and evolved into a multi-book deal. Ahern’s first book, “Gluten-Free Girl” came out in 2009. It is a memoir of Ahern’s experience with celiac disease and how she manages it. In 2010, Ahern and her husband released their first book together titled “Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef.” Named one of the year’s best cookbooks by The New York Times last year, it contains healthy, gluten-free recipes interspersed with Shauna and Danny’s love story.
“It’s work we absolutely love,” Ahern says. “We want to show people that gluten-free is not about deprivation and that you can get joy from food. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.”
She hopes to reach out to other gluten-free families and to encourage them to be creative with their meals.
She says, “Gluten-free is not a fad. It is connected to people’s health. We are eating good food.”
Alice Currah, 36, has been cooking since she was eight years old. As one of six children of working parents, Currah cooked out of necessity but she enjoyed her “freestyle” creations, making meals out of whatever the family had on hand.
Now as a wife and mother, she spends most of her time doing things for her active family. After the birth of her third child, however, Currah felt the need to do something just for herself. She started a blog, Savory Sweet Life.
“I love food and photography, so I created the blog as a place just for me,” she explains.
The blog features cooking tips and everyday recipes that anyone can try, and Currah writes in an approachable style so readers feel welcome.
“I try to write in such a way that readers know I am here for them,” she says.
She credits her success with her matter-of-fact style.
“I use what I have on hand, and a real working kitchen,” Currah explains. “I want them to come away knowing that if I can cook, they can do it too.”
In addition to writing each of the posts with step-by-step instructions, Currah also posts her own photos, a fun twist that allows her to express herself creatively in another medium.
During the blog’s first month, Savory Sweet Life drew 200 visitors, growing the next month to 2,000. Six years later, the site is getting 15,000 hits a day and is attracting attention from Real Simple, Forbes, Bon Appétit, Saveur and other magazines and websites.
As a result of all this attention, Currah has been sought after by agents and publishers interested in having her write a cookbook. Initially turning down those offers, Currah has finally embraced the idea. Her first cookbook, titled Savory Sweet Life, has a tentative publishing date of spring 2012. She is particularly proud of this opportunity, she says, because she will not only write the recipes herself, but she’ll be taking the photos as well, something that doesn’t occur often in the cookbook publishing world.
In addition to the book deal, Currah is a contributing writer for the PBS Parents Kitchen Explorers website, a role she relishes.
“There’s a certain perception that food bloggers are gourmets,” she says. “I prefer to share ideas as if we were friends.”
Currah is pleased that her blog has impacted the lives of so many others, and she loves inspiring others to cook everyday meals for their families. This is particularly important as more and more people are cooking at home and trying to eat more sustainably and locally.
“People can’t afford the luxury of eating out any more,” she
says, “so interactive food blogs are bringing readers back.”
“I’m open to whatever comes my way!”
When Keren Brown, 32, and her husband moved to Seattle in 2007, she didn’t know anyone. She was newly married and didn’t want to jump back into work. She took several months off, discovering food and the pleasure of cooking fresh, easy meals every evening. She blogged about it on FranticFoodie.com.
Still, Brown felt isolated and wanted to connect with other food bloggers. This was before social networking became popular, and it was more difficult to reach out to bloggers who sat behind computers all day, Brown says, so she created a place for them to connect. She started monthly networking gatherings called Seattle Food Blogger Events. Her first event drew about a dozen Seattle-area people interested in food. Now she has more than 200 area food bloggers and related people on her list of networkers.
As the popularity of these events grew, Brown heard from restaurants and other companies that wanted to have access to the food bloggers and participate in the events. To better meet the needs of a growing community, Brown created Foodportunity, large networking events in Seattle and Portland for “people who really love food.” In addition to food bloggers, chefs and restaurant people, farmers and other food industry people attend the events to sample dishes, discuss techniques and ask questions about food and recipe ingredients.
“It’s a really interesting platform where people who love food come together,” Brown explains. “It is unlike any other type of food networking event.”
To date, all of the Foodportunity events have sold out and Brown has become the woman to know when it comes to food in the Pacific Northwest.
“There has been a huge response to these events,” Brown says. “It feels good to do something you love and to connect with people with similar passions.”
Brown continues to host the networking events each month, and the rest of her time is spent doing event planning, ticket sales and some public relations.
“My whole life surrounds running these events,” Brown says, though she doesn’t seem to mind the flurry of activity. In fact, she loves it, says fellow blogger Shauna James Ahern, aka the Gluten-Free Girl.
“Keren seems to just thrive on this beehive of activity that is always swirling around her. Along with this, Keren seems to know everyone, and she wants to connect them all together,” Ahern says.
The frantic foodie continues her blog at the pace of two posts per week, attracting national attention. In fact, in April 2010, she was named Martha Stewart’s “Doer of the Week.” Next on the horizon for Brown is a book titled Food Lovers’ Guide to Seattle, a guide to the best bakeries, specialty shops and eateries in Seattle. Due out in May, the book contains both landmarks and new places, making it useful for locals and tourists alike.
“I see what there’s a need for, and I make it happen,” Brown says.
Dana Neuts is a freelance writer and editor based in Kent. She is also the owner and publisher of iLoveKent.net and serves on the national board of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Ingrid Pape-Sheldon photographed the bloggers in this story (see all photos in the online edition), with the exception of Alice Currah, in “The Landing,” a lovely event space operated by the restaurant Fifty North at 5001 25th Ave. NE in Seattle. www.50northrestaurant.com The photo of Alice Currah is a self-portrait.
MORE FOODIE BLOGS TO CHECK OUT
The recipe for a successful food blog is a fresh perspective, gorgeous photos, easy-to-follow recipes and crisp writing that makes the reader feel like the blogger’s new best friend. Like those profiled in this story, the women below have all mastered the craft.
TEA & COOKIES
THE PIONEER WOMAN COOKS
THIS WEEK FOR DINNER
JOY THE BAKER
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