Marisa McClellan: Food Blogger Extraordinaire ~ Food Interviews

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Marisa McClellan: Food Blogger Extraordinaire

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Marisa at Coney Island from her Flickr account.

Marisa McClellan writes Apartment 2024, does a food podcast called Fork You, and is the lead blogger at Slashfood. As if that wasn't enough, she also holds a full-time job. In this interview, she shares her path to becoming a prominent food blogger. I'd be curious to hear how other Food Bloggers out there relate to her story. As I talked with her, in some ways, I felt like I could have been talking with myself.

How did you get into blogging?

I got into blogging about a little over three years ago, in late Winter 2005. I had been reading blogs for about a year before I started one, and I was desperately unhappy in my job. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and almost the kind of person I wanted to be.

I decided that I would create a blog and write my way to figuring out what it was I wanted to do. In the process of writing the blog, I realized that what I wanted to do was write. It’s been a pretty big life-changing experience for me.

What kind of work were you doing before then?

I was working as an Administrative Assistant. My titles were things like Staff Assistant or Program Coordinator. One job was at a non-profit and then I had two different jobs at universities here in Philadelphia where I was doing support work and hated it.

It sounds like your blog was almost like a journal at first.

Basically, yeah. I moved to Philadelphia six months after graduating from college because I had this feeling like I should move. Both of my parents are originally from Philadelphia and so I have a ton of family and family history here. There I was in my early twenties when my mom had been in Philadelphia in her early twenties and my grandmother had been in Philadelphia in her early twenties and my great grandmother and even my great-great-grandmother, so this feeling of being connected to these generations of women was also something that I wrote about a lot.

Did you have a lot of the same experiences that they had?

I don’t know if "same" is the right word, but I feel like there are certain foundational coming-of-age experiences that everyone begins to have as they move along, so I feel like I had similar experiences to my mom in that we were both similar on a very sentimental sense. We were walking the same streets and experiencing the city.

Did you initially have a focus on food on your blog?

Not at all. I liked food, I was interested in food at the beginning, but my personal blog never started out as a food blog. What would happen is that as I moved along, more and more of what I wrote about was food. I became known to friends, people who read my blog, as someone who could be depended on to write interesting things about food or tell fun stories about different food items. I started carving out a niche for myself.

How did you move to writing more than one blog?

Well, the way it grew at first was I became the city captain for the Philadelphia Metblog. I was in charge of Metblogging Philadelphia. Metblogs are a world wide chain of blogs - a blogging network that focuses on different cities. I helped get the Philadelphia one started. It’s sort of fallen apart a little bit since then though.

I found myself writing a lot more about restaurants and food out in the world. Then, my friend Scott and I decided to start making a cooking podcast. That was really how things started to take off in terms of doing things on the Internet related to food.

Scott was the movie blogger for The Unofficial Apple Weblog and so he was already all hooked into WebBlogs, Inc. Last summer, I was towards the end of my grad school experience, and I was desperately needing to be making some money. I was getting a Master’s in writing and what I really wanted to be doing was food writing. He connected me up with the folks at Slashfood and they hired me and I started blogging. That’s how I got into Slashfood.

The thing that I found remarkable about that experience is that it took about two weeks before the rest of the food blogging and food writing world looked at me as a legitimate food writer. It was amazing how little it took for the world to be like, "Oh yeah. Marisa’s a food writer." Whereas, I had been struggling and striving and scheming, trying to figure out how I could convince the world that I was a food writer. It happened in about five minutes all of a sudden, which was a relief and also sort of, "Wait, that’s all it took?" It was an interesting experience.

Marisa and Scott doing a live podcast of Fork You.
Photo from Flickr user dragonballyee.

Let’s talk some more about the podcasts.

The initial process to create a pod cast started in February, 2006. It took us about three months to figure out what to call it. You never think about naming as this vital and time-consuming thing, but just figuring out what to call this thing we were creating took us forever. Finally, by sometime in May, 2006, we were like, "Okay, we’re going to call it Fork You."

We initially had thought we were going to call Peaing Soup. It’s the punch line to a joke. You can roast beef, but can you pea soup? Scott thought it was the funniest thing ever to name a podcast after the punch line to a joke. But, I determined that I couldn’t live with Peaing Soup as our name. So, we finally went with Fork You. It was about food in Philadelphia and Philadelphia can have a little bit of an attitude, so that was it.

We filmed the first half of the first episode in that summer - July, 2006. Then, it sat around and we finally finished it and got the first episode up in November, 2006. Then, oddly enough, we kept doing it. We were as surprised as anybody that we kept it going. We kept making episodes and a couple of our friends got involved to run the camera and do sound and sort of be support for it.

We had a thing in Philadelphia last summer called Blog Philadelphia, and that was the first time I ever went to anything where I was meeting people who actually watched it and who enjoyed it and it was sort of shocking. Here was this random little thing we would make in my kitchen or a friend’s kitchen and suddenly I was exposed to a whole world of people who watched it and liked what we were doing. That was really fun; it was sort of validating. This isn’t just some crazy crackpot thing that we were doing. It was actually something that people were finding value in.

We’ve just continued and we’ve tried a bunch of different formats and settled on these two different formats that we do. The two minute Quick Fork and then the standard episodes, that are never longer than ten minutes. They really look at just one or two dishes because you can’t really fit more than that in and get all the information across and keep it interesting. On the Internet, people don’t want to watch more than ten minutes. That’s really pushing it. They like it better if it’s eight.

We’ve learned a lot and we’ve actually made several cooking show podcasts for Slashfood which they paid us for (which was pretty crazy because I can now say that I’ve been paid to make food online video content). It’s turned into something that people really watch. We get about 10,000 views an episode now, which isn’t huge but it’s certainly respectable in that little wacky online world.

In the process of making Fork You and being friends and all that, Scott and I actually got together. We are living together now - that was an unexpected bonus. It’s been a really fun experience. I keep talking about wanting to do a Fork You cookbook because we’re coming up on 50 episodes now. I’ve made a lot of food for this show in the course of the last almost two years now and I think it would be really fun to pull all that together and add Scott’s humor and my recipes. But, that’s just a dream right now.

Some podcasts take longer than others - like when you have to cook a turkey.
Photo from Flickr user Blankbaby.

How long does it take you to produce a ten minute episode?

Well, it takes me brainstorming to come up with what we’re going to cook and then having to do all the shopping and the prep. That can take anywhere from two hours to five depending on what I’ve signed us up for that day. Then, we film the episode, which again varies depending what we cook. One time we made corned beef and cabbage, where there’s not a lot of active preparation, but we had to hang around for four hours as the damn thing cooked. Then, it takes Scott between two and four hours to edit. So, a ten minute episode of Fork You can take eight to ten hours, which might sound like a crazy amount of time - but we do enjoy it, so it’s not that terrible.

We also do a monthly live episode at Foster’s Homeware,a local cooking supply store. Those episodes typically take me three hours to get ready for and we film for an hour. We do the cooking show for an hour and there’s a lot of footage there, so Scott ends up spending about five hours editing it down. It’s a time commitment, but it’s also fun and interesting and has given me a really good opportunity to feel comfortable in front of cameras, in front of groups, and develop this very random skill which is cooking in front of people.

How has the live experience been for you?

It was hard at first, but it’s also been really fun. It’s exhausting. You never realize how exhausting it is to be on constantly for an hour until you do it regularly because you’re like, "Oh you know, it’s just talking. I’m just cooking." But, I actually did my very first solo cooking demonstration recently and I realized how much easier it is to do it with Scott and have someone else who I can hand the conversation to at times so that I can focus on something else. It’s really fun, though. I’ve always been someone who’s been comfortable talking in front of groups, so it hasn’t been one of those things where I’m facing fears or dealing with my demons. It’s given me newfound respect for people who do live television and who do stand-up comedy.

Have you always cooked?

I have always been interested in food. My mom hated cooking with kids. So, when I was growing up, I would beg to be around to help in the kitchen and it just wasn’t her thing. She was busy. She just wanted to be able to get dinner done and move on. So, I didn’t, as a kid, get much opportunity to cook, except when I was staying home sick from school or something. I would always grab those opportunities to experiment making things like hash browns or whatever I could find. I didn’t really start developing any skills as a cook until I moved to Philadelphia and was living on my own and really was forced to make food for myself.

I spent a lot of years looking for a creative outlet. When I found food and I found that I was good at it and it satisfied that need to be creative, I grabbed onto it and really have, ever since then.

When you were hired on at Slashfood, were you initially the lead blogger or did you get a promotion at some point?

When I was first hired at Slashfood, I was just a plain old blogger. I got promoted to be the lead blogger last November. Sarah Gim was the lead blogger and she just didn’t have the time to do it anymore so they asked me to move into the role.

What is your job as lead blogger?

My job is to coordinate the work of the team - make sure that different columns are being maintained, that everybody gets paid the right amount, that we develop new and interesting content, that the team list gets seeded with new ideas. I do a monthly, end-of-month report so the other lead bloggers and the higher-ups know what’s been happening on Slashfood. I recruit the new writers. Basically, in a lot of senses I’m responsible for the feel and direction that the site takes.
Marisa has written 94 Slashfood posts in the past 30 days!

How many people are on your team now?

There’s something like 19 or 20 people on the list on the site at the moment. But a couple people have left recently and there are some people on the team list who don’t really blog regularly, so I would say we have about ten active people. I’m waiting for three more people to join the team. We’re going through the contract process right now, which as you know can take forever.

When I first started the site, we had maybe three or four active people and it was really tough because it meant that I wrote a lot of the site. Right now, I’m writing more of the site because a lot of people have vacation or they just have other commitments and that happens. But, what I really try to do is make it so that mine isn’t the dominant voice on the blog, because that gets boring for our readers. The whole point of having a group to write is to get different perspectives, different feels, and different voices talking about food on the site.

We’re actually bringing on someone to write about beer and another who is going to be a hot sauce blogger, so he’s going to write primarily about hot sauce - which is going to be the coolest thing ever. Someone else will be writing about southern cuisines and I’ve been talking to someone to come on who will write about wine. We’re kind of going in a direction that will have more people who write less but are specialists in their fields and that way, we become even more of an authority site than we are.

How do you see Slashfood fitting into the giant world of food blogs? What role does it play?

I struggle with that sometimes because I feel like Slashfood is more of a blog in the traditional sense where places like The Kitchn or Serious Eats have become food channels. I look at what other people are doing and I start to beat myself up about it. "Oh my gosh. All these other people are doing these amazing things to their sites and we’re just still chugging along at the blog." I never know what our traffic is like in comparison with other sites, so I really don’t have any idea of how we’re doing in comparison to everybody else.

I really try to frame Slashfood in my head as a site that is trying to cover the food world, cooking and eating, and food shopping in sort of a generalist manner (even though we’re bringing in all these specialists). I see Slashfood as hitting the high points - being a site that gathers the best food from all over the Internet, all over the world, and bringing it together. I don’t know if we’re actually achieving that.

I wish we had more recipes and sort of home cooking and real cooking contests because that’s actually my first love. But, sadly, the amount we pay makes it really hard to produce that kind of content because it takes time to test a recipe or create a recipe and it’s hard to get that on a daily basis. I guess I just look at it as we’re all just doing the best we can. We were one of the original food blogs out there, so we have that to hold on to and we just keep doing our best.

How much say do you get in the direction of the blog?

I used to get more say, but we integrated with AOL Food about five months ago and it’s not that they have more say over the blogs, but there are more people to take into consideration when making decisions having to do with the blog. I can’t necessarily implement some of my wild ideas, but I’m okay with that. Mostly, because, this will sound terrible, I don’t really have time to do a lot of the really crazy and creepy stuff I’d love to be doing, mostly because in addition to being the lead on Slashfood, I have a full-time job. I don’t mind the fact that we can’t get wild and crazy, because if I said I wanted to get wild and crazy then I’d actually have to do it. With Fork You and my job and my boyfriend and friends and still trying to cook on my own and all that stuff, I’m sort of maxed out.

How much time do you spend on Slashfood in a week?

I spend as much time on Slashfood than I do on my regular job. I would say that I probably spend, between writing posts, doing reports, talking to bloggers, recruiting bloggers, communicating with the folks at AOL Food and the rest of the WebBlogs, Inc. folks, 35 hours a week if not more on Slashfood. It really could be a full-time job.

I have another job because they don’t pay enough at Slashfood for it to be a full-time job.

That’s a shame.

It’s very sad, but it is the way it is and I’m still happy to be involved in it. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish that this is what I do full-time.

What do you do full-time?

I work as a web producer for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing. I work on the site called, which is the official tourism website for the city. I write itineraries and I produce web content. Basically, I do the same stuff at my regular job that I do for Slashfood - only I’m more passionate about Slashfood.

I love Philadelphia, but I’m not in charge of anything there. With Slashfood, even though there are lots of people that work on it, in one sense, it really feels like mine. I have a great deal of ownership and so I have more passion for Slashfood than I do about my regular job, which my bosses probably shouldn’t know.

Do you not want me to print this stuff?

They’re not going to read it. It’ll be fine.

What kind of changes have you seen on Slashfood since AOL took it over? What do you think about the direction they’re giving it?

I think it’s really positive, actually. I know I said that I have to take more people into consideration, but I actually think, in the long run, taking more people into consideration makes a better website. There are more people looking out for the site trying to make it better. The team over at AOL Food couldn’t be more welcoming and warm and passionate about food, too. So, they’re fantastic.

Also, it gets us more content because they share their content with us and they get more traffic for us which is always good because more traffic means more revenue and means that Slashfood has that much more importance to the whole Weblogs network. Traffic is king when you’re working for a site that is owned by a large corporation that makes money from advertising.

Kat Kinsman is the editor over there and she’s terrific. I met her when I went up to New York for the Fancy Food Show and it was so nice to finally meet someone who I had talked on the phone with, emailed with and had worked with. She really gets it. She really cares about the site and she really cares about food. Smoking meats is one of her passions in life. When someone is so passionate about a little particular area of food, it’s impossible not to like them and understand that they’re only going to do what’s in the best interest of the site.

What’s your dream job? Where do you see all of this going?

If I could create a job for myself, here’s what it would be: I would have my own food site or I would have a site that I helped run where I had a little bit more freedom and I could do it full-time. I really would like to stay in this food blog, food writing world. I would be making some money off of Fork You and doing that full-time and writing some cookbooks and spending most of my time amidst the food content world, basically.

Basically what you’re doing now except making money?

Exactly, and not having to work the other job to have health insurance.

Does Scott also have a full-time job and work for Weblogs, Inc.?

He does. Scott left The Unofficial Apple Weblog in July and is now freelancing for Macuser and Macworld).

Do you guys ever leave your house?

When we have downtime, we don’t do much else but just sit and veg out. Most evenings, you’ll find us sitting on the couch together, both glued to our laptops. He’s working on his projects and I’m working on Slashfood. We’re watching TV as well, so we’re inundated with media. That’s how we spend our downtime, which is kind of sad.

The one thing I want to add about my ideal job is that it wouldn’t absorb my entire life. I feel like right now, with everything I do, I don’t have much in the way of downtime or true relaxation time. I do miss that. But, I feel like I’m in sort of a time where I’m building what I want and so it takes a little bit more time, a little bit more energy, and a little bit more work to get there. But, eventually, I’ll be there.

If you could interview one person about food, who would it be?

It’s going to sound really silly. I would love to talk with Deb of Smitten Kitchen someday. I have a bit of a blog crush on her site. I’ve never communicated with her. I’ve posted about her stuff. I even know people that know her but I’ve always been afraid it’d be too weird if I got in touch with her and been like, "I really like your blog."

Then I actually just started reading Real Food by Nina Planck. It’s an amazing book and so she’s another one that I would like to sit down with.


Joy the Baker said...

Such a great interview! Great job!!!

Shari@Whisk: a food blog said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this interview!

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