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11 years of food blogging – 11 things I’ve learned

February 3, 2021

Sally in Baku

Sitting at my computer, I’m breathless with excitement. Something has dawned on me and it is so compelling that I must to do it immediately. Going to wordpress.com I set up a new blog, choose a theme and click on the ‘new post‘ button. But what should I write? I have no direction, no focus, no purpose; I just know it has to be about food.

That was 11 years ago today. Why did I start My Custard Pie in such a flurry? I’d discovered a world of fascinating food blogs online and wanted to be part of it. That’s the short version.  I had a point and shoot camera and a lot of enthusiasm but that was it. How and why I’m still going 11 years later is much more complicated. Something started on a whim without any real rhyme or reason has changed my life in ways I could never have imagined.

But first, regardless of how long you’ve been reading, I want to thank you for being part of the last 11 years. I wish it was possible to pour you a cup of tea, cut you a slice of cake to let you know how grateful I am.

There is so much going on in this online world, there is so much competition for our time and energy but this little corner of the internet has been a constant source of peace, calm, pleasure, excitement and discovery for me and I feel so fortunate that you’re here to share it.

The other things I’d like to share are a few lessons I’ve learned over the last 11 years. It’s definitely a journey and I don’t think there will ever be an ending. Taking this time to look back has made me so grateful and slightly amazed at all that this blog has brought me. So this is about the story so far but also how to prepare for going ahead too:

People who like good food are nice people

I’m digging into a slice of cake that’s deep purple. As my fork cuts through the fluffy cream, its maker explains that the natural colour is due to a yam called ube in the Philippines. Our lives are very different, we live on opposite sides of the city, come from opposite sides of the world, but this cake has connected us. We’ve formed Fooderati Arabia which unites food bloggers in Dubai of all ages and nationalities. We explore so many experiences together over several years, including this afternoon in a cafe sharing homemade cake.

When I wrote my first blog post, in isolation behind a screen, I never dreamed how many people would come into my life. Online and in person, very many of them have become close friends. Meeting people with a shared passion gives immediate common ground especially when it’s around something that can be shared in so many ways.  From exchanging recipes, to sitting round a restaurant table, it’s the generosity and openness of spirit; I joined a community of food lovers around the world. That wonderful connection is a driving force – because the joy comes from people to share our thoughts, opinions, recipes, experiences, successes, disasters and enjoyment of delicious things.

Success means different things to different people

Food blogging was an experience rather than something with an end goal when I started out in 2010. These were exciting times as things started to evolve in a whole new online world of voices and opinions. Many of us wanted to learn more about this fascinating and rapidly changing digital means of expression. We had a desire to improve our skills whether it was in food photography and styling, cooking, recipe writing, the tech side of blogging or all of these things.

As blogging became more recognised and established, some stepped out from the crowd. They became food photographers, stylists, published cookbooks, founded review sites, worked for food magazines, moved on to careers in radio and TV.

The internet is now awash with advice about how to create a successful i.e. very profitable, food blog (or Instagram/YouTube/TikTok). Much of the advice is the same, narrowed down to what will get traffic and followers, and there are so many blogs out there that also look the same.  I’m not criticising the aim of making money in any way but it seems that aiming towards a single benchmark of success can overshadow the less lucrative, but just as valuable, benefits of sharing your passion for food online.

Enjoy the journey

So I’m probably a bit nostalgic for those early days when we wanted to improve our skills but profit wasn’t the primary motivating factor……and it was fun! And carries on being fun.

As I take this time to look back over my old posts… the really old stuff… I can see eagerness, simplicity, openness (even if I cringe at the quality). There have been so many special moments, events and opportunities over the last eleven years that, without prompts, all blends into one. The thing that does stand out is the amount of joy and laughter.  It’s important to remembering how magical this is because….

Find inspiration not comparison

I’ve beaten myself up so many times about not achieving things that others did. Seeing many friends take beautiful food photos while I still struggled to get there. Reading blogs where the amount of posts published were overwhelming in quality and quantity. In recent years Instagram has ramped this up considerably with the perfect creations that ooze from the feed.

“We’re very good at self-criticism in this country (UK). Indeed, I’d say that as a nation we suffer from a crippling dose of insecurity.” Mariella Frostrup.

How this resonates, but I now have some better ways to deal with it:

Limiting how much I consume of the type of online content that makes me feel envious, daunted (i.e. I could never achieve that) or out of my league.

Do I really want to emulate that content at the end of the day? Is that a priority of what to do with my time and energy?  Is this really my kind of style anyway? It’s easy to get sucked into a ‘cookie cutter’ trend. I remind myself to do the best that I can with the resources around me.

Instead I visit sites and accounts that make me feel joyful and at ease and follow people who I have a lot in common with or relate to.

Looking for inspiration in totally unrelated places. If I’m getting overwhelmed by it all I go for a walk, reach for a book or, in times before lockdown, go to an art gallery, museum or interesting building.

Instead of looking at my phone when I wake up I keep a pile of books with different artists’ work by the side of my bed. If I immerse myself in one of these, even for five minutes, it sets the tone for the rest of the day and gives me impetus.

Creating something in a totally different way. Splashing about with watercolour paint, trying calligraphy, tearing up paper into a collage, making loose sketches of ordinary things or making something like bread or pasta that involves getting my hands into dough. This takes my brain to a different place.

Do what’s right for you

When I bought a dining table for my new home in Dubai in 2000, it had to be circular so everyone around it could join in the banter and discussions. I started blogging because I wanted to be a part of the conversation about food, and I wanted to spark some of my own too. Sitting at my desk right now I’m imagining us all at one big virtual dinner party around that well-worn round, wooden table.

The blogging model is about ‘influence’ now, being an authority on something and building a tribe. That tribe is full of people who hang off your every word, buy your courses, learn from your wisdom, covet your merchandise.  This works for some people and I’m a loyal fan of some who inspire me. I think they are happy being at the head of a long rectangular table sharing their wisdom or opinions. I’m more comfortable exchanging ideas with my community so we can find out what works for us together.

As for paying the bills as a consequence of food blogging, my opportunities came in a slightly different way. Improving my own content and growing my online platforms meant that several food businesses got in touch.  They wanted my advice and expertise to do the same for their operations. So My Custard Pie became a shop front, in a way; demonstrating a track record and building trust (that my CV in marketing communications did not achieve). So quietly, behind the scenes, I’ve been advising, creating content and managing digital strategies for artisan food businesses for many years now. Believing in their products is important for me, to deliver something authentic; essential for their success and it taps into that driving force that got me started over a decade ago.

The niche alternative

‘Find your niche’ is the holy grail of all advice for blogs now. If you narrow down and become an authority in that particular area you will have a better chance of success.

Back to the definition of success again. There’s been an explosion of vegan food bloggers/Instagrammers as more people are eating plant-based food and a few have gained a massive following.

Personally, I may dip into these sites randomly when looking for a recipe but the ones that have been constant favourites over many years are less easy to define. For example:

Smitten Kitchen – homecooking recipes (too broad a topic to be a niche)

David Lebovitz – home baking recipes (ditto)

Ms Marmite Lover – “This is my food and travel blog, with recipes, reviews and travel stories. I also stray into politics, feminism, gardening.”

It’s their unique voices, styles of writing, personal perspectives and refusal to be anything other than themselves that sets them apart. They are their own niche.

Readers expect some consistency – nuclear physics one week and jazz artists the next might be a stretch – but knowing what you stand for is more important in my opinion.

With Deb from Smitten Kitchen and David L. it’s their wry sense of humour and the meticulous testing of their recipes. Kerstin gives you a very honest view, and is not afraid to be controversial.

Things will change

In 2010 I had two school children at home, two dogs, juggling freelance work with taxi driving said children all over Dubai (and the traffic was horrendous then). I was cooking for a family that behaved like Masterchef judges (including one fussy vegetarian) and buying from the few supermarkets available. Over that time work changed, the children grew up and left, I travelled a lot more, artisan food producers and an organic farmers’ market were established, I was cooking for two (just one Masterchef judge), I could cycle to get my food from local shops.

In the last decade climate change has become climate crisis, and the entire food system (from agriculture, pesticides, food miles, packaging etc) has a massive impact.

It’s when I follow my instincts, rather than worrying about whether a blog post or content is out of kilter, that it seems to strike a chord with people. Plus I sleep better at night.

Say yes to everything then learn how and when to say no

Yes and No

The first time our little gang of food bloggers were invited to something we were very excited. It was the opening of a pizza restaurant by a slightly alternative brand. We took it very seriously, ate the free pizza, interviewed the founder, discussed and made a record of our opinions and I diligently wrote it up in a blog post.

After that there were a couple more invites, then some more, then it started to snowball. They weren’t all of the pizza kind. Dubai is a city with over 11,000 restaurants and 100 plus 5 start hotels many with several high end dining places inside. Some of the invites were to dine out, some for cooking sessions with their chefs – some with famous ones, others to special events. All of them sounded fantastic and I accepted them with excitement and gratitude. There was a couple of years that passed in a blur as I was going out so much. I don’t expect sympathy, but I was exhausted. Some of the blog posts I wrote then are exhausting to read too – but are they interesting or relevant now? Accepting all the invites was taking me away from what I really loved about food – simple ingredients, artisan producers, home cooking, traditional recipes from a range of cultures. It taught me a lesson – I can’t say the hard way as it was a huge privilege. I began to refuse everything unless it really intrigued me, fitted with what I was really interested in, or I thought would be good to write about.

Yes

Saying yes to things that scare you is something I’ve learned the benefits of – although it often didn’t feel like it at the time.

Sara Tasker says “I’m an introvert in real life, but an extrovert online. I’ve made that category up, but I reckon it’s a thing. Who can relate?”

I certainly can and I never counted on stepping out from behind my screen to do cookery demos in real life, on video and Instagram live; be a regular guest on radio, interview some revered celebrities and culinary icons; be part of expert panels and moderate a discussion between some imminent names in the restaurant world and many other, frankly terrifying, things.

This hasn’t always gone smoothly, but little by little I’ve got better at leaving the sanctuary of my screen, testing myself and developing new skills.

No

Paid collaborations between brands/companies and bloggers was slow to start in Dubai. In food, big brands had the budgets when it happened and this is at complete odds with my whole food, artisan, sustainable, down to earth ethos. When I’ve considered some proposals which might be feasible I’ve felt uneasy so knew I had to refuse. Payment shouldn’t change whether or not I’d endorse something. If I erode the trust you put in me I’m on a slippery slope. Occasionally the stars have aligned and it’s been fun to work on a project with something I use in my kitchen already. For me, sticking to my principles is vital, and while sometimes it’s hard, this is the most important place to be firm on saying no.

Nerves are a good thing

My pulse quickens, there’s a feeling of butterflies in my stomach and slight dread.  This happens before everything I do for My Custard Pie. Every blog post, article, Instagram post, photography session, Facebook post, interview – everything. It’s sometimes hard to overcome (hello procrastination) but I’m compelled to push on and do it anyway.

Quoting Katie Piper “I don’t get obsessed with nerves and eliminating nerves, because it’s really important to have that little bit of adrenalin, to have some butterflies, to be present and be quite excited with some nervous energy, enjoying that moment, because I think when that’s gone, that’s when you know it’s time to give up that part of your life because you’ve lost the love” (interviewed by Viv Groskop on this podcast) ”

If My Custard Pie ever disappears you’ll know that the butterflies have flown!

Progress not perfection

This is something I’m still working on and is my mantra for 2021. It’s learning to press publish on a blog post when it’s ‘good enough’. It’s taking many different pics with alternative layouts and food styling using my iPhone rather than spending ages agonising over one image. It’s sharing every day experiences rather than waiting for special events. It’s doing something in the time I have available instead of waiting for the ‘right time’. It’s being brave, taking a leap of faith and saying I will do this (rather than think ‘I might fail’ or ‘this might not work.’

And back to comparison again, it’s about forgetting how everyone else is doing, and giving yourself a pat on the back for how far you’ve come. Looking back on my shaky pics, wobbly writing and wildly varying subject matter of when I started out I think I can see some improvement, one small step at a time.

Your entire life can change course because of a split-second decision

So back to the beginning in that slightly crazy moment when I unleashed some thoughts into the world. I stepped into a world of delicious possibilities that’s taken me so many places.

I’m deeply grateful that you chose to be here, to savour this food-focussed journey with me.

38 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2021 11:39 pm

    How very true: people that love food are usually super nice… and blogging helps you making tons of great connections and friendships you would have never imagined !

    • February 5, 2021 3:40 pm

      I never anticipated this when I started out but the people it’s brought into my life has been amazing.

  2. February 4, 2021 12:03 am

    oh my god thanks so much for mentioning me and my blog. I started in 2008 so I guess it’s been 14 years for me.
    You’ve consistently been supportive of my work and I REALLY appreciate it.
    I don’t blog as often as I did. I’ve lost my mojo a bit during lockdown. But I think my stories go a bit deeper now.

    lots of love to you Sally

    • February 5, 2021 3:39 pm

      I’m still a massive fan Kerstin – I can’t express it all in one comment and inspirational is such an overused word, but you do inspire me. Your honesty and integrity for one – I’ll never forget you speaking at Food Blogger Connect and of sponsorship you said ” you don’t want to be working for ‘the man'”! You cut through all the hype in that one sentence 🙂 I so regret that I didn’t make it to the Supperclub.

  3. February 4, 2021 1:14 am

    Happy 11th blog birthday, Sally! I love your writing style and you’ve raised some really good points here. Look forward to meeting you in person one day hopefully.

    • February 5, 2021 3:33 pm

      Thank you so much Kacie – and wouldn’t that be great. I really hope we can meet somewhere over a cup of tea at least.

  4. February 4, 2021 3:57 am

    Love love love this post! And may I say that it was your wonderful blog that I discovered via the Fooderati forum that inspired me hugely to start mine around 2011.Love your blogging journey over the years! Congrats on this blogging milestone!
    we have all come a long way since the first blog post and I still have miles to go…but then one can never stop learning and discovering right!
    Enjoy your years ahead and cheers to good food and cooking and laughter and writing…

    • February 5, 2021 3:32 pm

      So glad we met through food originally and then got to know each other over food, and now keep in touch via food-related things Shy. Really, really appreciate your lovely words. And yes never stop learning – I definitely need and want to keep on discovering and improving

  5. February 4, 2021 8:13 am

    Congratulations, Sally! I share many of thoughts and have never tried to find a niche – ‘food’ and ‘travel’ covers pretty much anything with imagination! – as I enjoy writing about different things. Blogs should be fun and for me it’s writing about things I’m passionate about. I’ve made friends and had so many wonderful experiences through blogging. Your blog is brilliant and always such a great read with amazing photos and fun and interesting information. May you long continue!

  6. February 4, 2021 8:24 am

    Dear Sally, this was wonderful to read! We first met through Fresh from the oven challenges and I am so grateful for meeting you. I stopped blogging when I became pregnant, food was just making me sick. But I still read you and every time I read your stories it’s like meeting and being with a friend around the world.
    One of my new year’s resolutions is to start my blog again, just because meeting different people through it was making me happy.
    Happy anniversary to you and many happy returnings of the day!

    • February 5, 2021 3:26 pm

      So lovely to hear from you Silvia. The Fresh from the Oven challenge was were I met so many people online who I’m still in contact with. It was so exciting! Let me know if you get back to blogging again – I do hope so. And thanks for your kind words.

  7. February 4, 2021 1:28 pm

    Congratulations on 11 wonderful years of being wonderful you, Sally! When I joined Fooderati Arabia in Dubai, it was the first time I had lived some place where I made friends with fellow food bloggers in person. What a joy it was to connect with others who loved food and writing about food!

    I wish you – and look forward to – many, many more happy years of My Custard Pie!

    • February 5, 2021 3:24 pm

      We had some great times didn’t we Stacy. I’ve always been inspired by your incredible blog. You must have been going for over a decade and posting your recipes 2-3 times a week. Definitely a sign of passion about cooking and food. Congratulations

  8. February 4, 2021 3:27 pm

    Congratulations on 11 blogging years! I love the observations, especially that the food bloggers out there are such nice people! Penpals from around the world. XX

  9. February 4, 2021 5:17 pm

    Congratulations!!

  10. Tricia Evans permalink
    February 6, 2021 7:57 am

    I LOVE this post Sally – as ever it is interesting, thought-provoking & just a well-written great read.

    • March 3, 2021 3:47 pm

      Tricia – thank you so much. You are such an inspiring person that this means a lot.

  11. kavitafavelle permalink
    February 7, 2021 12:10 pm

    You started just a few months before me in the same year and each of your lessons learned really resonates, especially the first about how many wonderful people blogging about food and travel brings into your life. I agree too that whilst blogging is a valid and very successful career for many, it sometimes seems that the world has forgotten that it is still ok to enjoy it a as a wonderful passtime, for the joy of writing, of photography and of sharing content. One of the issues with the advice to niche down is that it limits me on the content I am drawn to create — so whilst I know it would increase traffic, it would also reduce some of the pleasure I have found in the array of topics I cover now. But it’s the best advice for those who want to create not only beautiful blogs but financially successful ones also.

    • March 3, 2021 3:47 pm

      The wonderful thing about blogging and the online world is that it’s continually changing so maybe a wider view of the world through the lens of things that we’re passionate about could be more lucrative in the future, as well as rewarding in itself. Who knows – but it’s interesting to anticipate 🙂

  12. What's Katie Doing? permalink
    February 7, 2021 12:23 pm

    Great summary of a long time blogging! Your comment about being true to you and deciding when to say no really resonated with me. My blog started with less focus and now I know where I want to head with it, but then covid stopped that plan! So pivoting to what is still true to me and still helpful to readers has been a learning curve.

    • March 3, 2021 3:44 pm

      That’s so interesting to hear Katie. I think the challenges of lockdown and the impact of COVID issues on my life has helped me to reassess things in a way too. I don’t think I could see them as clearly as before.

  13. February 7, 2021 1:14 pm

    Congratulations on 11 years of such an inspirational blog. I love how you’ve written about the evolution – it definitely resonates!

    • March 3, 2021 3:43 pm

      Thank you so much – and I love being transported to your rural idyll every time I visit your beautiful blog.

  14. February 8, 2021 2:14 pm

    Happy 11 years Sally! What a wonderful and thoughtful post, much of which really resonated with me. I am approaching my SEVENTEENTH (!) blog anniversary and like you, started on a whim with no strategy and no niche and precious little clue! But I was super excited to have a platform and if you had told me in 2004 what opportunities and friendships my blog would bring, I would have struggled to believe you. Despite the blogging world having changed almost immeasurably, it remains a pleasure to create and to connect with like-minded people like yourself. Here’s to the next 11 years!

    • March 3, 2021 3:42 pm

      17 years! That’s amazing Jeanne. So so grateful to have met you and shared some of that journey with you. I did have a family website on a Google platform that I forget the name of – it’s where I cut my teeth on the html you needed then and posted my first recipes. I uploaded a breaking egg gif – I was so proud of myself!

  15. Dreywebsiteconsultants permalink
    February 9, 2021 7:08 am

    Super nice article

  16. davidlebovitz permalink
    February 16, 2021 8:48 am

    Thanks so much for your kind words Sally! Yes, blogging has changed so much in recent years. It was (and is) interesting meeting people from around the world and learning about different cultures, and sharing them amongst us and readers. A lot has happened since then but nice that there is still a sense of community. Congrats on 11 years!

    • March 3, 2021 3:40 pm

      Thank YOU David for this kind comment. You are at the centre of such a loyal community and this demonstrates why.

  17. February 17, 2021 1:39 am

    Contragulations!! Found you through David Lebovitz 🙂 I think many of your observations apply to general life advice too, and I needed them today!

    • March 3, 2021 3:37 pm

      Welcome and I’m so glad that it struck a chord Satowa. It’s great when something resonates – I know I derive many positive things when reading other people’s blogs.

  18. March 8, 2021 4:39 pm

    What a wonderful story and congratulations on reaching the 11 year milestone! I’m hitting 9 years this June and like you, started something on a whim with very little idea how much it would shape my life, my friends, my experiences as it grew.

    I love what you do – here’s to the next 11 years! x

    • March 9, 2021 1:01 pm

      Thank you so much Alex. Huge admirer of everything you do. Hopefully we can meet in person once all this over and share a cuppa.

  19. April 8, 2021 6:34 pm

    Such an amazing blog post!!! Very great facts!💖💖💖💖

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