Judy Jackson is a cookbook writer, a novelist, a blogger and a grandmother to 12 children. When she contacted me in late June, I was in the middle of gathering cooking blogs, as part of yet another attempt at Using My Kitchen More. Interviewing a blogging grandmother, something I had never done before, also promised to be an interesting angle.
When Judy sent me the photos to illustrate this blog entry, she wrote that they demonstrated her blogging philosophy: exquisite food that looks good, showing that much of it is easy and humour.
Below, she shares further insight on the rules of food writing for print and digital, how publishing is a family adventure and a list of her favourite cookbooks.
Why did you decide to start a blog as an extension of your books?
I didn’t decide. When I was writing books and sending articles to newspapers, I’d never heard of Tumblr. One of my grandsons suggested it and I agreed, saying “yes I’ll do it once a week.” “’No” he said. “It’s got to be every day.” So I just got started and after putting up a daily post and photo for a couple of years, the blog suddenly took off and I got thousands of followers.
How do you choose what you write about?
I write about food I love and things I know. I’ve been in the food-writing world for years and in that time I have experimented with all kinds of ingredients. Now that I don’t need to pitch ideas to editors, I can choose to feature a pile of éclairs I’ve made for a party or two round courgettes and some chive flowers.
Do you plan your articles in advance?
I work on about ten posts at a time. Sometimes they have a theme, other times each one is completely different from the next. I take care to alternate sweet and savoury dishes, and I include a lot of vegetarian ideas. I try to include something topical and I also like to be provocative, for example making niggling comments about Brussels sprouts or cottage cheese.
I plan in advance, so I can spend a concentrated period working and thinking about the blog - it also allows me to go away for some days and know that the posts will go up automatically every day.
Who do you write for?
Anyone who likes fresh and appealing looking food. Probably my audience is those who don’t have much time or space to cook. I take a lot of care with the photography, sometimes taking 30 shots to get the one I eventually put up. That’s what brings people to the blog - the pictures, first and foremost.
What’s your process for the photos?
I cook and set up the dish and pay a lot of attention to co-ordinating colours on a plate. I try to work in natural daylight, though this isn’t always easy in the winter months in London. I use a tripod and I enjoy ‘styling’ the shot. I have many props: interesting containers, fabrics, etc. I often photograph what we are eating for dinner. This annoys my long-suffering husband, Michael, since I call him into the kitchen and then say “Hang on, you can’t eat it yet. I have to take pictures first.” I can’t have him disturb the plate till I know the photo has worked!
How is writing about recipes online different from writing for a book?
Firstly, a book has to have a theme. I wrote a book in the early days when microwaves became popular and every recipe had to have steps done with a microwave. This was limiting (and sometimes laughable) but you need to fit in with what the commissioning editor wants.
With a blog, you have the tremendous freedom to write what you want. This is also a danger - there is no editor checking your work. But the recipes HAVE to be precise. They must work. I take great care either to describe the steps in the body of the post (if it’s something short) or give a link to a video or the best description I know.
You’re on a mission to show cooking is easy. How does your blog fit in with that?
I don’t believe most cooking is complicated. You need some basic skills and with cakes, you need to be meticulous in following the recipe because the balance of eggs, sugar, butter etc. is crucial to the way a cake turns out. With soups it’s quite the opposite: you can improvise, leave out what you don’t like and pile in what you do like.
My style of cooking doesn’t use a large number of ingredients: I think long lists are very daunting. That’s why I don’t feature Indian or Thai dishes - they need a completely different skill. I also happen to enjoy food where one or two tastes stand out, rather than adding numerous herbs or spices. For example, I love mint, but would never put it with coriander and parsley all together.
On the blog I always say if something is time-consuming or difficult to make, but I put it in anyway because bread, brioche, choux pastry, puff pastry are all things which to me, are worth the effort. But to balance this, there are far more dishes showing how you can put together a meal in minutes, or how to deal with unusual fruits or vegetables.
Aside from Tumblr, you are present on Twitter and Facebook. How do you put together your social media strategy?
I’m not that active on Twitter. I have very little to say that can be communicated in 140 characters. Also I love reading, but have little time for the stream of tweets that come in. I’d much prefer to spend 15 minutes reading fiction than half an hour catching up on social media.
Facebook is different: my posts go automatically there from Tumblr. But I don’t use Facebook socially. If I want to communicate with my friends and family I much prefer to send them private notes or pictures, rather than let the whole world know what I’m thinking.
Why move from cookbook writing to novel writing?
Seven years ago I was inspired to write the true story of my great grandfather. He lost his whole family in an earthquake in 1837 and I started to research and write about his life. Then I had a 30-year gap in the story, so I took the bold (some will say unwise) step of turning the book into a novel, which is called The Camel Trail. I totally loved writing it; I couldn’t wait to get down to my computer at 7 am every day. This book did have a link to food. Each chapter opened with an extract from an antique cookbook. Because of this it was entered in a World Gourmand competition and to my amazement it won the Best Food Literature book in 2007. That was so thrilling. I started my next novel about a year after that. It was originally called Trio, and went through many stages of rewriting and restructuring. Now it’s called Sextet and just before it was published it was chosen to be launched in London as one of ‘ten outstanding books.’ So this was my second piece of good luck and, I suppose, an endorsement of all the hard work I’d put into it. I think I’ve got carried away with the joy of having a potentially successful book out there. I lost a much-loved watch at the book launch and have replaced it with one I designed myself. What’s on the face? The word Sextet, of course!
Who and what are your biggest food writing influences?
The first one was Marguerite Patten. When I got married in 1961, my mother gave me her Cookery in Colour. I still refer to it when I want to check the quantities in pancakes, biscuits, sauces etc. She is a wonderful lady and some years ago she gave me an endorsement for one of my cookbooks A Feast in Fifteen Stories.
I am an admirer of Raymond Blanc. I love his presentation of classic French cuisine. Nigella Lawson has cleverly reinvented baking. She took classic cake recipes and she made them more appealing. People forget that cakes didn’t get invented for The Great British Bake Off. Its presenter Mary Berry wrote a book called The New Cake Book in 1989. Cakes haven’t changed much since then but now they are presented in novel ways to a younger audience who have never heard of the originals. Still on sweet things, the Roux brothers are masters of Patisserie. I once gave a one-to-one cookery class to a lawyer who wanted to learn how to cook. At the end of a week I asked him to choose any recipe he wanted to do. He chose a pithiviers cake, a complicated concoction of butter puff pastry with an almond filling. He followed the Roux brothers’ recipe to the letter and it was a huge success.
For midweek supper dishes I like Nigel Slater - his food is sparky and original, yet he is down to earth and not at all pretentious. My great love is Italian food, so Anna del Conte has to be the queen of Northern Italian food. Further South Cucina Siciliana by Clarissa Hyman stands out for its brilliant photography; food that leaps off the page interspersed with pictures of the locals in villages, in conversation, or watching the world go by. Just turning the pages takes me back to lazy days in Sicily or Sardinia. Talking of going back, one of the oldest books in my collection of 300 volumes is The Art of French Cooking probably published in the 1950s. You can’t fail to smile at the immensely complicated design and presentation of French food at that time.
You’re the first grandmother I have interviewed for this column. Do you think being older means you approach blogging differently and if so how?
To answer the first part of the question, here are some thoughts on being a grandmother. Lots of elderly people hardly use the internet at all as they are retired. I am working every day and I do a lot of research on the web. Being on Tumblr brings you into contact with a young audience. Because I follow writers I also get some inspiring thoughts (quotes, books to read) which I reblog to my foodie audience, somehow linking a picture of a stunning dish to something to think about.
Being a grandmother gave me some opportunities: time to spend cooking with a 9-year old grandchild who hated food. We played games and experimented and this all turned into a book called Lookit Cookit - kitchen games for curious children. My blog The Armchair Kitchen was originally conceived to publicize this little book.
Then the older grandchildren - now 18 and upwards - have helped me enormously. One introduced me to Spotify, so I can listen to music while I work on my blog posts. Then I got three others involved in the production of Sextet. One designed the text, another did the cover illustration and a 16-year old has made a remarkably professional video. I didn’t get them involved to save money on hiring professionals; I wanted to use their creativity to help me and also to give them something worthwhile to add to their CVs.
Now to whether being older makes me approach blogging differently: I don’t think being older is an issue - apart from the know-how I’ve accumulated over many years. Blogging is about connecting with people and I just love to see comments on the food I put up. If a post goes in at 7am and someone in Australia or The Philippines ‘likes’ it at 7.30am that gives me a buzz.
One aspect that may set me apart from younger bloggers is the style of my blog. I don’t write about dishes I’ve eaten for breakfast or dinner in a restaurant (it’s too hard to get a good photo of a plate on a crowded table). There has to be a reason why a dish is interesting to other people and I try to bring that out in the posts I write. This goes back to my thoughts on Facebook: for me the blog is a professional collection of immensely varied dishes - not just a stream of pretty things I’ve encountered.
Having a successful blog does bring me into contact with a lot of young people and keeps me in the world of food writing - which I might have left due to the increasing difficulty of getting cookbooks published.
Writing the blog - and thinking about it - takes up much of my time, but it’s what I want to do. It gives me opportunities to find out more about food and cooking: going to workshops, restaurant openings, exploring places like Covent Garden market in London at 6am, learning from the experts about chocolate, herbs, olive oil, etc. All of these give me inspiration for next week’s posts. Elderly grannies used to knit and make jam. I can’t do either of these, so I cook, write and take photographs!