Last year at Eat.Drink.Blog, the Australian food blogger conference, I met Melbourne-based Sandra Reynolds of The $120 Dollar Food Challenge, who held the audience spellbound as she recounted how a dire situation led to food blogging and a cookbook deal. Recently, we spoke further about her career and her struggle to support herself:
Q. In February 2010, you left your job as a public servant and had to figure out how to feed yourself and your two teenage children.
A. I went to the Salvation Army and they gave me two $60 food vouchers designed to last two weeks. And it started from there.
I went on Facebook to complain to my friends that I only had $60 to feed my family. My friends started asking what I could cook. I sent them recipes, and then someone said, ’91You could start a blog.’
Q. How did you know what to do?
A. I’d read a couple. A friend of mine had me write a few posts for a food blog she was running, but it was just a hobby.
Q. You were posting quite a lot at the beginning.
A. For the first six months I posted two meals a day. It was nuts. Now my budget is $120 a week, in line with rising food costs. On average, families of four spend about $200 to $250 a week on food in Australia, so it’s still a substantial reduction.
At the beginning I didn’t write an introduction to my recipes, but now there’s two to three paragraphs and I’m down to posting once every two days, three to four times per week. That’s a reasonable schedule for me.
Q. Sounds like a lot. And you test the recipes every time?
A. Oh yes. I tend to work two weeks in advance. That gives me plenty of opportunity to retest them if they don’t work.
All my recipes have to pass the Dubbo test. It’s the name of a town in Central New South Wales. You live in a one-supermarket town in rural Australia. Can you buy the ingredients you need to complete one of my recipes? There’s no freshly-caught anchovies and white truffles.
Q. How do you afford all the ingredients for testing recipes?
A. It may seem counter intuitive, but a well-stocked pantry is my best friend. Things like herbs and spices can flavor ground beef, for example, and it will take me from one recipe to another for very little money.
I still shop at markets and low-cost supermarkets, and I still plan my menus according to seasonal produce. I cook for one now because my children are 19 and 21 and have moved out. I try to photograph small plates of food even if the recipe says it serves four.
Q. How did the word get out about your blog?
A. I was a reader of a local website called Mammamia, and mentioned to Mia Freedman that I had started my blog. I posted the address in the comments, and it immediately gathered blog traffic. Mia encouraged me, mentored me and helped me get an agent for my book.
But other than that, it was word of mouth for four months. Then I got interviewed on a Current Affairs program and got 75,000 hits the following day. Then Penguin Books called, offering me a book deal. Just like that. My agent said it was a very strong offer, a ‘stonkingly good deal.’ She’s very English.
It’s three years later. It’s still so other worldly and I’m very keen to tell people it’s not normally how it happens.
Q. You had quite an impact on people who don’t have much money but want to eat well.
A. I didn’t realize it when I started the blog, but I clearly filled a gap. If you want to go to farmer’s market, and eat local, sustainable, ethically raised products, it’s going to cost. There are thousands of people in Australia who want to be engaged but they don’t know how and they don’t have the budget to do so.
I said, ’91Yeah, you can.’ Maybe it was my writing style or my utilization of social media, but I have a following now that encourages people to do more with less. People tell me how I’ve taught them not just how to budget but how to cook.
Q. That’s a big deal.
A. Yes it is, when people are struggling.
Q. Are you still struggling?
A. Yes. I don’t like to say that too much. I take ownership of the decisions I’ve made, but I’ve come so far I don’t want to go back.
Q. How do you make a living?
A. I do freelance work, I assist companies with their social media, I do part-time work as an admin and I clean houses. It’s patchy and it’s iffy but I do it.
Q. Now you’re working on another book?
A. Yes. I’m writing the manuscript and the book proposal together. I don’t expect to get the same offer as I got the first time around. I’m having second book syndrome: lots of procrastination and self-doubt. But I don’t want to be known as the person who wrote only one book.
Q. Do other food bloggers understand your challenges?
A. I’m not sure. They don’t get what a struggle it is to do on your own, without a partner or support. In the last two years I’ve moved eight times. The book was written and tested in five kitchens. No cookbook author generally does a cookbook like that.
A lot of people would have given up by now, and understandably so. It takes a little bit of madness to do it. I love being creative and I had no idea how much of it I had in reserve. It’s quite surprising to go through life kind of asleep and then wake up. There was this parallel life waiting for me. It’s scary. People in mainstream media have heavily criticized me because they thought I was an irresponsible mother for quitting my job.
Perhaps they didn’t have the wherewithal to leave their jobs and do this life. It’s a transitory lifestyle and I’ve had to give up a lot. I don’t recommend it. But the creative life is so fulfilling I can’t imagine doing anything else.