Interview w/ Jessica of How Sweet Eats – Episode 62: PaleOMG Uncensored Podcast

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One of the first blogs I ever read was How Sweet Eats. I had no idea how wonderful a blog could be until I read hers. Jessica creates some of the most creative, stunning and decadent recipes you will ever see. Her creativity is unlike any of the other blogs I read. So getting to chat with her and hear her story was pretty damn fun! Hope you enjoy listening to this bubbly, hardworking woman!

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Episode 62 Transcription!

This is Juli Bauer from PaleOMG and you are listening to PaleOMG Uncensored.

Juli Bauer: Welcome to another episode of PaleOMG Uncensored. Today I have a very special guest, who is one of the first bloggers I literally ever looked at online to actually figure out what the hell a blog was. Her name is Jessica Merchant; am I saying that right? Merchant?

Jessica Merchant: {laughs} You are.

Juli Bauer: OK. Of HowSweetEats.com. She is a blogger extraordinaire; seriously. You’ve had this blog for so long. I remember, I think a few of my recipes I made were based off some of the concoctions you made. Like, using blood orange on top of fish. Which, I didn’t even know what a blood orange was when I started cooking!

Jessica Merchant: Oh, that’s so awesome. I love that.

Juli Bauer: You introduced me to new food groups before I knew even how to shop at the grocery store. So your blog has seriously been around for so long. And I’ve been looking at it. And I still look at it to this day, whenever I need some inspiration for photography. Because you are one of my favorite food photographers out there.

Jessica Merchant: Thank you so much.

Juli Bauer: But we’re going to get into all of that. So welcome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast!

Jessica Merchant: Thank you so much for having me! I’m so excited.

Juli Bauer: Me too! Ok, so for people who don’t know who you are, will you tell us just a little bit about yourself? What you did before you were a full-time blogger. Why you got into blogging. Really just kind of your journey into blogging and where you are now.

Jessica Merchant: Sure. So, I run the blog HowSweetEats.com. And I’ve been doing it; I believe I just had my 8-year blog-iversary. I mean; I sound like such a loser saying that. But it’s a thing, apparently. So 8 years. I’ve been doing it for 8 years.

I found myself stuck in a job that I just absolutely hated. I knew from the time that I was a young kind that going to an office was not something I ever wanted to do. Ever. I think even in my 8th grade year book I wrote, “I want to be a writer.” Or something. I knew that I never wanted to sit in this corporate office setting. But that’s kind of where I found myself. And it was like; I don’t know. I was basically a glorified secretary. The job that I had was not what was promised to me. What I was told about for months it was going to be. So I really didn’t have anything to do. And I was stuck behind a desk, like stuck on a computer. And truly just had nothing to do.

So I discovered; I think I discovered a handful of blogs. But they were like lifestyle blogs, and that’s what I wanted to start. I’m like; oh, I’m just going to do this. I’m not going to tell anyone, because it’s so embarrassing and horrible. But I’m just going to do it. But I didn’t have; like lifestyle blogs weren’t really a huge thing. And I didn’t really have a life. Like; I worked till 5 and my husband. I was newly married; barely a year. And my husband would work late. So it was like; I don’t even know what I could blog about.

So it kind of turned into; I would blog about the recipes I was making for dinner. Or, the things I was making on the weekend. Sometimes I would still do lifestyle stuff. But I do that now, as well. But it turned more into; it was manageable that I could do these recipes, I guess. Because I could work on it at work. Which, I mean, I totally wasn’t allowed to do. But I did anyway.

Juli Bauer: {laughs}

Jessica Merchant: {laughs} And I just prayed that nobody ever found out. Because I was like; oh my god, if they find out, they’re probably going to find work for me to do, then. You know? {laughing}

Juli Bauer: Yeah. Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: So I don’t even think that I told them about it. I don’t think I told them about it until I quit my job. Until I quit that job. So, yeah. I basically did it for almost a year without them knowing.

Juli Bauer: And then, what made you feel like; “Ok, it’s time for me to quit my job and go full on into blogging, and really do that full time.” What gave you the confidence to quit your full-time job?

Jessica Merchant: I really didn’t have a ton of confidence in quitting. There was a situation that happened the day that I quit that; I don’t know, kind of had put me in an unsafe situation. And was a really good opportunity for me to quit. But nobody in my life thought that I should quit. My husband is very much; you go to work, you work a job, this is just your life. My dad was very much like that. My mom was just like; “What are you doing with this thing on the internet?” {laughs} Nobody really knew.

But my husband would say every now and then; just quit. Just quit. Just do something else. And at the time; that day that I did end up quitting. Which was totally spur of the moment. I sent them an email, I said that I quit; I was making money from the blog. I was making okay money. Not as much as I was making at work. But I knew that if I had the time to work on it, that I probably could. Because I saw that other people were doing it. And that was 8 years ago.

Juli Bauer: And how were you figuring out; because I remember me starting a blog. I had no idea that you could monetize a blog. No idea that you could make money.

Jessica Merchant: Totally.

Juli Bauer: And it was just learning through others. Were you just making friends in the blog world, and finding out how they made money, that you were like; oh, ok. I should do the same thing. I should put advertising on my site. Or whatever else.

Jessica Merchant: Yes, absolutely. And it wasn’t even like people that I knew. I’m pretty sure shortly after I started my blog, the Pioneer Woman’s first book came out. And I’m like; oh. So this is a thing, and you just get a book deal. Oh, ok. {laughing} Like, it just happens for people.

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: Obviously I didn’t think it was going to happen for me. But it kind of opened my eyes within that first two or three months that; oh, holy crap! People are actually making money from this. So I knew it was possible. And there was the first ad network; I don’t know, it wasn’t the first. But I was with an ad network, Food Buzz. And they paid you a fixed rate. It was like, amazing. And people were actually making some decent money, because it wasn’t like a variable rate. I mean, that obviously went away.

But I was making money at it. So I knew that if I quit this job, I could get something part time. And I did get something part time. And I went and worked retail at the mall. Ok, totally didn’t want to do that.

Juli Bauer: {laughs}

Jessica Merchant: It was the mall, where I went to high school. So I would see people from high school, and they’d be like; “Oh, so this is what you’re doing?”

Juli Bauer: Oh no! {laughing}

Jessica Merchant: Yep, yep. This is what I’m doing. {laughs} Just keeping my mouth shut. But I knew that at least working retail would give me hours in the day when I could practice my photography in natural light, and would give me some more time. And I did work that part time job for maybe almost 6 months after I quit, until it basically became full time. I was working 30-40 hours a week for that anyway, and by that point my blog was making more money.

You know, I’m not a weirdo. I shouldn’t say weirdo, that’s really rude.

Juli Bauer: {laughing}

Jessica Merchant: But I’m not somebody that’s like, “Oh, I believe in the universe gives back to me.” But I sort of feel like that happened. It was definitely the right decision, because I was working really hard. And I was getting opportunities. Not obviously just handed to me. I was working nonstop for them. But it was all fitting together. And the blog was making money. So it was like the right choice, do you know what I mean?

Juli Bauer: Totally. And when you started your blog, how often were you posting versus nowadays, how often do you post?

Jessica Merchant: Oh my god! When I started, I would post 3 times a day.

Juli Bauer: Oh my gosh!

Jessica Merchant: Because that’s what people would do. Some people {laughs}.

Juli Bauer: Yeah. I know a couple of bloggers who still do that. That’s insane to me.

Jessica Merchant: Yeah. But sometimes I would post once a day. Sometimes I wouldn’t post at all. It just depended. It was so weird at the beginning. I didn’t have full direction, you know, of what I was doing. So now I post like 4 recipes a week, but one of them is a drink. I do a Thirsty Thursday thing. So I don’t even; I consider it kind of a cop-out recipe, even though I really like the drinks that I post. But it’s not like it’s like; oh my god, 12 hours of work. You know? {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: But I like to share that. So I’ll post, let’s say 3 full recipes and a drink recipe. And I’ll do some lifestyle stuff. Like; you know, I do something called Tuesday Things. Or I post like my favorite links. Or I post something about my son. Or something like that. So that’s not very set in stone, aside from Tuesday Things.

Juli Bauer: And then let’s talk a little bit about your cookbooks. Because you’re coming out with your second cookbook in March, correct?

Jessica Merchant: I am, yes. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Ok. So, you came out; how long ago was your last cookbook? Your first one?

Jessica Merchant: It was in September 2014.

Juli Bauer: Ok, cool. I was so excited to get your book. I loved some of the recipes in there. And I always interview; not always. But I have different; like paleo people on here. And everybody, just in case everybody wants to know, you are not strict paleo. You get to share all the fun stuff out there.

Jessica Merchant: {laughs} Right.

Juli Bauer: With all kinds of different ingredients. But you had this spicy jalapeno jam that you put on burgers.

Jessica Merchant: Yes! Yes, yes.

Juli Bauer: So I just made the burger, without the bun, and boom it was awesome. Oh my god, it was so good.

Jessica Merchant: Oh, I’m so glad you liked it!

Juli Bauer: It’s so good. So, what was the experience with your first cookbook? How did that opportunity come up? Did someone contact you? Did you write a proposal? What did that look like?

Jessica Merchant: I did write a proposal. But when I quit my job, back in that first year of blogging; I was like, I’m going to write a book. I want to get a book deal. I was super gung-ho. This is exactly what I’m going to do. This is what I want to do.

I was working with an agent at the time that I had reached out to. But first of all, my blog didn’t have; at the time it wasn’t like blogger books. I mean, unless you were the Pioneer Woman. Blogger books weren’t like; oh my gosh! A huge thing. They really wanted you to have a lot of followers. A really huge audience. And while my audience was growing, it wasn’t near what other people had that were getting these book deals.

With this agent; we were kind of on different. She kind of wanted me to write about, my experience with my first year of marriage, and recipes, and cooking. And I was on board with that at first. That’s what I was all about. But as I tried to get into that, I just didn’t really want to do it. And I was really, just enjoying blogging, and making a good income from it. And really loved posting on my blog, and being in control. Because I’m kind of a control freak.

I decided then that I don’t want a book. I’m not going to do a book. I don’t care about a book. I really don’t care about one; I just love what I’m doing so much right now. And I did that for a couple of years. So let’s say until 2012. And throughout the years, I would have a couple of agents or publishers reach out to me, as I think a lot of bloggers do every now and then. And I don’t know; one just kind of struck a chord with me, I think at one point in 2012. And I was like; ok, maybe I’ll try this again.

I was with a different agent, and we wrote a proposal, and went and sold the book. I got to meet with different publishers, and kind of get a feel for who I felt was a good fit. And it was a subject that was basically my blog in a book. Not titled How Sweet Eats, because people think all I ever do is dessert. {laughs} But it was basically the kind of recipes I post on my blog in the book.

Juli Bauer: And then, you are coming out with your second book.

Jessica Merchant: Yes.

Juli Bauer: When I was looking at it, I noticed that you were going with a different publisher the second time around. And after I did my first cookbook; I have no idea how long ago that was. But I did not like the first experience with my first publisher.

Jessica Merchant: Yes.

Juli Bauer: I didn’t like how the book came out. I didn’t like the quality. There were so many things I was so incredibly disappointed with. And so when I saw you went with the second publisher; was there control things that you wanted to be able to control with your second book? Why did you go with a different publisher?

Jessica Merchant: Yeah, that’s a little bit of the same reason. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: Also; I kind of had a different idea of what I wanted to do. And I knew that there were some certain people that I was really hoping that I’d get to work with. Just people in that publishing industry that I have become friends with over the years of having this blog, and doing books. I really wanted to do a book with them. You know?

And I think, that first experience, it was just so; oh my gosh, these publishers are here. Who do you go with? I don’t know. There was so much that I didn’t know, that I should have, I guess, knew before. But the second opportunity I knew what to ask. You know?

Juli Bauer: Yeah, exactly.

Jessica Merchant: Do I like how their books look? There are just so many things that I think don’t even cross your mind. And you work so closely with them. Because you pour your heart into writing this book. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: It’s like; oh my gosh! So, yeah.

Juli Bauer: And what is this second book going to have that’s different than your first book?

Jessica Merchant: So this book is actually still, it’s very similar to the type of recipes that I post on my blog. It’s no niche; no desserts. Obviously there are desserts. But it’s everything. But I’ve also added in a bunch of food-grade beauty DIYs. Because I’m obsessed with beauty products. I’m like a beauty product junkie. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: I just adore any kind of beauty, makeup, anything. And I wanted to do something that was food-grade ingredients. And also there’s a little bit with essential oils in there. But everything’s with coconut oil or homemade sugar scrubs and bath melts. Just neat things like beachy wave spray. Just like a second chapter in there. Because I think for like 5 or 6 years now, I talk every month about my beauty favorites and my lifestyle favorites and what I’m loving. So some of those things that you can make at home.

Juli Bauer: Yeah. That’s awesome. Did you; or are you. I’m guess you’re still in the process. Are you photographing the entire book yourself? Or are you working with someone?

Jessica Merchant: So I did. That is totally done now. I’m more so in the editing process. The first half of this year we photographed it. But yes. I mean, I did have assistants help me. But I also have another blogger that lives here in the Pittsburg area come and do food styling with me.

Juli Bauer: Fun.

Jessica Merchant: You know, it’s hard. Because I style all the stuff on the blog by myself, anyway. So I didn’t want it to be different. So I knew here, and I knew she’d be able to work within my style. But I didn’t do that the last time; and I don’t know how I did that first book. {laughing}

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: So, that was just a huge help. Having another set of eyes that can set things up differently. But still look at my style and keep it consistent.

Juli Bauer: Yours. Yeah. And how did you balance; if you’re posting 4 recipes a week, and making, whatever, 100 to 150 recipes for your book. How the f*ck do you balance that? That’s bananas to me.

Jessica Merchant: {laughing} I know. Yeah, it’s horrible. It isn’t horrible, and a blogger, Heather Cristo, who I adore.

Juli Bauer: Yes! Oh my gosh! I just had a phone call with her last week.

Jessica Merchant: I love Heather!

Juli Bauer: Love her. So nice.

Jessica Merchant: So we did our first books kind of around the same time. And at the time, she already had two children when she did her first book. Which I think came out maybe 2013 or 2012, somewhere around there. And I think I asked her in person. We were at an event. I was like, “How did you manage to post on your blog?” Because I think at the time she was still posting 6 or 7 recipes a week or something on her blog, and doing the book, and had kids. {laughs} And I’m like; how did you do this?

So she told me then. She’s like; you just have to focus one day of recipes on your blog, and then the rest of the time on your book. And I was like; you’re absolutely right. That’s what I should do! And truly that is what I’ve done since then. For the blog, and the book. But basically for my blog life. Like, I obviously love to cook. But I don’t want to be cooking in my kitchen 6 or 7 days a week. Do you know what I mean?

Juli Bauer: Mm-hmm.

Jessica Merchant: I mean, it’s kind of like labor! I don’t want to do that. I did exactly what she said. I would take one day a week with that first book, and really focus on all of my recipes. That doesn’t mean that I was testing a recipe. When I’m testing a recipe for the blog, I might make it for dinner or something. If I’m not worried about photographing it, who cares when the hell I make it? I just need to make sure it tastes good. But I would do all of the recipe development and photography in one day. And I have done that ever since.

Juli Bauer: Wow.

Jessica Merchant: So that’s what I did with both.

Juli Bauer: Ok. So let’s talk about how you come up with some of these recipes. Because you; do you have any guestimate of how many recipes you have on your website?

Jessica Merchant: No. Oh my gosh, I probably have over 1000 I think.

Juli Bauer: Easily. I feel like easily. Where do you get your inspiration from? And I feel like people probably ask you that all the time.

Jessica Merchant: They do. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Yeah! And I get that same question. I feel like you just continue to come up with different things. But where do you get most of your; because I just look at some of your recipes, and I’m like; f*ck why didn’t I think of that? That is so genius. You come up with so many cool things.

Jessica Merchant: I feel that way about so many people, too. But thank you. {laughs} I get it everywhere. I don’t really know. I think first of all, I just have; and I’ve said this for years. I think, first of all, I have a pretty relatable palate. I know sometimes I might make some really weird sh*t on my blog and people are like; oh that’s weird. But it’s rare. I don’t make too much weird sh*t. I think that a lot of times, it’s pretty relatable.

I don’t know. I have this relatable palate, and I know what flavors I like to go together. So that’s a big part of it for me. And then, it’s just a matter of if I see something. I don’t know; I can be driving down the road and see something on a billboard. Or be out at a restaurant. I don’t even know! {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Yeah. How far out do you plan your recipes? Because I know if I see something like on a billboard, and you’re like; oh, sh*t! I will write it down on my phone right away. And then I’ll try to plan out a month or two ahead of time. But if you’re creating so many of these recipes so often, how far out do you plan?

Jessica Merchant: Well. {laughs} Before I had a child, I was probably a good two weeks ahead. But I’m somebody that; I’m very instantaneous, spontaneous, all or nothing. I might make something today and in two weeks be like; what the hell. That’s disgusting. I don’t know what I was thinking. Do you know what I mean? So it’s hard for me to plan super far ahead. Because I’m so instant gratification. I’m part of this horrific, yet wonderful, internet generation. I want it now.

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: So after I had a child, I really only been maybe one to two weeks ahead. I’m usually at least a good one to two weeks ahead. But, since I’m now pregnant and going to give birth, like, any day. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Are you really? I was going to ask how far along you were.

Jessica Merchant: Yeah, I’m almost 38 weeks. So, I’m like petrified that at any minute I’m going to give birth. {laughs} I have been planning so I can take time off for the baby. So through the holidays. Which is technically; it’s horrible. Because I don’t know what I want to eat tomorrow.

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: So that’s a struggle that I’ve always had with the cookbooks. Like I don’t know; oh my god, are people still going to be obsessed with cauliflower sh*t in 2 years when this book comes out?

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: I don’t know. Because the turnover on the blog is so high. Not that I’m not posting the recipes that I love. I mean, I do love the recipes that I post. But I’m obsessed with this recipe today; and oh my god, next Tuesday I’m going to be obsessed with this next recipe. {laughing}

Juli Bauer: Yeah. So talk about having your first child, and running your own business. Because I know my girlfriend who is pregnant right now; she’s planning all these recipes ahead of time so she can kind of take a 3-month type hiatus. Just taking a backseat and letting everything fall into place. So how was it planning for your first child; with a complete unknown. And then having a child while working from home; I can’t wrap my head around that when you do so many things as a blogger in a day. Then you add a human that you’re supposed to keep alive.

Jessica Merchant: Yeah. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: And not stick his fingers into sockets and crawl around and put things in his mouth. How did you balance all that, and crush it as a mom?

Jessica Merchant: Yeah, I don’t. I don’t balance it. It’s just like a big old mess all the time.

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: I don’t know. I kind of did this when I had my son. I made enough recipes that I could just sit on my butt for like a month or two. I mean, obviously not sit on my butt. But be with him. And I’m still active in the blog world. But I don’t have to get up and cook and photograph and clean up.

Juli Bauer: Yeah. The clean up is the worst part. It’s the worst.

Jessica Merchant: It is the worst part. Oh my god, it’s horrible.

Juli Bauer: Terrible.

Jessica Merchant: It’s just awful. So I knew that I wanted to do that with this child coming, so that’s what I’m doing. But I didn’t know what I was in for. I’m lucky that my kid was pretty good and easygoing and just a happy baby. I mean, obviously when he was 3, 4, 5 months old and I got back into the kitchen, I wasn’t able to take these 10 to 12-hour cooking days. Things were more sporadic. And I don’t know; I was just kind of trying to go with the flow. Somehow I was relaxed. I’m usually not a relaxed person. I’m like a psychopath.

Juli Bauer: {laughs}

Jessica Merchant: I don’t know how I was able to relax. But I think that I didn’t know what having a kid was going to be like. I didn’t grow up; I didn’t love babysitting other people’s kids. {laughs} I’m not like; “Oh my gosh, I want to be a teacher!” No. I didn’t ever want to do anything with kids. I knew I wanted my own kids. So when I had him, I was just floored over how obsessed with him I was. I knew I’d love my child, but I had no idea that I was like; oh my god, this is the best thing ever.

So I’ve had a very good experience with him. And I think that’s relaxed me enough that I could just kind of go with the flow. Work when I can when I need to. Because I know that even though some of these days are insane, they are not going to last forever. And it sounds so cliché, and it is so cliché. But they go so fast. It’s already gone so fast. So that might mean normally; and I know that I’m going to have to do this again. I love to front load my week. I’ll do as much work as I can Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. And then I want to try to do nothing, again, like cooking, or photographing or anything Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. But with all this prepping and going to have a new baby, I know that I have to be flexible, so just kind of keeping that in my head. I don’t know; that’s really all. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: Also I have laundry baskets of clothes that don’t get folded for like 3 weeks.

Juli Bauer: Heck no.

Jessica Merchant: Because you just have to prioritize, and I do have a lot of people. Like other bloggers ask me; oh my god, how do you get this done? Well, I have 6 laundry baskets of clothes that need to be folded that have been cleaned.

Juli Bauer: {laughs} Yeah. I just don’t do the other stuff.

Jessica Merchant: {laughs} Exactly. Like, my child comes first, our family comes first, and the blog and my business is a very close second. And once that’s done, everything else can come after that.

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Juli Bauer: How has this pregnancy been compared to your first one? Has it been easier? Has it been harder? Do you just know what’s coming, so that makes it easier?

Jessica Merchant: I think so. I was a lot sicker in the beginning. But it’s pretty much been the same. I also; people are like; how do you work like this? How are you doing all these recipes while you’re pregnant? I mean, I don’t have a choice. You know what I mean? I run my own business. So if this was a brick and mortar business; do you know? Nobody else can really do your job when it’s such a personal thing. I could have assistants do certain things for me. But my blog is so personal based. With my writing; I’m not going to have somebody else write my posts and take my photos and stuff like that.

Juli Bauer: Yeah. Do you have an assistant right now? Just for your blog?

Jessica Merchant: I have all throughout the last almost 2 years. But right now, I don’t have anyone working with me here in my house. Because I really don’t want to work for the next three months. {laughs} And the girl that was working with me, she ended up moving to Philly. So it kind of, the timing kind of worked out. I mean, it’s like hard as hell and I’m dying some days. {laughs} But it’s going to be worth it, because I don’t want to have to worry about somebody else, you know. When I’m not going to do any work, manual labor stuff for a few months. Or a few weeks. We’ll see. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: So when you do your photography, do you do all the photography by yourself? When you’re doing hand shots in anything, is it sometimes if maybe your husband is home or if you just do that. Let’s just talk about your photography, because that’s like one of my favorite things about you.

So the other day, I had one of my friends, Sarah from Broma Bakery.

Jessica Merchant: Oh my gosh, I love her!

Juli Bauer: She’s so freaking adorable.

Jessica Merchant: She’s awesome!

Juli Bauer: And she has this stunning food photography.

Jessica Merchant: Yes. Her photography is amazing.

Juli Bauer: It’s beautiful.

Jessica Merchant: I actually have her like rephotographing some of my older recipes.

Juli Bauer: Are you serious!

Jessica Merchant: Yes. Because she’s so amazing. I don’t really want to have to take the time to photograph my old things, and her stuff is so stunning that I’m like; ohh!

Juli Bauer: It’s so pretty.

Jessica Merchant: Gorgeous, yeah.

Juli Bauer: She has this very simple, moody, type photography. And yours, I feel like, is opposite in a lot of ways because it is very busy, it’s very bright, it’s very colorful. Everything pops out of the page. And I love that kind of photography. I love Sarah’s photography, and I love your style of photography. And I always go to your website to look at; ok, how did she style this drink. Or how did she style this really ugly dish that you have to somehow elevate.

Jessica Merchant: I know! Oh my god, so hard.

Juli Bauer: Like a casserole, or whatever. A vegetable dish, like Brussel sprouts. How do you make Brussel sprouts sexy?

Jessica Merchant: {laughing}

Juli Bauer: I was looking back at your website, going super back in time when you first started and just started getting into it. And I feel like 2011-2012 is where you kind of started to get your rhythm and get better at photography and understanding how things should look. So what helped you improve with your photography the most? Was it getting a new camera? Was it figuring out lighting? What made you elevate your photography?

Jessica Merchant: Such a good question. First of all, I absolutely hate photography. It is my least favorite part of the process. But I know that it has to be done, obviously, because people are visual; eat with their eyes.

I’d say what helped me the most. I didn’t take any classes. When I did get my first DSLR, big, mo-fo camera, it definitely improved because the quality improved. Even though I didn’t really do anything. It was just a matter, I feel like, kind of looking at some photos that I loved. For instance, if it was Broma Bakery, I would look at her and try to style it similarly. Not copy it, but try to be like; how can I style it like her.

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: And I feel like that helped me early on. But what also would trip me up, then, is you’re exactly right on that time frame; 2012, 2013. I hate the photography in my first book, because I feel like it’s all over the place. And the reason being is I didn’t know how to appreciate other people’s photography without trying to make it my own. If that makes sense. I do feel like I have more of my own style now. But I can still appreciate someone else’s photography without being like; oh my god, my photography has to look like that.

So that definitely, that mindset and just doing it over and over really helped me. Probably just doing it almost every single day, or four to five days a week and just really training myself has helped me. And reading crap online about it. But I do shoot in all natural light. And I will say, it’s gotten so much more intense. I was blogging before even Pinterest or Facebook fan pages existed. Definitely before Instagram existed. And since Instagram and Pinterest, you’re so overwhelmed with these gorgeous styled photos. I feel like the styling in everything; the game has been upped, so it can be tricky.

The hand shots, the pouring shots; it totally depends. Sometimes it’s me. It’s very rarely my husband, because he’s; one, never home, and two, if we work together in any sort of capacity we want to murder each other and file for divorce.

Juli Bauer: {laughing}

Jessica Merchant: {laughs} So we do not. I feel like I’m one of the very few bloggers that her husband doesn’t work with her.

Juli Bauer: Mine doesn’t work for me.

Jessica Merchant: Oh, we’d kill each other.

Juli Bauer: I kind of; I keep trying to talk him into it just so we can actually hang out more on a regular basis.

Jessica Merchant: Yeah! {laughing}

Juli Bauer: But I worry about that. Where it would be like; no, that’s not how I’m doing this. This is my business! {laughs}

Jessica Merchant: Right. I feel like we have that discussion once every six months, and we’re like; should we do that? But we’re just so different.

Juli Bauer: What does he do for a living?

Jessica Merchant: He’s in finance and accounting. Like, my worst nightmare.

Juli Bauer: Yeah. Terrible.

Jessica Merchant: Like; I can’t add 2 + 2. He’s very logical and smart in that way; and I’m like, oh let me think with my heart. Don’t even think with my brain, ever. {laughs} So we even each other out.

Juli Bauer: Totally.

Jessica Merchant: But yeah, those shots just depend. Sometimes if I had an assistant here, lately I have been having the girl that helped me with the cookbook, she’s been helping me because I’ve been doing so much; I’ve been trying to batch make so much content ahead of time for when the baby comes. So she has been helping me on those days. And sometimes she’ll do it and help me. But it just depends. {laughs} It depends on the day.

Juli Bauer: Yeah. How do you decide how you’re going to photograph your recipes? Because maybe you’ll have something super simple. I’m just looking at your website as I chat with you. And you’ll have your popsicles just stacked on top of each other, and nothing else in the shot. But then you’ll have something else where it has all sorts of crumbs there, and herbs, and some spices, and some texture. How do you decide? Is it just what you’re feeling that day? If you’re like; f*ck it. I don’t want to style this at all!

Jessica Merchant: Yeah. {laughs} Yes!

Juli Bauer: Or do you have a vision every time you make something?

Jessica Merchant: No!

Juli Bauer: Or is it just as you go?

Jessica Merchant: I never have a vision. {laughs} I never. I never, ever, ever have a vision. Because the whole photography and styling process is so hard for me. And a lot of people get annoyed when I say that. And they’re like; oh, but I like your photos. And I’m not saying that I don’t like my photos, or they’re not good. But it’s just so hard and time consuming for me.

So I basically am just like; what colors have a photographed on my blog lately? Ok, let’s go with something else then. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: That is how I decide. Or like, I know that oranges, like squash and pumpkin, look pretty good on blues. So I am photographing a lot of sh*t on blue right now! {laughs} Because it’s fall.

Juli Bauer: I love your blues. I stole that blue from you, because I messaged you.

Jessica Merchant: Oh, that’s right! I forgot! {laughing}

Juli Bauer: I was like, where did you get that blue background? I need it so bad. It’s the best. It’s just so beautiful. It’s so stunning.

Jessica Merchant: I totally forgot.

Juli Bauer: Oh my gosh, I seriously love your pictures. I just keep going through more and more.

Jessica Merchant: Thank you so much. Thank you.

Juli Bauer: And does your son, when you’re photographing these recipes, is he hanging out with you or he is school at this point? How does it work when he is at home with you and you’re cooking and doing all this stuff? Does he like to help?

Jessica Merchant: He is in this phase of wanting to help with everything. Which is awesome and wonderful, until it’s frustrating and so annoying. Because you don’t want to tell him; no you can’t help me unload the dishwasher. Because I know in a year I’m going to want him to unload the dishwasher. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Oh yeah, for sure.

Jessica Merchant: I do have a babysitter for him. He’s not in school yet. But she comes like two days a week. And she’s amazing and wonderful. And she’s here for maybe 8 hours, and I just try to bust out as much as I can. Sometimes I have to do stuff with him here, but I obviously can’t work 8 to 10 hours with him here, because he would just lose his mind. But I can sometimes do two recipes with him here. But it takes a lot longer because we’re doing activities. I’m setting him up with playdoh.

I basically let him trash the entire house. His toys are everywhere. I just have to let him do whatever he wants {laughs} within reason, obviously. And just get that hour or two of work done that need to get done. So.

Juli Bauer: Ugh, man. I don’t understand how women do it, when I’m barely doing it with just taking care of my dog. Like, a dog.

Jessica Merchant: {laughs} I know. I wonder how I did it before. I’m like; what did I do?

Juli Bauer: Yeah, doing this podcast. I’m like; here’s a bone. Here’s a bone. With a baby, you can’t just give them a bone! That’s just not how it works.

Jessica Merchant: {laughing} Right.

Juli Bauer: So, let’s talk about some of your recipes on your website. Because you have obviously; probably thousands. It’s not even 1000; it’s probably thousands. And then you’re coming out with your second book so even more recipes in there. So do you have any of your top three sweet recipes that you’ll go back to, or you’ll want to actually make again. Or if anybody comes to your site for the first time that you think they should go directly towards. Let’s just start with sweet.

Jessica Merchant: Oh geeze. Oh my gosh; sweets. One of the really popular recipes on my blog that is very good that I have not made more than 5 times, because it’s kind of labor intensive. But a reader sent it to me like 5 or 6 years ago; the homemade Snickers bars. They’re amazing. They taste exactly like Snickers bars!

Juli Bauer: I was looking at that! Yes. And the photo is beautiful.

Jessica Merchant: That’s a really popular recipe. Yeah.

Juli Bauer: Mm-hmm.

Jessica Merchant: But truly, it seems like more because I think people go so crazy over dessert on Instagram or on Pinterest. But I really only post one dessert every two weeks. Or maybe once a week. If we’re closer to the holidays.

Juli Bauer: Yes, of course.

Jessica Merchant: Maybe it’s once a week. I do like to eat dessert, but I don’t like to make dessert. I hate to follow directions, instructions. I’m not a baker by heart. I’m so much more of a cook. I don’t want to be told how to do things. The minute somebody tells me what to do; I’m like, oh sh*t. I’m doing the exact opposite. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: That’s exactly why I started a blog.

Jessica Merchant: Yes!

Juli Bauer: Because I didn’t want to follow other people’s directions.

Jessica Merchant: Right. Exactly. It’s so hard. So I don’t know, when it comes to sweets. I make a lot of the same cookies every year at Christmas. I like to bake a Christmastime just so we have stuff to take people. Like take hostess gifts. But there’s not really a full-on dessert that make all the time, from my blog if that makes sense.

Juli Bauer: Yeah. Do you have any top three of your savory dish? Because you have a sh*t ton of those. Do you like sandwiches more? Do you like burgers? Do you go with vegetable dishes? What are your top three savory?

Jessica Merchant: I do make a lot of my recipes over and over again. But I’m very much a seasonal cook. So it totally depends on what is in season. We eat very seasonally. I will say a recipe that I posted fairly recently, like a few weeks ago, it’s like a skillet smothered chicken. You take the backbone out of a chicken, and cook it in a cast-iron skillet. And I’ve been making it like all of 2017, but I just posted it. It is so good. I mean, it was such a horrific, ugly, horrible recipe to photograph. But it is so, so good.

And a lot of people have already made it, and are dying over it. So that’s definitely, even though it’s fairly new. But one of the first recipes that I ever posted; that I actually just has Sarah, from Broma Bakery, rephotograph for me. Because the photos were like thumbnails, and yellow, and blurry, and horrific, was lobster mac and cheese.

Juli Bauer: Oh!

Jessica Merchant: Which is super indulgent and amazing.

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: I usually make that around Christmas time. And then I make a lot of my salads often. Because we usually have salads here twice a week. It’s just an easy; I don’t know, it’s so easy to throw together for us. My husband doesn’t get home until late, and it’s something. After I’ve been cooking all day, I don’t want to be cooking at like 8 p.m.

Juli Bauer: Mm-hmm.

Jessica Merchant: So it’s stuff that I can prepare ahead of time. So I love making a lot of the kale salads on my blog. I have a taco kale salad that I make a lot.

Juli Bauer: Yum.

Jessica Merchant: Yeah. I have a kale Caesar salad that I make all the time. So a lot of them I do make often.

Juli Bauer: That’s awesome. That says something. If you’re remaking your food, that’s proof that it’s actually work making to others.

Jessica Merchant: I actually like it. I’m not just bullsh*tting everyone. {laughs} I like this food.

Juli Bauer: Something I love that you do, and I’m guessing you do this every year towards the end of the year, is you share your recipe fails. You do a full post with all these pictures of all your recipe fails. And it’s like, amazing to me that you even photograph these things in any sort of capacity. If you know it failed. Whenever something fails, I

Jessica Merchant: Sometimes I almost forget. I’m like; sh*t I need to take a picture of this for December! {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Yes! So how often do you fail with recipes? Because I feel like as you get better at cooking, you fail a little bit less because you know what things are going to work. Baking obviously is a little bit different. But how often do you feel like you are failing at a recipe? Is it every week that you fail at one or is it every few weeks?

Jessica Merchant: It’s definitely not every week. I feel like it depends on the year. Last year I was doing a ton of testing for my cookbook. This year at the beginning of the year, even though we were photographing the tested recipes, some of them I must have either not written down correctly or hadn’t; maybe I hadn’t tested some yet. So I had a lot more fails at the beginning of the year.

And I have a ton of fails when it comes to baking. Because I think that I can make something from scratch, and it’s a complete disaster.

Juli Bauer: Yeah, baking is so freaking hard! Sarah was on the podcast talking about how baking isn’t hard, and how savory recipes are. I’m like; girl. It’s so hard! It’s such a science.

Jessica Merchant: It is. I do know some basic now that I’ve been doing it for this long. And I have my go-to maybe cookie recipe that if I want to make something at Christmas I’ll just throw different ingredients into it. Who cares, it’s the same dough recipe. Or you know, a basic cupcake recipe. But I’m constantly blown away by the stuff that she makes.

And I don’t have the patience to decorate cakes and do sh*t like that, either.

Juli Bauer: I know.

Jessica Merchant: I cannot do that. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: I’m looking at one of your recipe fails. It’s just so fun; it sounds terrible. But it’s so fun to see people who you’re like; how do they make the best stuff every? But they do fail too. I think people probably love these posts. Because they’re like; ok. This makes me believe that I can actually cook if she goes through fails on a regular basis, too. I’m so surprised that you still photograph them.

Jessica Merchant: Oh, I do.

Juli Bauer: So as social media has begun to change, and you’ve been through all stages of social media since you were blogging before social media even came around. Obviously one of the big stages that we’re in right now is video. And you’ve been doing more video. I saw you have some of those videos from top looking down, and then you just started working with the Inspo to do those type of videos.

So how has it been doing these videos and the experience been? Are you liking doing videos? Or do you hate doing them? Because it’s just one of those things, that’s how our social media is changing so we kind of have to just stay up with the times and get our sh*t together and do these videos.

Jessica Merchant: Exactly.

Juli Bauer: So how has that experience been, doing the videos yourself versus doing it with someone else? Or have you done it with someone else the entire time?

Jessica Merchant: Well, I do think it’s a necessary evil. I hate video. I actually like being in video. I don’t really like being in video right now, because all the Inspo videos I’ve shot I started at like 37 weeks pregnant. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Yeah!

Jessica Merchant: So I have like 16 ready to go. So I know in January, I’m going to want to die; when I’m like, oh my god, I can’t believe I’m still posting this and I’m like 37 weeks pregnant.

Juli Bauer: And you’re not pregnant anymore! {laughing}

Jessica Merchant: Yeah. So I don’t necessarily love doing them right now. {laughs} Having nothing to wear, and just being like; oh my god, I’m so huge. But I do really like being in the videos. I like that a lot more than the overhead. The overhead stuff I’ve mostly shot on my own. I absolutely hate it. It’s horrible time consuming. It’s not where I want to spend my time. But one, I’m a control freak, and two I can’t really find anyone that can consistently give me video. You know, so that kind of has sucked. That process.

Like, I say consistently for a reasonable price {laughs}. You know? So I don’t want to do those kinds of videos myself. I don’t know what I’m going to do going forward. I’m definitely not planning on doing any of those in the holiday season with the baby. But I love shooting the videos that are on; when I’m on camera. I like that I’m not afraid of doing that. Because I don’t know; I like talking about it more than just cooking it with my hands on the screen. {laughs} It’s more interesting to me. And I think that the response has been pretty good to those. Because I’ve posted one or two other branded videos that was just the food; just the recipe, and people are like; oh, where did you go? I like those recipes better with you in them! {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Oh, yeah.

Jessica Merchant: It just depends. It depends also on how you’ve carried out your blog, and your brand. If somebody is not super personal, then I think the food videos are fine. Like the just hands, and just the food. But I think; I’ve been pretty personal on my blog, and write in a more casual tone. So I like those. But videos; it’s just so time consuming.

Juli Bauer: Yeah!

Jessica Merchant: And it’s so difficult.

Juli Bauer: It’s so time consuming. I have my first videos coming up with Inspo soon. And just the planning of getting all your ingredients ready, and filming 6 videos in a day.

Jessica Merchant: It’s insane, right? I’m so excited though that you’re doing them.

Juli Bauer: I’m so excited to try them. But so scared. I’m making a spreadsheet leading up to it so I can make sure I have all the ingredients. And it is so time consuming. And doing all your recipes, plus the videos on top of it is pretty damn hard.

Jessica Merchant: Yeah. And I think what sucks about video in general, with social media, is it’s just added on to everything else that we have to do. It’s not like we’ve got to take something away.

Juli Bauer: Yeah, yeah.

Jessica Merchant: It’s like; oh, do these videos three days a week on top of everything else that you do. {laughs} Like, ugh! How do I have the time.

Juli Bauer: And with social media changing. And obviously, different algorithms just like Facebook pulled anything visible to any of our readers away from them.

Jessica Merchant: Yes, it’s horrible.

Juli Bauer: And Instagram is doing the same thing. What do you concentrate on? Do you just concentrate on your blog? Do you look at traffic? Do you worry about any of those numbers? Because I think it’s hard to not worry about it sometimes. Sometimes you’re like; whatever, I don’t f*cking care. I work hard, that’s fine. But do you run into those feelings of frustration with social media. Or if you’re looking at Google analytics and your numbers changing; is that something that’s heavy on your mind very much?

Jessica Merchant: You know what, it’s not anymore. It’s not something; obviously some days I’m still like; oh my god. My Instagram is just tanked. Nobody sees it. Nobody cares. I don’t know what to post. People tell me they want to see more lifestyle stuff. People say they want to see my kid, then I post a picture of him and nobody likes it and 30,000 people unfollow me! {laughing} Like, you know, it’s just you don’t know what to do.

I do really focus on my blog. I own it, it’s what I can control. I like owning all that content. It’s probably because I’m a control freak. But I will always be an entrepreneur. So if I’m not doing this, if I get burned out on this, if I don’t’ want to do this anymore; I will find something else that I want to do. So I like having and owning. I can’t control what Facebook does or what Instagram does. So I do like to put my focus there.

And I think also, since having a kid. Again, this is so cliché. Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m saying it.

Juli Bauer: {laughing}

Jessica Merchant: But I know; he has kind of changed my mindset in what really matters.

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: You know what I mean? This is an awesome time with him. And oh my god, if my Instagram isn’t growing, it’s like; am I going to give a sh*t in 30 years. {laughs} Do you know what I mean? I know that I can’t; sometimes I do worry about it, like a psycho. But other times.

Juli Bauer: Yeah. It’s hard not to when it’s your business.

Jessica Merchant: Right. But I’m like; he’s what matters and I want to make sure I’m in the right headspace for that. {laughing} Yeah, I don’t know.

Juli Bauer: It’s a constant battle with social media of what matters and what doesn’t. It’s a hard kind of balance to find. Is there anybody you like on social media to follow the most? Or you get inspiration from? Or you just tell other people about because you love following them?

Jessica Merchant: I feel like somebody I do always tell people about is Sarah from Broma Bakery.

Juli Bauer: Yeah.

Jessica Merchant: The other person would be Erin from the Almond Eater, who is the one that helps me with food styling here.

Juli Bauer: Oh cool, I’ll have to look at her.

Jessica Merchant: Her photography and her style is just awesome. And, it’s kind of similar to somebody else that I love; the Kitchen McCabe. I think that’s how you pronounce it. I’m not sure. It might be the Kitchen McCabe. Her styling is just incredible, and insane. It’s nothing I could ever do and I want to do it all. It is so beautiful. It is just so incredible. And she has 5 kids or something, so I’m amazed at how she does it. It’s amazing.

Juli Bauer: How do people have this many kids and get anything done?!

Jessica Merchant: I know!! I’m like, I don’t know what my life is going to be like in another month.

Juli Bauer: Seriously! My poor girlfriend. We were at breakfast, or lunch today. And she has a 3-week-old, 4-week-old maybe. Super new. And then she’s going through those stages of; oh wait, is he hungry? Ok, I put my little thing over so I can breastfeed in public and he isn’t hungry. And she’s putting her head inside this little wrap you know around. The baby is starting to cry.

Jessica Merchant: At least she’s out of the house.

Juli Bauer: I know. She was like; well maybe I should just go home. I don’t want other people to get upset. And it’s like; how do people get anything done when it’s so new? Maybe when you have a couple they start to take care of themselves together.

Jessica Merchant: Right! That’s what I’m hoping. {laughing}

Juli Bauer: Seriously. You’re like, take this one, please. {laughing}

Jessica Merchant: I know. I was one of three, and I’m like; how the hell did my mom do this? And I’m like; oh my god, phones didn’t exist. I had to go to the doctor today, and I had to take my son. When we got in the exam room, I just gave him my phone, so he didn’t bug us or jump up on the table. And I’m like; how did my mom do this?

Juli Bauer: I know.

Jessica Merchant: How did she did this with three of us? I just don’t even know.

Juli Bauer: I know. My friend always tries to not go the iPad route, but it’s like, sometimes it’s the only thing I can do to just stay sane.

Jessica Merchant: Yeah. It’s like.

Juli Bauer: You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do!

Jessica Merchant: it is. It’s desperate measures, though, because they turn into zombies with the screen and it’s horrible. Like, it’s scary.

Juli Bauer: I know, they’re total zombies. It’s crazy.

Jessica Merchant: {laughs} Yeah.

Juli Bauer: So, ok can people preorder your cookbook yet?

Jessica Merchant: Yes! They can. It’s The Pretty Dish, and it’s on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, I think it’s on Indie Bound, Books A Million. Yes, it will be out March 20, I believe.

Juli Bauer: Awesome. I cannot wait to see it.

Jessica Merchant: Thank you so much. {laughs}

Juli Bauer: Where else can people find you. Where on your social media, your website? Just give them all the details so they can find you before they leave here.

Jessica Merchant: Yes. My site is www.HowSweetEats.com. My Instagram, my Pinterest are both How Sweet Eats. My Facebook is How Sweet Eats. My Twitter, which I don’t even go on anymore, which is so sad, is How Sweet Blog, because I made a bad business decision in 2009 and never changed it.

Juli Bauer: {laughing}

Jessica Merchant: {laughs} It was just like; oh, whatever.

Juli Bauer: Whatever, it’s fine. And Twitter; does anybody use Twitter anymore?

Jessica Merchant: I know! I don’t know.

Juli Bauer: My husband looks for news on Twitter. He’s like; that’s what he uses Twitter for.

Jessica Merchant: Yeah. I mean, the president uses it, {laughing} but that’s about it!

Juli Bauer: Uggh, man. We won’t go into that.

Jessica Merchant: I know. I mean, I don’t really know, I feel bad. Sometimes I go 4 days without opening it, and I’m like; oh crap! I didn’t Tweet!

Juli Bauer: Seriously. I just connect everything from Instagram. Does that count?

Jessica Merchant: That’s what I do too because I just can’t keep up with everything.

Juli Bauer: Well I just looked at this The Almond Eater that you were talking about, and her stuff is beautiful!

Jessica Merchant: Isn’t it? I love her.

Juli Bauer: It’s awesome. Thank you for the recommendation. I love finding new food photography inspiration.

Jessica Merchant: Oh, and she does some paleo stuff every now and then.

Juli Bauer: Oh cool! Ok, sweet.

Jessica Merchant: Yeah. It’s cool.

Juli Bauer: Awesome. Well thank you so much, Jessica for being on. You’re amazing. Thank you for inspiring me from day one on my blog.

Jessica Merchant: Oh, thank you!

Juli Bauer: And I will keep trying to get; I actually just signed up for a photography class so I can take my camera off of automatic.

Jessica Merchant: {Laughing}

Juli Bauer: I started my class today.

Jessica Merchant: That’s awesome!

Juli Bauer: {laughs} So I will someday get there.

Jessica Merchant: Good for you.

Juli Bauer: Someday. But thank you so much for coming on. And it’s like, what, 9 p.m. your time. So I truly appreciate it. And you guys, go check out Jessica. She will give you so much inspiration in the kitchen, and now with DIY body stuff. And, amazing cocktails. I mean, you’re really good at cocktails.

Jessica Merchant: Thank you! {laughs}

Juli Bauer: So stay on the line. You guys, don’t forget to rate, review, and subscribe. And I will see you next time. Bye-bye!

116 episodes available. A new episode about every 7 days averaging 64 mins duration .