In 2006, when Deb Perelman started Smitten Kitchen, her now beloved food blog, she thought she was essentially shouting into a void. She had never cooked professionally and had no connections in the food world. Her background was in psychology. And yet, fourteen years later, she has outlasted most of her contemporaries (“Smitten Kitchen, these days, is not just a food blog: it is the food blog,” Emily Gould wrote in this magazine in 2017), married one of her readers, and nourished an audience that numbers in the millions. She has produced two best-selling cookbooks, with a third on the way.
Her mission is straightforward: provide recipes you can rely on. Deb, as her friends, family, and most loyal fans call her, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Martha and Ina, but she is not selling a fantasy of domestic bliss. She simply wants to eat well, and to show you how to do the same. She is guided by her own impulses and never pretends otherwise; she is incredibly honest and careful, both as writer and cook. She tests and tweaks and tests and tweaks in her tiny Manhattan kitchen, all on her own. (Last year, for the first time ever, she hired an assistant, but then COVID-19 struck.)
Once she’s perfected a recipe, she posts it onto the blog, where her tone has a gentle, inviting intimacy, and a notable lack of arrogance, which makes her all the more trustworthy. Nine times out of ten, when a friend tells me about a go-to recipe, it’s one they’ve found on Smitten Kitchen. A few months ago, when I asked on Twitter if anyone had ideas for what to do with leftover brewed coffee, someone suggested Perelman’s olive oil chocolate cake. I’ve made it three times since. When I tweeted more recently about craving cake at an hour too late to make any, someone else suggested I try the low-effort, high-yield peanut butter cookie recipe that Deb adapted from the Ovenly cookbook. A veritable Greek chorus chimed in to agree.
Over the summer and again in the fall, we spoke about the evolution of her career, cooking during the pandemic, using her voice both within and beyond the realm of food, and, of course, Thanksgiving. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Thanksgiving philosophy this year, and how does it differ, if at all, from other years?
Obviously, it’s going to be a lot smaller. And it’s really sad, at the end of a tough year, to still not be able to see your family. I’m getting a lot of questions, like, “So, can I make your turkey as a chicken? Can I halve this stuffing recipe?” Sometimes I say, Don’t worry about halving it—just make it in two pans and freeze half of it, and come Christmas, you have this delicious potato gratin or whatever waiting for you.
Even more fun would be finding new ways to do stuff. For all of the bad things about this year, we all have some new traditions. We have certain meals that we make more, we do so much more outside. Some of the creativity is really lovely. And I imagine, for some people, since Thanksgiving is like our cooking Olympics, it’s a tiny bit of relief.
I’ve come to sort of loathe the word Friendsgiving, but I really like the idea behind it. I think the holidays can feel prescriptive for people, and there’s something liberating about doing it your own way.
I think a lot more people’s Thanksgivings are going to look like Friendsgivings this year, which is to say, smaller, casual, only what you like. This is the perfect excuse to get rid of the pie you hated making. You can home in on the three dishes that, if they’re not on the table, it’s not Thanksgiving. I actually asked people about that on Instagram—what’s the dish that you won’t negotiate on? People are really into stuffing.
You were one of the original food bloggers. In the early days of blogging, it seemed like there was less trolling and a lot more good will. Do you think you’ve held onto the good will?
I don’t know if I’ve held on to the good will! I hope I haven’t done anything to lose it. I think once you reach any level of success or readership, there’s this idea that you did it with some sort of intentionality or authority, and I’ve never felt either of those things. I don’t actually think I’m, like, a smarter, better cook than everybody else. There’s always this tone in food writing: “Let me tell you how it is.” Ugh, gross. Who wants to be bossed around when you’re making dinner?
It’s just about inviting people to have a conversation.
Exactly. In my first book I called it telephone-cord cooking. This is definitely showing my age, but when I was a kid, my mom would be on the phone talking to a friend, you know, back when telephones had cords. She’d be talking and she’d be, like, “O.K., so what do you do with chicken? O.K. No, I’m not. We’re not gonna do that. That sounds ridiculous.” I liked the way telephone-cord cooking sounded, and I didn’t hear a lot of it in food writing.
How did you get into food writing?
I majored in psychology, and then I did this art therapy master’s program at George Washington, and then after that, I moved up to New York and I got a job as an art therapist at a nursing home. I did that for about four years. I liked working with old people, but I realized that I had absolutely chosen the wrong career path. It did not make me happy.
I didn’t know what else I was going to do with my life. Like, how do you get out of such a niche profession? So I started my Smitten blog, before Smitten Kitchen, in 2003, and I was doing that in the evenings. It took off pretty quickly, even though it was just essays and stuff. But I had no connections. I didn’t know anyone in media. I tried to apply for jobs at Gourmet and Bon Appétit and they were, like, Who are you?
Smitten was a dating blog, right?
It was just a whatever blog. There was dating in it, but you didn’t need to have a focus in 2003. You could just blog.
How did you get readers?
I remember, like, Gawker linked to stuff I wrote a few times, and not even in a mean way. And Gothamist. Around this time I also met my husband, who was an early reader. He left a comment, we moved it over to e-mail, we met for a drink, we got married two years later. I was, like, I like writing, I like you, I hate my job. I was so miserable.
One of my former co-worker’s husbands worked at a B2B publishing company, and he was, like, “We’re hiring an editorial assistant.” So I ended up doing that. And then, after a couple of months, they realized I could write, and I became a staff writer. Which is hilarious—at a tech magazine? I don’t know shit about tech. And I was there for about three years, but at the same time, I started Smitten Kitchen, in 2006. And, honestly, after not even a year, I think it was pretty clear that I could do that full time, because I was pulling enough from ads. So I quit in 2008.
Did you feel like there was a lot of energy around cooking blogs then? And did that help you feel like you could start one? Or was it just purely your natural interest?
I definitely knew about the existence of cooking blogs. There are some that are still around from those days. Heidi, from 101 Cookbooks, and Luisa Weiss, at Wednesday Chef, although I don’t think she blogs much. Molly Wizenberg.
But a lot of the food blogs that were out there were professional—they were, like, somebody going to cooking school, and they were sort of technique heavy. I didn’t know anything about cooking. I was a total beginner, and I fully expected it to be over in six months and then I would just retire from blogging. My cooking entries were, like, I don’t really think I like eggplant, but I tried this and it was pretty good! And I don’t think it’s changed. The difference is I’m a much better cook now. Before, I didn’t have go-to recipes for anything, and so the site was just a way of me collecting those recipes. I made Marian Burros’s plum torte, or the famous Marcella Hazan three-ingredient tomato sauce. There are a lot more original recipes now.
But adapting other people’s recipes is still part of your model.
I like the conversation in cooking. I like the messy way, where you’re, like, “Well, Carol, when I met her in Rome, told me about this. And then this lady…” But then people are like, “Oh, Deb doesn’t write her own recipes.” I actually think the world of food is more interesting when you talk about the pieces that come together. Nobody creates food in a vacuum. Sometimes you’re sitting in a restaurant, you’re inspired by a dish, and you come home and make something completely different. Is it the restaurant’s dish? A lot of people would say, “Well, I’m not going to give them credit, because I came up with this.” And I’m, like, “I want to give you credit cause I think you’re cool.” So I probably over-source, but I think it makes the conversation more interesting.
You’re showing your work.
I grew up in Central New Jersey, eating Frenchish Jewish suburban food. Based on my background, where did I learn about coconut curry with curry leaves? It would be crazy if I acted like I invented that dish!
I understand that people who don’t put multiple credits on each of their recipes aren’t claiming invention of the dish. But a lot of this stuff is really coming to a head. All of these years of people not having to talk about where their food came from, you know, being accused of erasure. This is why I’ve always talked about where my food came from. It’s not like I don’t make missteps, but I’d rather over-credit, even if it means that people might take me less seriously as a recipe developer.
You wrote a post over the summer about how, in light of the Black Lives Matter protests, you were taking a moment to step back. You wrote, “I’m wary of using my platform in a way that places more value on the performance of allyship than the practice of it.” Had you specifically thought about that in the past, or is that part of your broader desire to make sure that you’re giving credit where it’s due?
It’s definitely something I’ve known about, because I read my comments. I’ve been corrected several times, and I always encourage people: if you want to get into food blogging, learn how to handle a correction. Apologize. It’s not personal. You made a mistake—just fix it!
But it’s hit me on a different level this year. Seeing what’s happening with a lot of the big food publications, including one where I was until quite recently a columnist, has been really eye-opening. It’s been really upsetting, and it’s made me want to change. A chunk of it was walking over to my bookshelves and being, like, Wow, I have a great diversity of cookbooks here. But the recipes that end up on my site—why do I talk about the white cookbook authors more? What am I doing? That was something I wanted to think hard about.
The pandemic has created a home-cooking boom. People who weren’t cooking before are now cooking, and people who were cooking are cooking even more. Has that changed your work?
I mean, it’s a great time for home cooking. But what I consider a good recipe, what I consider worth your time, what I want to eat tonight—it hasn’t changed. I’m sorry, this is so corny, but, like, I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “Writing well is the best revenge.” I feel like cooking well and eating well is very good revenge for a hard time.
Are you still able to access that feeling even though it’s your job?
Unquestionably. Preserving my ability to access that is part of why I’m still able to do what I do and enjoy it. I’m married to an M.B.A., and in business school they teach you about increasing your productivity and getting rid of stray costs. It’s an absolute clash with the way I am. I can’t just crank it out because the Internet needs a recipe. I try to have a schedule, but I’m extremely bad at keeping schedules. I have watched corporate blog after corporate blog go to crap, because there was a posting schedule where you had to write five posts a day. I think that everybody would rather just write when you have something good to say.
Do you ever get sick of cooking?
Oh, my God, all the time. I would love to write something specifically on cooking ruts, because I have a whole theory on them. I don’t feel like cooking at least a couple days a week. And sometimes it’s a whole week and I’m, like, Oh, my god, what if I never go back to cooking? I’m going to have to get a real job.
But I’ve done this enough times that I’ve found that, no, you go order takeout or make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or make some tortellini from the freezer. Make do as much as you can. And what you will find is after three days of grilled cheese you will miss cooking with a passion.
I have to say, I’m shocked to hear that you go multiple days without cooking.
Now, understand there are children involved and I might still be making like a sandwich or a scrambled egg. We’re not going to order them peanut butter and jelly from the diner because Mommy doesn’t feel like cooking. But, yeah, it’s gonna be a real lack of creativity for a few days. My husband will grab some chicken thighs and we’ll put barbecue sauce on them. Last night, we came home and the lettuce looked weird, so I just sliced up some cucumbers and mixed them with tzatziki. It’s assembling, not recipe development. But sometimes that just frees you. Don’t push yourself to be Ina Garten every day.
What have your pandemic cravings been?
I found that I immediately went back to classics. I think this is true for a lot of people. We immediately had a pizza night. There was a pasta night. I’ve been on a taco kick for about nine months now. It was a little bit boring, but we needed a system, we needed to know what groceries to order. I learned how to make a grocery list! Do you know, if you buy cauliflower, it’s good for many days in the fridge? Cabbage, too! I did talk about this on the site because I did a pantry guide. I’m, like, I’m sorry, I’m a New Yorker, I’ve got grocery stores on the corner. I’ve never had to plan before.
So where are you doing your grocery shopping now?
Well, I’ve been doing FreshDirect a lot. I’ve been using the Amazon Whole Foods thing a bit.
Do you miss being able to pick out your own perfect peaches when you shop online?
Intensely. I don’t know if I should share this, but very early on in the pandemic, in March, I went to the Greenmarket because I missed the vegetables. I don’t live far from the Union Square Greenmarket. The kids waited on the side, where it was emptier, and I had a mask on and I rushed through and grabbed a few things. And the next day there was this article in the New York Times that was, like, “New Yorkers are really not staying home, despite warnings.” And in the corner of the photo was me. And a couple readers were, like, “Deb, was that you?” And I got Greenmarket shamed. I was, like, “We weren’t as close together as it looked, I swear!”
Well, it feels like now we understand that that’s actually safe. If that photo had been taken today, I don’t think anybody would have shamed you.
I think it was like a good six weeks before I went back. And it’s my favorite place to go. They’re doing a great job with the Greenmarket, keeping everybody safe, and the farmers, too, and, of course, we know that infection rates are much lower outside.
In July, you wrote an Op-Ed in the Times about working parents being hung out to dry during COVID—how they’d been forced to choose between caring for their children and doing their jobs, and how the government was doing nothing to assuage the situation. I was especially struck by this line: “Why am I, a food blogger best known for such hits as the All-Butter Really Flaky Pie Dough and The ‘I Want Chocolate Cake’ Cake, sounding the alarm on this?” And also by some of the criticism, which noted that many working American parents were stuck at this impasse long before the pandemic. Do you feel like you’ve been somehow radicalized by the events of this year?
I’ve actually always thought that the child-care situation in this country is bullshit. It absolutely breaks against working parents, and it’s always working mothers. I think what happened in March is that the system that was not great but maybe working for a large chunk of us, it just fully stopped working. The last time there was a large universal child-care package was in Nixon’s era, and it was shot down. [Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971.] If we’re going to say we can’t fix this without having a universal-child-care solution, I don’t think we’re going to get it fixed in the next few weeks, the next couple months. So I ended up wanting to nab it from a short-term perspective. And I do understand why people felt that I was ignoring what’s been going on for a long time. I didn’t expect the piece to be so widely shared. I thought it would just go right under the radar and I would go back to writing about banana bread.
After the Op-Ed, you were asked to participate in a roundtable discussion on child care during COVID-19, hosted by Congressman Richard Neal, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Did that feel like an authentic gesture, or like lip service? What was it like to find yourself suddenly talking to Congresspeople?
It was definitely the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I went to bed and was, like, I talked to Congress today, so chill out on the late-night anxiety, Deb. I definitely got the impression that they’re politely listening, not because they’re bad listeners but because they already know and they’re on the team. I felt like I was preaching to the choir a little bit. But it still felt good to say it, because hopefully it kind of sticks in people’s heads a bit. And that’s what I really want. The initial thing that I was really angry about hasn’t changed at all. You can’t teach your kids and have a job. Are we all not gonna pay mortgages this year? It’s just so outrageous.
And I feel like everyone just bent their heads and started doing it because it was, like, This is what your country asked of you. There was all this talk about, you know, in my generation we had to go to war, we were drafted, all you have to do is stay home. And I think we all rose to the occasion. But nothing’s changed. There’s no better strategy.
Your husband lost his job last spring. What has that meant for your daily life?
My way of dealing with things is just not to deal with them. When I think about it, I can get really stressed out. Once or twice over the fifteen years we’ve been together, he’s had periods of unemployment, but in each of those periods he was back at work before his severance ended. That is not happening this time. That’s just not the economy we’re in.
I like having him home. I have a little bit of an unpaid assistant. My husband’s not one of those dads that doesn’t handle his half, and it’s definitely a big help with the kid stuff right now. I can focus on work for whatever hours of the day. That said, the larger issue of when he can go back to work is extremely stressful.
Have you incorporated the kids into your work at all, or is that just totally impossible?
Everyone thinks that my job is something that the kids can just come along on. I’m, like, Yeah, kids are great. Would you like to have your child sitting in your cubicle? I sometimes like to do Instagram Lives on Friday afternoons, I’ll pick a recipe and we’ll just demo it. The kids were helping out, and they were so stressful. Everyone got a huge kick out of it because it was very realistic. I’d be talking to my daughter and I’d be, like, Anna, don’t lick the bowl! You can’t have a tantrum because you spy raisins in the middle of the demo, O.K.?
Do they have any extra proclivity toward cooking, after seeing you doing it professionally their whole lives? Or do they just like to lick the bowl?
They’re a little more bowl lickers. I think my son definitely understands—he likes to read my cookbooks, which I find kind of embarrassing, but here we are. But, in general, it’s my work, and it’s important for me to just get it done. Now, on Saturday, if you want to make pancakes together, that’s fine. But Monday through Friday, unless there’s some process where I’m like, Hey, help me pick these basil leaves off the stem, there’s not a lot that’s really gonna go more smoothly with kids helping.
And what about your husband?
He’s not a cook at all. He can definitely follow recipes, like making buttermilk biscuits. He makes the pizza dough. He’s pretty good at roasting vegetables. But, in general, one person cooks and one person does dishes, and I really don’t want to do dishes.
You’ve turned what would have once been considered household labor, which was uncompensated, into a job. Obviously, you’re not the first person to do that, but there’s something ironic about the fact that you’re now the primary breadwinner in your family.
If it was actually my job to be, like, a domestic goddess, I would have been fired a long time ago and been in an office with a real job. My husband jokes that if I can tell him where the washing machines are in the basement he’ll give me twenty dollars. I’m not domestic. I can’t even make a food budget. I’ve always tried to separate myself from the domestic goddess narrative because I feel like people really want to put you in that. They want the frilly apron, and they want to believe that I would have been home either way, cooking. And I wouldn’t have been. I’m home cooking because I’ve been able to make it an economically viable career. Otherwise, I would be doing something else, and I would still be cooking, but I would be doing it in my free time for fun.