23 min read
A story about taking chances, struggling with self-doubt, and how one lawyer-turned-full-time-food-blogger didn’t let that (or the haters) stop her.
Tanya Harris lights up when talking about writing her first blog post about getting the fishy taste out of catfish: “I really enjoyed it. I don't think anyone read it, but I loved the feeling of creating something. It was fun.’”
Fun. No one talks about fun in blogging anymore. Growth, and traffic, and content, oh my.
All of that is important, but it’s not where it has to start.
Fun is a great place to start. So is purpose. And quiet. A deliberate quieting – of all the noise – so you can hear your own voice.
The internet is crowded; it’s hard to hear (or trust) your voice. It’s hard to believe there’s room.
But there isn’t just room, there’s hunger – people are tired of the formulas and are starving for content that comes from the deepest places of a creator’s heart.
When I walk into Tanya’s North Carolina home, it’s hard to tell where the kitchen ends and the rest of the house begins. It’s wide and open and full – almost every inch of counter is taken up with fresh vegetables from her husband’s garden or some kind of air fryer or pressure cooker.
(The official report is that Tanya has three pressure cookers and five air fryers…though her nine-year-old daughter informs me that the more accurate number of air fryers she has is “a thousand”).
We sit down at a wooden table in the kitchen, and while it rains and the peaches defrost for a cobbler Tanya is going to make me soon, I ask her when she fell in love with food and how it led to quitting her job as a lawyer just a few months ago.
The taste and creativity of a meal wasn’t part of Tanya’s life growing up; meals were just another box to check on a long to-do list. “My mom is Jamaican, but she didn't always cook Jamaican food.” Why? Because, as Tanya explains, she was busy. She was a nurse who fed her kids whatever was quick, easy, and nourishing, where “recipes” involved only 1-2 steps, like: “defrost chicken” (now-foodie Tanya tries not to shudder at the memory). For the majority of her early life, work came before cooking.
“When I was in college and law school, I was a terrible cook and had no passion to make good food.” Her only criteria? “This is edible.”
But in 2012, a book changed Tanya’s food life.
While wandering around a local bookstore a cookbook caught her eye: How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.
The author made cooking accessible even for someone with no experience: “This man teaches you how to make scrambled eggs! And I loved the step by step photos.”
She bought the book and made scrambled eggs that night; it changed her outlook on food forever. “You can make really good food if you actually try!”
She fell in love with cooking. She bought more cookbooks. She followed food bloggers. But she never imagined she’d become one.
“I'm not like most people. I didn't hate my job.” But by 2016 Tanya had been a lawyer for seven years. She found herself yearning for a fresh challenge, for something outside work and family – something of her own.
She started her food blog in March 2016 as a way to share the joy happening in her kitchen.
When she first launched she didn’t have many readers, or comments – but she had a lot of fun.
However, after the first year, she decided to take a break from blogging.
“Why?” I ask.
“I was tired.” She answers simply and confidently. I smile in understanding, one overachieving creator to another.
Tanya had good reason to be tired.
She and her husband had been going through the intensive in-vitro process for months in hopes to have a second child. Struggling through the physical and emotional roller coaster that is IVF, in addition to working full-time and caring for her daughter, was draining. Tanya simply didn’t have anything left. She pressed pause on the blog.
Then one day before her next scheduled treatment, she bought an over-the-counter pregnancy test. “There was the faintest line. I actually walked into the appointment the next day and let them know I was pregnant!”
And with that pregnancy came the cravings – particularly the french fry cravings.
“We had a deep fryer at home but since I was pregnant, I wanted to eat healthy for myself and the baby. I was in an aisle of a store rubbing my belly when I saw two air fryers sitting on the display shelf. I was contemplating whether or not I should get one when a lady walked right up and grabbed one and walked away. So I grabbed the other one and bought it.”
That air fryer kept her in endlessly easy fries all throughout her pregnancy. She was happy.
Maybe food didn’t have to be tied to blogging. Maybe food would be something she enjoyed privately.
But the blog wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
Tanya kept getting email alerts that people were commenting on the blog – every day there were more and more. She hadn’t been thinking about the blog, but she was curious. What are all these people commenting about? They were all coming from a pressure cooker shrimp paella recipe she’d shared before she pressed pause.
People weren’t just raving about the recipes either, they were also asking her follow-up questions. They wanted her help. How do you use a pressure cooker exactly? What do you do if you have one of the smaller ones? What if you can’t find saffron?
Those questions launched her business. Because she desperately wanted to answer them. She couldn’t not answer them. She became obsessed with the idea that she could help people around the world. Her purpose expanded; it wasn’t just about her anymore. And that was the moment everything changed. She started to dream about quitting her job to do this full-time.
As a lawyer and former collegiate track athlete, Tanya knew she wouldn’t make money blogging simply by wishing it so. She got to work.
Step one? Podcasts. “I got obsessed.” She listened to podcasts anytime she was in the car: driving to work, running errands, taking her daughter to school. Her daughter used to complain (she preferred music), but eventually, she got it:
“’Oh, you're doing this for your blog,’ Tanya remembers her daughter saying in the car a few weeks after the podcast binge began.
“Yeah, I'm trying to learn. And it's not just my blog, it's my business.”
Those podcasts taught Tanya how SEO and Google Analytics could help more people find her blog. With her new metrics mindset, she started researching her blog’s traffic and found that on average she was getting about 2,000 views a month (after the shrimp paella recipe went viral, it jumped to 7,000).
The podcasts also referenced the ad network Mediavine a lot. She signed up, set a goal of 25,000 unique visitors in one month, and got back into the kitchen.
Tanya started making more recipes with her air fryer. So far she’d only used it to make her beloved french fries, and it seemed like a waste of a big gadget to only serve her fries frenzy. So she started experimenting. And it worked. Her SEO and Google Trends research also confirmed that air fryers were having a bit of a “moment.”
People were flocking to her site.
People were making her food.
People were clicking on the ads.
Tanya’s blog started to make money.
“I remember when I made my first $10. I immediately told my husband: ‘I made $10!’ I was really excited.”
She was hooked. And she made a declaration in the summer of 2018: “In a year I want to quit my job and do this full-time.”
She told some friends who were supportive enough but not super interested. The pact was really to herself, and she started getting even more strategic, working on weekends and every lunch break – a total of 15 hours per week.
It was intense, but it paid off. In December of 2018, just five months after her Summer Declaration, Tanya’s blog income matched her lawyer's salary.
She knew that just one month of income match wasn’t enough evidence to quit her job. But in January her blog income exceeded her lawyer's salary. Then it happened again in February. It was working.
Tanya got excited. She was ready to quit her job.
But no one else was.
It’s hard to ignore comments from people you love:
“Are you sure?”
“Why don’t you just keep doing both?”
“What about health insurance?”
“You’re a state employee only two years away from the loan forgiveness program, just wait another two years!”
But Tanya’s heart said something else. “I wanted to be happy now, not two years from now.
“In my heart I wanted to take the leap, but I was terrified.
“Because what if I take the leap and I fail?”
Tanya didn’t quit her job. She had trouble sleeping.
For four months she kept going back and forth.
Then one day her daughter’s tutor Brianne came over to the house with a navy and orange book called I Am A Blogger.
“I have a present for you,” Brianne said.
“What is it?”
“My husband donated to this Kickstarter and they sent him two copies of this book. I don’t know why, but here you go.”
Tanya asks me to wait a second while she runs upstairs to get the book. She wants to show me the page that changed her life.
She comes back down the wooden steps with the blue and orange book, and tells me more about the day she first got it. “I’m literally freaking out over whether I should take the leap or not and whether I'm worth it. And I open this book and I see all these bloggers who took the leap, and then I read this paragraph on the first few pages:
“‘We hope you enjoy reading these sixteen stories as much as we’ve enjoyed telling them. But more than anything, we hope when you close the back cover of this book you walk away with one very clear message: you are every bit as capable, worthy, and ready to take the leap as the people in this book.
Tanya takes a picture of the paragraph and texts it to a friend along with the following: “I’m quitting my job.”
She sent in her resignation letter and has been a full-time blogger since April 2019 – less than a year since she made that pact with herself.
The comments from well-meaning friends and family didn’t stop even after she took the leap.
She tried to explain to some how much money her blog was making, but they worried she wouldn’t make that forever. Her response?
“It might disappear tomorrow, but would you feel any differently if I told you I was leaving to go start my own law firm? My own law firm wouldn’t be a guarantee of consistent money every single month either.”
While even Tanya’s lawyer-logic couldn’t convince everyone, she realized she didn’t need to convince anyone. Now it was time to simply go all in. “I just had to ignore the chatter and just say, I've made it this far and the only way I'm going to take it to the next level is if I put 100% into it, not just the 20% that I was doing.”
The day she quit her job wasn’t easy-breezy, though. “I was a hot mess. But I'm glad I took the leap. And I don't even know why I freaked out that much because I'm still a lawyer. If things don’t work out I can just go back to work.”
When you make big leaps it’s easy to feel like you’re setting everything you built before on fire. But that’s not true. It’s still there. You can always come back if you want to. People forget that.
People still reach out to Tanya offering her legal work to do on the side. But for now, she kindly replies with a ‘No, thank you.”
Since Tanya quit her job, her blog continues to exceed her lawyer’s salary month after month. How?
When she first started blogging she tried to do “all the things” and got quickly overwhelmed. She didn’t really start making progress until she focused on just a few things, and she still focuses on those few things today: SEO, email, and content strategy.
Tanya makes only two kinds of content:
While every recipe that excites Tanya doesn’t always go viral or excite her audience, it’s her most important starting point; if she isn’t excited about it then there’s little chance her audience will be.
But how does she know ahead of time what her audience might get excited about?
Tanya analyzes her top posts on her blog each week and looks at Google Trends, but never writes about a trend she isn’t also genuinely excited about. She makes most of her content decisions by pairing data with instinct.
Tanya also prioritizes qualitative data, like the time her husband took her oxtail meal to his grandma’s house and she said: “This is the best oxtail I’ve ever eaten!” Since she’s been on the planet for 99 years, Tanya knew that recipe would be blog-worthy.
Finally, Tanya looks to her email list for inspiration, which really started to take off when she created her first sequence – an air fryer email course (an idea she got from a podcast). She pays special attention to which emails get the most opens, clicks, and replies.
Today she emails her list at least twice a week: “I don't want them to forget me.” She also segments her list based on their interests. There’s an air fryer group and a pressure cooker group; she loves only sending affiliate products to people who might actually be interested instead of blasting her whole list.
To date her email list is an intentionally dedicated group of 9,000 food lovers and growing. Unlike most email lists (and conventional advice), joining Tanya’s isn’t that easy to find on first glance – and that’s on purpose. While most opt-ins are within or at the end of relevant blog content, Tanya wants a more invested reader.
For now, she likes knowing that the people she’s writing to on her list have actually read at least one full blog post. She loves knowing that she’s only writing to people who actually like her content and want to hear from her.
Recently Tanya’s husband came home from the grocery store and said:
“‘This lady at the checkout said she heard of your blog.’”
Tanya responded: “No, she didn't. You're full of it.”
“’No. She said you're the one that does air fryer recipes. A lot of her friends are on your email list.’”
But as anyone building a fanbase knows, the haters are never too far behind. Tanya laughs as she remembers how she never got any negative comments when no one read her blog. But once it started to make a difference in people’s lives and kitchens, the trolls came out to play too. This is hard enough for even those with the toughest of skin, but it’s even harder for those who struggle with imposter syndrome.
Weak is not a word you’d use to describe Tanya. She’s self-reliant. A former track athlete. A lawyer. Practical. But all the logic in the world doesn’t keep imposter syndrome away when a rude comment comes in.
It always stings; even celebrities who’ve been in the public eye for decades confirm that. But what helps them keep going is what they choose to do after. Tanya’s strategy?
When I ask Tanya about her biggest struggle, she talks about imposter syndrome. “I always feel like whatever I do, maybe it's not good enough.”
When Tanya gets a negative comment her first instinct is to help. Is there something she could have done better? Does this recipe need tweaking? Is there anything she can do to help this person?
If the answer to all of the above is a clear “no,” then the comment is moved into the “troll” category – labeled unnecessary and cruel.
Next she goes to the website of a food blogger she admires. (Her two favorites are The Pioneer Woman, because she didn’t go to culinary school, and Martha Stewart, who, according to Tanya, gets tons of unwarranted nasty comments on really great recipes.)
Every single time Tanya gets a negative comment she reads a negative one on Martha’s blog. Every time. (I asked her twice just to be sure.) Tanya flips the narrative – instead of the negative comment serving as evidence that she’s not enough, it becomes evidence that she’s on the right track, becoming like her heroes.
“It reminds me that this is what I signed up for, and that a negative comment doesn’t mean you’re not making good recipes.
“When I put my first catfish post up, I didn't get any negative comments. It took me a while before I got my first ‘one-star-you-suck’ comment. This isn’t happening because I’m not good enough, but because I am reaching more people!”
For Tanya it’s about ratios. “If I was getting more negative comments than positive comments, then I would self-reflect. But that's not the case. I'm getting more positive feedback.”
“No matter what you do, you could put forth your best effort, it's not always going to make everyone love you. But that doesn't make you not qualified to do it.”
When she’s feeling down she also likes to read all the positive email replies she’s saved to remind herself why she’s doing this in the first place. “It reminds me that you're not an imposter. You helped Jane in Colorado provide a wonderful meal for her family.”
And now it’s time for me to watch Tanya cook.
The peaches have defrosted.
Her daughter skips into the kitchen to help – she chops herbs as I mix them into the butter with minced garlic as a topper for the steak.
The whole cooking experience is calm and comforting. In between the sound of chopping and Tanya’s daughter’s infectious laughter, I ask Tanya questions about how pressure cookers work and what you can do with an air fryer. (Days later when I leave Charlotte and return home to San Diego I find myself cooking big meals more often, relishing in the mess, in taking my time. Finding that same comfort in my own kitchen across the country.)
After about an hour or so of chopping and talking and cooking we all sit down to eat on a summer Tuesday at 2pm.
The garlic herb butter melts on the steak, and it’s the first time I’ve ever enjoyed a home-cooked steak without steak sauce. We don’t talk much because the food is so good. I go back for seconds on the seafood salad and mentally plan to make it in my own kitchen as soon as possible. We all swoon over the peach cobbler – I don’t even need the ice cream.
Before I leave I ask Tanya about how her life is different now than it was last summer when she made her declaration.
It’s generally assumed that when you quit your job your life becomes perfect; but of course that’s not the case.
Tanya didn’t just quit a job – she got a new one, and that comes with a transition period. She’s in that now. She’s still trying to find the schedule that works best for her, and is getting used to the idea that she’s the one who’s supposed to make it now.
The biggest change has been what happens when she wakes up not feeling physically or mentally well. In the past, she’d have to go to work anyway. But now, she’ll make new micro declarations: “‘I’m not doing anything this morning.’ For me that’s been the biggest reward so far.” This example is fresh in her mind, because it happened just the day before our interview.
Tanya woke up feeling down, incapable, and unmotivated to work on the blog. “One of the negatives you face being an entrepreneur is that you're always thinking about your business.” Tanya was overloaded, and her mind and body were shutting down.
Instead of fighting it and pushing through, Tanya used her newfound freedom to take a break and go out to lunch with her husband (a filmmaker who also works from home and helps with her YouTube channel). “We said of course that we would still talk business over lunch. But we didn't. We talked about basketball. We talked about random stuff. It was really relaxing to get away.”
Then she talks about the errands they ran together after lunch as if reading a spa menu: “We went to the library. We got new books. We didn’t listen to podcasts; we listened to music. Then we picked up our daughter, and went to the store. I didn't check Facebook, Instagram, or any of that stuff. I needed that. It was refreshing to not think about the blog.”
Tanya doesn’t miss practicing law, but she does miss having a work routine and is in the process of applying one to what she does now. The reason she’s struggling? “I’m in the kitchen to work. But it doesn't feel like work. It's weird.”
The biggest change of all? “I don’t even know where my suits are.”
Tanya had to wear suits every day, and follow other unspoken appearance rules: “As a lawyer you can't wear big earrings,” she says animatedly as two green wooden earrings that almost look like cucumbers sway back and forth, brushing her shoulders. I take in the rest of her appearance as if I’m writing for Vogue: hair loosely pulled back with a scrunchie, tan cotton T-shirt featuring a smiling Tupac, stretch jeans, and fuzzy gray slippers.
While Tanya loves wearing what she wants, spending more time with her kids in the summer, and having the flexibility to take spontaneous family trips, that’s not really why she’s doing this.
“One of the first emails I remember getting was from a guy who made my instant pot Jamaican jerk chicken soup; he wrote: ‘Thank you so much for that soup. I really wanted to impress my wife with the dish. She just loved it and I really appreciate you helping me impress my wife.’”
Tanya talks about helping this man impress his wife at least three times during our interview, the email memorized by heart, her eyes shining as if she’s talking about winning a Michelin star.
“That’s my goal. That's what I want to do. I want people to impress other people with this food. It just made me happy.”
And then there’s the woman with epilepsy who had always been afraid of cooking because what if she had a seizure and burned the house down? She emailed Tanya to say thank you for teaching her that air fryers had an automatic safety shut off; for the first time in her life she was cooking with joy instead of fear.
Tanya’s blog started out as a place of her own, but what kept her going were people like this.
They also inspire her to keep challenging herself, like creating new spins on old recipes, which is risky; people don’t always like when she veers from tradition.
“Sometimes I push a limit with something like a southern staple and people comment, ‘You can't do that. How dare you?’”
“Because I can. I can do that.”
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