Sometimes you meet someone and you just click. You know, "That's it, we're going to be friends." That's how it's been with Tracy Benjamin. She sent me a good things list many moons ago, and we have been emailing ever since. Over the years, I have watched Tracy go on many a foodie adventure with her husband Casey, build a repertoire of recipes for her blog Shutterbean, make and keep a lovely home, become a mother to the adorable Cooper, and take gorgeous photos of it all. And, before you think she is some kind of out-of-reach superhero, let me assure you she is incredibly down to earth.
Tracy made time from her regularly scheduled programming at Shutterbean and Modern Kiddo to have a little chat with me. My only regret? I wish we could have done it in person.
Thank you so much for chatting with me, Tracy. I always look forward to our conversations, whether by email or in person.
I'm excited about this conversation too! Thank you for this opportunity.
I know you love food just like I do. How did your love affair with food begin?
So my love affair with food probably began the second I was conceived! I'm half Italian which means I'm always thinking about food. When I'm eating breakfast, I'm thinking about lunch. When I'm eating lunch I'm thinking about dinner...It really never ends! It's always been like that! So yeah...it's an affair, and I'm totally hooked. Food and I are best friends. We have matching heart necklaces.
How and when did you learn to cook and bake?
My mom and grandma helped foster my fascination with cooking and baking when I was a wee bean. Because food has always been the main focus for our family get-togethers, I had a lot of hands-on practice in the kitchen. I was always given the task of ingredient measuring & I'd get to crack a few eggs on occasion. My mom pulled up a chair for me to sit on while she worked in the kitchen; I was always so happy to watch. Grocery shopping with my mom is one of the fondest childhood memories. I learned so many great things from my mom in the kitchen.
Later on in my life I got super hooked on Food Network shows when I was in college. Not only did it feed my appetite, it helped me build confidence to try out new recipes and techniques. I totally binged on Ina Garten, Nigella Lawson & Jamie Oliver shows! I was kind of obsessed.
I don't know if I've ever told you point blank, but I really enjoy your blog Shutterbean. The photography makes my mouth water, and the recipes are accessible for a budding cook like myself. Tell me a little bit about Shutterbean. When did you start it? Where did the name come from? (How) has it changed since you first began?
Oh, thank you!!! When I was done with art school in 2004, I wanted to carve out a little place online to post my photography portfolio and current work. My husband (who was my boyfriend back then) set up a website and asked me to create a URL. I took SHUTTER, like the camera shutter, and BEAN, my nickname, and combined the two! There wasn't much thought put into it because I had no intention for anyone to see it, let alone become a food blog! In 2007 I started posting pictures of the food I was making and things I did around the house on the site, and it suddenly transformed from an online portfolio to a food blog/journal. Now it's my happy place!
I am so inspired by the meals you make--and, let's face it, the fact that you are able to make meals at all! How often do you cook for your family? How do you find the time do so? Do you have a meal planning strategy?
I *try* to accomplish 2-3 recipes each week. Some days I'll do it all in one day. Other times I spread it out over the week. I get a lot of help from my husband who watches our son when I'm busy in the kitchen on the weekends. So on average I cook about 4 days a week. The rest of the time we are eating very simple/quick meals and leftovers.
I'm still working on perfecting a good meal planning strategy! Every week has its own challenges! My process looks like this: At the beginning of the week, I take out my current recipe folder and make a game plan. I write down the recipes I want to make with the necessary ingredients that need to be picked up. Sometimes I don't have enough time to make a particular recipe on my list, so the ingredients get absorbed into quick/non-blogged meals!
There are times where I don't plan on making something but need to be in the kitchen to clear my head; it keeps me sane. This is my formula to figure out if I can whip up a post:
APPETITE + LIGHTING OUTSIDE + INGREDIENTS ON HAND + TIME = BLOG POST
One of my goals of this site is to share some of the meals I make, but I can already see how blogging can require more time and work. How does blogging your meals change the way you work in the kitchen?
It changes a lot! You have to be extremely organized and think of everything you have to do before you do it! Because I like to take pictures of the entire process of making a dish, it's important to take deep breaths and center myself after each step! I usually start with an overview shot of all of my ingredients because it's a good mental check to see if I am missing an ingredient before I get started. My kitchen turns into a tornado of activity. Messes are made, things are knocked over steps are occasionally made out of order, but somehow I get through it. Some days I'm racing the clock because the sun is going down before my food is finished! My advice to you is to clean up as you go! The process can't take a lot out of you!
Where do you find recipes? What are your favorite sources, cookbooks, websites or otherwise?
Collecting recipes is a huge hobby of mine! You should see my nightstand! I find a lot of recipes inspiration online and in magazines.
Online: The Kitchn, Tastespotting, Foodgawker, 101 Cookbooks
Magazines: Martha Stewart Living, Everyday Food, Donna Hay, Food & Wine, Sunset and Everyday with Rachael Ray are a few of my favorites!
There's also a huge group of bloggers I follow online who constantly inspire me!
When you came with me and Rama to the Maira Kalman exhibit last month, we were both struck with how sharp and clever your observations were! It was then that I learned that you went to art school. What did you study? How do you express yourself creatively?
Yes, it's been so long since I was in Art school! I studied both graphic design and photography. I dabble a bit with some graphic design on my blog but for the most part, I express myself creatively through taking pictures while cooking, baking and decorating my house! Every now and then I bust out my sewing machine...
For me, making dinner at the end of the day or cooking brunch on a Saturday morning is relaxing. In fact, I consider it a creative outlet. Is there a connection for you between food and art?
DEFINITELY! I love food photography and its power to seduce one's appetite! I love experimenting with dishware, linens, backgrounds and angles while I'm taking food shots. I'm totally addicted to the that blissful feeling of having 10-15 good images from a recipe that I get to play with and edit on my computer. It's like having a new set of colored pencils waiting to be used. Ultimately, I find myself at peace when I'm working on something in the kitchen; it's therapy!
Your adorable 2-year-old son Cooper is such a lucky boy! What has motherhood changed for you, especially in your relationship with food?
Thank you! I've definitely been more conscious of the food I buy for our family. I carefully read labels now and buy organic fruit, dairy and vegetables. When we do have meat (which is a rarity these days) I make sure it's organic and hormone free. Because we buy it for special occasions, it's definitely worth the extra cost. I also want to teach my son how to cook and bake. I am hoping he'll be interested in it one day!
As you know, Henry is approaching his 1st birthday, which will open up a whole new world of dining to him. What are your tips for raising a little foodie?
Feeding children can be a challenge! My advice is: Don't give up! There have been plenty of times I wanted to throw in the towel and go to Prepared Packaged Foodland. I've made countless meals that have gone to waste! Apparently you need to give your child at least a dozen introductions to a food before they make up their minds if they like it or not! Cooper is almost 2 years old and he finally liked blueberries a few days ago. It made me SOO happy and so proud! I am still trying to figure out his likes and dislikes are! So you should really pay attention to what they like and always keep it new and fresh. I'm hoping that if I expose him to a huge variety of things, he'll learn to be adventurous. We shall see!
What's next for you, Shutterbean and your family of three?
Cooking, giggling, working, blogging, thanking you for interviewing me & being a dear friend--you know, the usual!
Tracy shared this recipe for her mom's tasty curry zucchini soup. She said: "[My mom] always makes it on Christmas Eve, but I find myself making it year round! It's fantastic and simple."
Photo of adorable Tracy by Whitney A. Brandt
All other photos by Tracy Benjamin