Special Sauce: Simply Recipes’ Elise Bauer on Alcatraz Swims and Blogging as Medicine

[Photograph: Courtesy of Simply Recipes. Lemon syrup photograph: Vicky Wasik]

My guest on this week's Special Sauce is Simply Recipes founder Elise Bauer, who was a veteran of Silicon Valley start-ups long before she started her blog. "In the late '90's I worked with a start-up and helped raise $35 million on Wall Street for what was similar to what is now Skype. But it was also in the late '90's when, what do they say, what's that great saying of venture capitalists, 'In a strong wind, even turkeys fly.'"

It failed and Bauer took its demise to heart. "The company went bankrupt, I decided I'm gonna take a year off and get into shape. And I was living in San Francisco and so I decided what better way to get in shape than to do ocean swimming. The ocean there is about 60 degrees in the summertime and what better thing to do with one's time, right? And I loved ocean swimming. I actually did the [swim from] Alcatraz to San Francisco twice."

But after the attacks of 9/11, and after unsuccessfully trying to nurse one of her best friends back to health through a protracted illness, she developed chronic fatigue syndrome. Unable to work or swim, she packed up her laptop, left San Francisco, and moved back to Sacramento to be near her parents and regroup. "When I moved home, I gave myself a year where I would only do things that brought me joy...Doing things that make you happy, that's pretty good life medicine."

So in 2003 she decided to launch her blog Simply Recipes to keep a record of her parents' recipes. The only problem? There was no readily available blogging software available at that moment, and so she had to hand-code all the HTML, the CSS, the recipe pages, and the navigation. "No one does it anymore, but that's what you did back then. Because there wasn't blogging software. And then when someone told me, 'Guess what? There's blogging software out there.' I looked into it. I thought, 'Oh my gosh. I don't have to hand-code every single page on my website in order to put up a recipe or put up an article.'"

Elise was expending every ounce of energy she had left on Simply Recipes, and she found it incredibly worthwhile despite the initial lack of compensation. Why? "Because food is fun and I think it's important to write this stuff down and I believe in sharing knowledge. I don't believe in secret recipes. I don't think you should take recipes to your grave. I think the way we as a culture improve and grow is by sharing information and learning from each other. So it really is ... I want everybody to know how to cook well because if everyone cooks well, then I'm gonna eat better."

Elise's story is remarkable and life-affirming in so many other ways, as you'll find out when you listen to this week's episode. As for how Simply Recipes became the food blog juggernaut it is today? You're just going to have to wait until next week to find out.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats' podcast about food and life. This week we are beginning our special Special Sauce series on what I'm calling "Internet food geeks slash pioneers."

Elise Bauer: What do they say? What's that great saying of venture capitalist that "In a strong wind, even turkeys fly."

EL: And who better to begin with than Elise Bauer. Elise has been posting meticulous, rigorously tested, and seriously delicious recipes perfect for everyday cooks on Simply Recipes since 2003. You really are a pioneer, Elise Bauer. Welcome to Special Sauce.

EB: Thank you Ed. I'm delighted to be here.

EL: You are an internet geek pioneer of the food persuasion.

EB: Thank you.

EL: So first tell us about life at the Bauer table growing up.

EB: Oh well. Oldest of six kids, Catholic family, six kids in eight years.

EL: Whoa.

EB: Parents-

EL: They weren't messing around.

EB: They were teachers, no money. So that meant ... in fact I asked my mom about this the other day. It's like, "Why did you cook from scratch?" And she said, "Well it's just the cheapest way to cook when you have six kids, that's what you have to do." So at our dinner table, we had regular meals every day, same time. Sit down, say grace, and every meal came with a protein, a side, a vegetable, and a salad.

EL: And did you help?

EB: Oh yeah. So from about age five, I was put to work in the kitchen. I mean, everyone had to help when they were able. And my job was to make the salsa. And I did that with canned tomatoes and canned chili peppers and fresh green onions, olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. And we had an electric can opener. And ... I had a sharp knife so I could cut up all the chilies.

EL: Did your mother worry about you cutting yourself with your sharp knife? How old were you?

EB: I was five years old and no, my parents did not worry about that. And I was very careful.

EL: Wow.

EB: Kids are a lot more capable, I think, than we give them credit for.

EL: So you never cut yourself?

EB: Not making salsa, no. I cut myself this weekend making a lamb roast.

EL: We'll get to that in a second. So were you always interested in cooking and food?

EB: No, I wasn't. I was always interested in eating. I loved to eat. I'm like you Ed, I love to eat.

EL: A woman after my own heart.

EB: But what I figured out when I was in my early 40's was that ... or my late 30's, is that I didn't really know how to cook the way I loved to eat. And that my parents were getting older and I better learn from them how to make the foods that I grew up loving to eat or I would never be able to get to eat those foods as I got older. Pure selfishness is what drove me to learn how to cook.

EL: But the thing is, you didn't go through high school and college thinking you were going to be writing recipes and about food, right? You were like-

EB: Yeah.

EL: You were a technology geek.

EB: Yeah, no. I got out of business school and I worked for Apple Computer. I was really into that, computers, marketing, and I ate out a lot. Like I say, I really like eating.

EL: I've eaten with you. I can vouch for that.

EB: I know. I'm probably one of the few people who can actually eat the whole menu with you. When you eat the menu at a restaurant.

EL: It's true. It's true. So you were working at Apple Computer in marketing and you went to Stanford business school, right? You know, not like me, like you actually-

EB: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

EL: Surrounded-

EB: Come on Ed. Where did you go to business school?

EL: I went to Columbia, but-

EB: Well there you go.

EL: But you were surrounded by would-be tech entrepreneurs.

EB: Yeah. Actually real tech entrepreneurs, they turned out. I mean, we've got some pretty amazing people in our class.

EL: Like who?

EB: Like Robbie Bach who ran the, I think was the Xbox division for Microsoft and-

EL: Whoa.

EB: You know, we got all sorts of people doing great work in our class.

EL: And what did you do when you graduated? You went to work for Apple.

EB: And I actually worked in an Apple online service. They had started something that was a lot like AOL. Back in the day they were doing their own private online service. And then I left Apple and I worked for a series of tech start-ups for several years.

EL: So you had the start-up gene?

EB: Right.

EL: And then you eventually, if I remember correctly, you actually raised money and did your own start-up.

EB: Yeah. In the late '90's I worked with a start-up and helped raise $35 million on Wall Street for what was similar to what is now Skype, but it was also in the late '90's when, what do they say, what's that great saying of venture capitalist that, "In a strong wind, even turkeys fly." You know that one?

EL: No. I like that though.

EB: So we're saying that because, yes we raised a lot of money, but the winds of raising money were very strong at that time. And then there was the big dot com crash in 2000. And then everything fell apart. Our main competitor was a big public company with a billion dollar valuation and it went bankrupt. So-

EL: Whoa.

EB: So did we.

EL: So were you crushed?

EB: I was exhausted, was probably too tired to be crushed. I don't know, Ed, if you've ever worked in a start-up environment, but it is 80-hour weeks and it's just you pour your heart and soul into something and it just doesn't stop.

EL: What do you mean? That's called Serious Eats.

EB: Exactly.

EL: That's called Serious Eats. I know about 80-hour start-ups and sitting on my bed going, "Am I good for payroll in two weeks? I don't think so. What am I gonna do?" So did that leave you depleted?

EB: Yeah. And what happened after that was the company went bankrupt, I decided I'm gonna take a year off and get into shape. And I was living in San Francisco and so I decided what better way to get in shape than to do ocean swimming.

EL: Of course. That's the first thing that comes to mind.

EB: The ocean there is about 60 degrees in the summertime and what better thing to do with one's time, right? And I loved ocean swimming. I had lots of friends who were triathletes and they did this, there's a swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco that's quite famous. So I did that a couple of times. I actually did the Alcatraz to San Francisco twice.

EL: You did?

EB: Yeah.

EL: You swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco? I've taken the boat. Does that count?

EB: I think pretty much that's how I'm gonna do it if I ever do it again is by boat. One time I did it once with a wetsuit and once without. And I-

EL: Gee. You did it without a wetsuit?

EB: Yeah, yeah.

EL: How cold was the water?

EB: It was cold. Then I had to sit in the sauna for an hour afterwards just to get my body temperature back up.

EL: Wow. That's crazy.

EB: Yeah.

EL: So you were in San Francisco, you decided you were gonna get in shape because you're a crazy person. You swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco twice, and then what happened?

EB: And then I got sick. It was after 9/11. You remember what it was like after 9/11?

EL: Yeah.

EB: It probably hit you even harder than it hit-

EL: Sure.

EB: Most of us.

EL: I mean we had the cloud in our neighborhood that day. I mean, it was crazy.

EB: I think what happened to the whole country at that time is that we just experienced this great shock to our inner beings. I really felt it. Everyone felt it. And that happened just a few days after my last Alcatraz swim. And about a month after that, I got a flu. I got really sick and I couldn't do anything for several weeks, but then I recovered and I started swimming again. Got right back in the ocean.

EL: Oh God.

EB: And then a few weeks after that, I got the flu again and recovered from that and then got back in the pool and was still swimming a mile a day. And I just kept that up until I was always sick and I couldn't swim anymore and I just wasn't getting better.

EL: Wow.

EB: And my friends, that is how you get chronic fatigue. Or at least one way, which is completely running yourself down and not giving your body enough chance to recover, which is what I did, stupidly.

EL: Chronic fatigue is pretty serious stuff, right?

EB: Yeah. It was for me. I was just ... I had this fever all the time, I couldn't work. So I had taken this year off to not work, but then when that year was past, I was too sick to work. So I took a year off to get into shape and then it managed to get really sick instead.

EL: Yeah. That's not the way it's supposed to go down.

EB: I know. I know. Chronic fatigue syndrome is a set of symptoms where you are functioning at less than 50% capability for six months. And that's sort of the baseline definition of it and it has lots of different causes. But that's the baseline definition. And it just means you’re driving all the time. You just don't have the energy to ... you're basically working at less than 50%.

EL: I hope in your case that didn't mean like you swam halfway to Alcatraz.

EB: No. I couldn't swim ... I had to stop swimming entirely, actually. And then, Ed, things got worse.

EL: Oh God. I don't even wanna know. What happened then, Elise? I thought we were at the bottom.

EB: No, no. My roommate and dear friend was diagnosed with brain cancer-

EL: Geez.

EB: And died three months later. And so on top of being sick myself, I was taking care of my roommate who was a really, really good friend. And helping her with that.

EL: Oh that's horrible.

EB: Which left me sick and depressed. Not depressed, but sad. I wouldn't say depressed, it was mostly sad. It's okay to feel sad when someone you love dies.

EL: It's even okay to feel depressed, Elise.

EB: Yeah. So that was pretty much the worst of it and I stuck around in San Francisco another year to help round up her estate. But then I still wasn't getting better, I was still sick. So now I'm two years into being sick and I'm not getting better and I'm not able to work.

EL: You're an action junkie so this must have been so difficult 'cause I know you are running all the time-

EB: Yeah.

EL: Full on.

EB: I guess I’m one of these classic type A people. In particular chronic fatigue hits women midlife who are type A and that's me. Or at least was. Now I'm a lot more mellow.

EL: Good.

EB: So not being able to work for a couple of years, I just gave up. I just go, I can't take care of myself anymore. I'm not getting any better and I decided to move home to Sacramento because that's where my parents were and I also run through my savings, almost all of my savings.

EL: Wow.

EB: So I moved home to Sacramento so my parents could help take care of me so I could get better.

EL: And did you think that what you might do or you would just ... were you just concentrating on getting better?

EB: Well I did. When I moved home, as I gave myself a year where I would only do things that brought me joy. And figuring why not? Doing things that make you happy, that's pretty good life medicine.

EL: Right.

EB: And I had, right before moving home, had started this blog about recipes.

EL: Now you started this blog when nobody was blogging. What blogging software did you use?

EB: I used Movable Type. Now you have to understand that I had my own website since 1996-

EL: Wow.

EB: And had been coding every page by hand-

EL: That's insane.

EB: So I'd been hand coding all the HTML, the CSS. I had also been collecting all of my parents; recipes. And I'd been hand-coding the recipe pages.

EL: Wow.

EB: And hand-coding all of the navigation and-

EL: That's so crazy. Nobody does that.

EB: No one does it anymore, but that's what you did back then. Because there wasn't blogging software. And then when someone told me, "Guess what? There's blogging software out there." I looked into it. I thought, "Oh my gosh. I don't have to hand-code every single page on my website in order to put up a recipe or put up an article." And so I downloaded the software called Movable Type, it's server software, I got a server to host it on, taught myself how to do that and built the website in Movable Type.

EL: Mostly posting about your parents recipes. Like what kind of recipes? I've met your parents. They are likely super straight-ahead, lovely people and they probably made the best shepherd's pie ever.

EB: I don't know about shepherd's pie, but they made really good oxtail stew.

EL: That's good.

EB: Okay. Really good oxtail stew and-

EL: And what else?

EB: And really good roast beef and my mom's cheese enchiladas are fantastic. My father is of German descent and my mother ... he's from Minnesota, and my mother is from Arizona and she's Hispanic. So I grew up with German food and with Mexican food.

EL: Wow.

EB: So we have-

EL: You had schnitzel with tortillas?

EB: Right, exactly. Spare ribs and sauerkraut one night and tostadas the next.

EL: Got it. I love it. So that's the kind of thing you were doing when you were coding yourself and then you discovered Movable Type and you're going, "Wow. That's a big shortcut."

EB: Yeah, yeah. Because with Movable Type, it took me an hour to put up a post. So I could easily write something up and the templates were already there, you just input the information and you've got a new recipe, a new page.

EL: Now I wanna sort of put this in context because you're talking about the late '90's and the early aughts. Nobody was food blogging, or very few people. Was there a community that you became part of? What was it like?

EB: There were a handful who are still blogging now-

EL: Tell me.

EB: Like David Lebovitz.

EL: David Lebovitz, the former pastry chef who does davidlebovitz.com and he also, you told me, was coding himself for a while.

EB: I think that's what we all had to do back then. In the late '90's, that's what you did.

EL: Right. So there's David Lebovitz. Who else?

EB: Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks. Let me think. There's Amy Sherman started about the same time I did as Cooking with Amy. Pim of Chez Pim.

EL: Right.

EB: And she's the restaurateur of Kin Khao-

EL: Right.

EB: The Thai restaurant in San Francisco. She started in I think 2004.

EL: And what was the impetus? I assume it was just something you wanted to do, as you said, to bring you pleasure. It was like the best hobby ever?

EB: Exactly. So here I am, I'm home with my parents, I'm in my early 40's, I'm sick and unable to work, my roommate died of cancer, I'm not married, I don't have any kids, and I'm not getting any better and thinking, "Okay. I'm stuck here with my parents who are in their 70's. What am I gonna do with myself? I may as well learn how to cook from them. And may as well get the best out of this situation. Let's make lemonade out of these lemons."

EL: Wow.

EB: And figuratively and actually really. We did make lemonade.

EL: Right.

EB: We had lemon trees. We made lemonade.

EL: You literally made lemonade.

EB: Yeah. And that's really ... I mean this was it. So I really was struggling with trying to stay positive because I felt physically so bad and then I was afraid my parents would die on me too. I remember watching television with my mom at night holding her hand throughout the whole time.

EL: Wow.

EB: Just hoping she wouldn't go. And so what I focused on was the light and goodness and love and nourishment that is what food is. And I thought if I could just focus my effort and focus my limited energy, actually, not so much effort, but limited energy on just capturing these wonderful things about food, these wonderful recipes from my parents, what I was learning from them. If I could just capture that and put it on a site, maybe people would like it and it would become popular. But at a minimum I would have collected my parents recipes and I would have built something that I liked using myself.

EL: Wow. So you were kind of on this eat, pray, love path way before Eat, Pray, Love was in existence.

EB: Yeah. Eat, Pray, Love out of one house in Carmichael, California. I didn't get out of the house much.

EL: Wow. And you never thought of it, and I don't think Heidi did or Amy Sherman, none of you thought, "Oh. This is gonna become a business." Like you didn't use your Stanford MBA to write a business plan built around Simply Recipes.

EB: No. You're right. I did not do that. I would never have done that. And honestly I think business plans are overrated. And that's coming from someone who has written plenty of business plans.

EL: Right.

EB: They don't usually line up with the reality. And with something this small and this heart-centered, you just have to keep at it. I mean, it took ... I started putting ads on the site very early on because Google came out with Adsense about the same time. And so you could put a little Google ad code in your template and make a few quarters.

EL: Yeah. So wait, I still wanna go back to the content you were putting up. Which is you were really trying to memorialize your family's very, very homespun recipes. And the relationship you all had as a family.

EB: Exactly. And you know what, Ed, I think it really hit me when my sister called me one day crying and she said, "Oh my God. Please. What you've done is just a testament of love of our family." And that's truly what it was. That's how it started.

EL: Yeah. And I think that's true probably of all the early food bloggers, right? People ... there are thousands or hundreds of thousands of food bloggers now, but people don't understand that back then nobody was doing it. Like you didn't think, "Oh this is my path to being a food writer?" It wasn't like-

EB: No, no. It's not like this is a profession or this is something I'm gonna make a bunch of money off. No one was making any money off of it. Even with AdSense we're talking 50 cents a day. This is coffee money for one coffee a month.

EL: But that was okay.

EB: Yeah.

EL: You were still having a blast.

EB: Yeah because food is fun and I think it's important to write this stuff down and I believe in sharing knowledge. I don't believe in secret recipes. I don't think you should take recipes to your grave. I think the way we as a culture improve and grow is by sharing information and learning from each other. So it really is ... I want everybody to know how to cook well because if everyone cooks well, then I'm gonna eat better.

EL: Right.

EB: I mean, again, it's selfish. I wanna eat well so I wanna learn how to cook well and I want everyone else to learn how to cook well as well.

EL: So what recipes struck a chord with your readers?

EB: Early on the banana bread.

EL: Banana bread. The most searched for recipe on the internet, I believe. And what made yours so special?

EB: Well one, it's not mine. I got it from my friend Heidi who is one of my best friends. And it's a recipe that she got from the mother of a high school friend or maybe it was a ski buddy friend when she was a teenager and she had kept it for 30 years. And when she was a teenager, she had done a ton of research on banana bread and decided that this was the best one.

EL: Right.

EB: So when I was looking for banana bread recipe, she gave me hers.

EL: So for that banana bread thing, how did people find it? How did you develop an audience for a readership for what you were doing?

EB: See you have to understand, Ed, back in the early aughts, there wasn't a lot of online content for recipes. There was Cooks.com, there was Epicurious, there were a handful of user-generated content sites with really low-quality content, low-quality recipes, and then there were a few food bloggers. There just wasn't a lot out there. So my goal was ... I looked out there and I saw the poor quality of the recipes that you could find online and thought, "Oh my gosh. We can do better than this."

EL: Right.

EB: So the minute you start putting up high-quality recipes with photos and detailed instructions and where you have a comments section so when people have questions about the recipe they can ask and then you as a recipe developer can answer the questions. That environment is so much better than what was common at the time, which were these would-be websites that didn't have any of that.

EL: Right. So you really were taking advantage of the interactivity that a blog allows you to engage in.

EB: So not only the interactivity, but also at the same time we would link to other food bloggers. So early on in the food blogging community, we had what were ... gosh were they called link lists or something like that. Remember-

EL: Yes.

EB: Do you remember what they were called?

EL: Yes. They were ... what were they called? They were called blog rolls.

EB: Blog rolls. That's it. They were called blog rolls. So we all had blog rolls where we would link to the blogs that we liked. And that happened to coincide with how Google gave websites rank-

EL: Got it.

EB: In their algorithm.

EL: And we should explain what Google rankings ... Google ranks every content, every website, and the higher your ranking is, the more Google love you get.

EB: Exactly. You nailed it. The higher rank that you have in Google's eyes, the higher your content is going to appear in search returns. One of the ways that Google determines that rank is through how many other websites link to you. So if you have a lot of other websites linking to you, that elevates your rank in Google. At least it did back then. Maybe less so now, but it did back then. That an important ranking factor. And so food blogs had these blog rolls. And on these blog rolls were the food blogs. We were all linking to each other. And we were doing it naturally. We weren't trying to game the system or anything. These are just the blogs that we followed. And we wanted to shine some light on them and share the love and, again, we're talking about how we came at this from a much more collaborative approach versus a competitive approach.

EL: Right.

EB: We wanted to support each other. And by supporting each other, Google shined a light on us and thought, "Oh look at this. These sites have other sites linking into them."

EL: Right.

EB: "They must be good sites."

EL: That's so fascinating.

EB: It's true though. You get this little site like mine that would outscore Epicurious, which is pounding ass.

EL: That's awesome.

EB: How did that happen?

EL: Well Elise, we have not even delved into how Simply Recipes got so big that you were bought by a media company, a new media company, and just all the amazing things that have happened and so we're gonna stop right here in this episode and then you and I are gonna keep talking about the evolution of Simply Recipes into a real business, but that's for next time. So long Serious Eaters. And thank you, Elise.

EB: You're welcome.