By Jenny Neyman
When the Evoy family left Bakersfield, Calif., for Nikiski in 2011, Maya Evoy was looking forward to the different flavor that small-town Alaska would impart to her family’s lifestyle.
They’d strain out the stress and hustle of life in a busy, crowded city, swap their commute times for equal parts quality time at home with the kids, season liberally with fishing, gardening, berry-picking and their other new favorite activities, and savor the sweetness of life boiled down to a concentration on their priorities. It would mean Maya could trim the fast-food drive-throughs and convenience meals from the family’s menu to get back to cooking herself, from scratch, for her family of five.
Like a soufflé blooming out of its pan, all those aspirations rose to Maya’s expectations, and then some. And then some more. Especially that last one, as these days, she’s cooking for about 200,000 a month.
It’s still just her immediate family at the table being actually nourished by her culinary efforts, but these days thousands more all over the world also devour what she makes, savoring vicariously through her cooking blog, Alaska from Scratch. She started it in October 2011, feeling tepid about the whole thing at first, but interest heated to a boil as quickly and unexpectedly as an unwatched pot of water.
“First, I never imagined I’d be a food blogger, and, second, I never imagined it’d be so popular,” Evoy said. “I think people are so interested both in Alaska and the Alaska lifestyle, and also are interested in real food, and from-scratch cooking is popular and on trend right now. I didn’t know that when I started, or didn’t strategically say, ‘This is how I want to do it to get followers.’ I was never in it for that. I just live out here in small-town Alaska with three small kids and I’m a pastor’s wife, just a normal person, and yet I have readers all over the world. It’s really caught me off guard, and I’m really humbled and honored by it.”
Jason Evoy took a job as pastor at Nikiski Nazarene Church in order for the family to slow down and simplify their California lives. The church he worked at in central California had about 1,000 parishioners, compared to Nikiski Nazarene’s 75 or so in the winter. More in the summer, but not so many more that Jason loses track of people’s names or needs.
“It’s fishing families and miners and teachers and nurses — just great Alaska people in our church. They love each other and the community, and we wanted to be a part of that,” Jason said.
“We were looking to simplify, we were looking to really reprioritize our lives and be more self-sufficient and really focus more on our family and community and all those things that we were missing in California,” Maya added.
Their three kids — sons Brady, 10, and Connor, 8, and daughter, Kelty, 5 — seemed to be spending more and more time being shuttled around, and less roaming around. And Evoy didn’t have time for her hobbies anymore — photography, writing and, particularly lacking, cooking.
“Cooking in California for us was more about convenience. More store-bought ingredients, more drive-throughs and not so much cooking from scratch, cooking real, wholesome food, which is where my heart really was. It’s just our lifestyle didn’t lend to it. Parenting three young kids, it was just about what was easy,” Evoy said.
But that’s not how she grew up. Not easy, in a sense, since she came from a family that struggled financially. But where they were scant in a budget for convenience ingredients and eating out they had a generous helping of knowledge in making the most of what was available.
“I always loved being in the kitchen, that was kind of my safe place when I was a little girl. My grandma put me in the kitchen on the countertop and we would make homemade bread together,” Evoy said. “We were really poor growing up and a lot of my cooking skills came from necessity, just learning to make a lot with a little and to cook with what was on hand.”
Her new home, though far from Southern California in many ways — availability and affordability of some ingredients, for instance — still has a lot in common with Evoy’s culinary upbringing.
“In a lot of ways that works with Alaska because a lot of time we don’t always have everything on hand or fresh produce or things, but then we have some amazing resources to work with — like salmon and halibut and razor clams and mushrooms and berries — so I think my background lends to the environment up here,” she said.
Planting a garden was a quick priority. And Jason and the kids have taken to exploring for culinary rewards — fishing, hunting, clam-digging, and berry- and mushroom-picking. And Evoy enjoys the challenge of figuring out what to make from whatever’s brought home, whether from the forest, river, beach or grocery store.
“I love to cook what’s in season. What’s looking the freshest and the most beautiful and on sale is usually what’s most available. But other times I’ll make a list and I can’t find cilantro and it drives me nuts, or the avocados are just horrible. That takes some adjusting, so you just have to make other plans,” she said.
Gradually, her approach of using what’s available folded into her desire to maximize the family’s food budget to produce a cooking style that’s creative, adaptive, fresh, flavorful and often from scratch.
“The groceries are so expensive up here and so it helps to make a lot of things from scratch because it’s more affordable and its healthier and its fresher when you know what goes into it. We want to spend a big portion on fresh produce and that doesn’t leave room for a lot of other things we were accustomed to buying, like breakfast cereal, so we make granola or oatmeal or bread,” she said.
Breakfast is something homemade, but made quickly enough to get the kids off to school, Jason off to work and Evoy off on her day — she also works part-time at the church, or is taking care of her daughter when not in preschool.
While the kids are away she does a lot of her more time-intensive cooking — baking and making desserts, putting together a salad or otherwise prepping for dinner. But she saves the bulk of her dinner cooking for when the kids are home, in part to get them engaged in the process.
“If they’re home I try to involve them in some way or include them. Making more food memories with our family,” she said. “I have the kids shuck the corn and make a mess over by the trash can, and get into the kitchen and get involved. And my daughter’s stealing avocados off the countertop as I’m slicing them — she loves them.”
Salmon skewers with rosemary birch syrup, blueberry spinach smoothies, pork chops with orange and honey glaze, coconut carrot cake. That’s what cooking from scratch, on a budget, from what’s in-season and available, can be like.
Sounds good, no? It certainly does to friends, family, parishioners and other acquaintances, who were always asking Evoy for recipes. Jason, in his off time from pastor work, is a freelance Web page designer. Rather than Evoy sending recipes here and there to bunches of different people, he figured it’d be easier to create a website for her to conveniently share to a whole bushel to anyone interested all at once.
But Evoy, at first, rose to the idea about as much as Pilot Bread.
“It was really Jason who said, ‘You should start a food blog,’ because I was cooking so much and doing so much from scratch,” she said. “And I would say, ‘No, no, I don’t have anything new to say. There’s so many food bloggers out there, I don’t want to do that.’ After months and months I got more comfortable with the idea and decided to try it out.”
Her first post on Alaska from Scratch, on Oct. 7, 2011, linked her California roots with her new Alaska home in a discussion of sourdough starter, popular among gold-seeking 49ers in the Golden State and the Last Frontier.
She and Jason’ social media contacts, especially through their California and Nikiski churches, meant a ready-made initial audience.
“I got positive responses,” she said. “But it very rapidly grew in a way that I wasn’t anticipating at all.”
In fall 2011 her site had 7,392 page views. The winter of 2012 it got 60,882 page views, up to 210,883 that spring and 314,838 that summer, for 593,995 in just its first year. People in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, Seattle, Houston, Washington, D.C., Denver and Anchorage were the cities generating the most page views. Worldwide, most of her traffic comes from the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany. Growth was consistently and exponential, with particularly big jumps when she’d get mentioned on other media sites, such as Life Hacker, Huffington Post, Foodgawker, Tastespotting and Gourmet Live.
Before long Jason had to take her site off the shared server he’d started it on because it was hogging so much bandwidth.
“It’s been steady, quick growth but there’s been a few times when a major blogger or somebody will post something (about Alaska from Scratch) and like 25,000 people will come visit in one day,” Jason said. “That kind of thing has been surprising.”
Evoy started out posting just occasionally, but got more frequent as her readership grew, being sure to post on a regular schedule, at a time when readers on the East Coast could incorporate her blog into their morning reading.
Soon, her cooking wasn’t just for her family anymore. Nowadays, before dinner is served it must first be arranged artfully and appetizingly, then photographed to be used as fodder for a blog post.
“If I’m blogging it there’s the food styling and the photography so I’m stopping before I serve the food to the family to take photos of it,” Evoy said.
“And you’d better ask before you eat something sitting on the shelf,” Jason said, citing a sacrosanct rule in food-blogging households.
“I’ll style food and have it ready on the counter to photograph and he’ll come in and start eating it. Those are food blogger problems that most people don’t have,” Evoy said.
Coming up with a recipe and preparing the food sometimes isn’t even the hardest part anymore — it’s photographing the results. Anything with fresh ingredients and vibrant colors is easy to do, no embellishment needed. But other foods just inherently taste better than they look.
“Sometimes just the food is enough, and other times you really have to work at it. There are some things that are really hard to photograph, like oatmeal. It is hard to make oatmeal beautiful, or a brown plate of anything,” Evoy said.
She’s amassed a collection of food styling props, chosen for their rustic flare — swaths of burlap and rough-edged fabrics, glass milk bottles, Mason jars, antique silverware, and Jason made wood palettes on which to set her plates.
“The huge thing is natural light — we don’t have a lot of that in the winter so you really have to get creative with the lack of light in Alaska and how it’s always changing,” she said.
Her writing has gotten more creative, too, or at least more elaborate, with mentions of the weather and what music she’s listening to as she cooks, links to social media outlets and recipe-saver features. To start she kept posts mostly about just the food, and gradually incorporated more of her experiences and life story.
“I try and really make it about the food, but I want it to be approachable, I want it to have a sense of story. The way I look at it is every plate has a story and I’m giving it a voice, essentially,” Evoy said. “But it evolves. Sometimes there’s a personal narrative story and other times it’s just about the food and what makes that plate of food different, what makes it unique.”
And she’s not afraid to say if something about a recipe was challenging, could have turned out differently or wasn’t a huge hit with her family. After all, though she’s becoming increasingly well-known for her blogging, she knows she’s still a mom, first.
“When my kids love something I make a point to tell my readers that because a lot of my readers have kids. Or I’ll say, ‘Two of my kids didn’t eat this,’ or, ‘This wasn’t maybe such a kid-friendly recipe, but it’s delicious anyway,’” Evoy said.
Though the kids get into picking berries, digging clams and helping mom in the kitchen, they don’t always like the results.
“It’s rare when all three are completely satisfied with a plate of food unless it’s pizza, and even then they argue about the toppings. If I’m going to make a turkey sandwich I’ll have to make four different kinds because one likes mustard and one likes just mayonnaise and one likes tomatoes and one likes avocados, and that’s just part of it,” she said. “I have to be conscious of what works for the whole family and not just for food blogging. What would be popular for the blog may not be realistic. And I find a lot of families and a lot of parents who are cooking at home for their kids respond well to my recipes for that reason. I’m not posting food that is fussy. I’m posting great Alaska resources, like salmon and halibut, but I’m making those things approachable for the family.”
Since she started incorporating advertising into the site it’s been generating revenue. Not a ton, but enough to buy ingredients and pay for other blogging costs. She’s gaining in notoriety, too, being interviewed in the media, having recipes featured on other sites, being invited to the Great Alaska Seafood Cookoff, getting asked to be a panelist on food writing at an Alaska Press Club conference and connecting with other food writers in Alaska and beyond.
“You make friendships with people that you’ve never met in person and it’s pretty incredible to be able to say you have friends that you’ve never actually seen, but that you engage with on a daily basis that you support each other in a virtual and social media sense. I didn’t know that existed until I got into blogging,” she said.
She’s even working with an agent to put together a cookbook proposal with other food bloggers from the Pacific Northwest. If her blog proves to be a bridge to anything else, she hopes it’s cookbook writing. Evoy has no interest in become a professional chef or restaurateur or some such. Though she loves to cook, she loves to nourish family even more.
“I never wanted to do it to be famous, that was just a byproduct,” she said. “I’ve always done it for the food and encouraging people to create good food memories with their families and friends, and to get people around the table together.”
For more information, visit www.alaskafromscratch.com.