One of the most visible professions in the 2021 media landscape is also one of the most misunderstood: food blogging. This relatively new career path has allowed a whole generation of influencers to take control of the narrative, working independently as full-time curators of their Instagram accounts, YouTube channels, and websites to amass a dedicated community. But the irony of any food blogger’s success is that their best work shows no seams—that is, audiences are only seeing the fun parts.
Anela Malik began Feed The Malik around 2018, and she’ll be the first to tell you that there’s a lot of heavy lifting involved in becoming a popular blogger. Her Instagram account has more than 38,000 followers and counting, her podcast is gaining a dedicated listenership, and she increasingly works with major brands while still highlighting independent and Black-owned businesses for her audience. As that audience grows, Malik has made a point of pulling back the curtain to show the challenges of what’s involved in being an online influencer, lest everyone in the profession be “[painted] as vapid, self-interested, egotistical walking billboards.”
Malik spoke with The Takeout about what it means to bring good food into the spotlight, and what happens when you find your own spotlight while doing it.
The Takeout: How did you get started as a food blogger?
Anela Malik: I got started the way I think most people get started, which is that I was playing around on the internet. Like many people, I was curious, and I was working at a job where social media skills would have been useful. So I thought, “Hey, I could teach myself some skills and learn some new things.”
At the time, I was living abroad in Amman, Jordan, and I wanted to get out of the expat bubble, which is a very common phenomenon overseas: you hang out with all the people who speak your language and look like you, because it’s easier. Jordan is an amazing country, and I was like, “I just need to get out and explore more. I need to push myself to do that.” Blogging was a way to practice social media skills for my job, and for me to see parts of the country that I probably wouldn’t have seen if I just stayed home.
TO: So you took up blogging as a way to share your experience with other people?
AM: To share it with other people, and to document it for my family at home. I was abroad, but everyone else (except my husband, who came with me) was here in the States. Especially living in the Middle East; I had studied the region and studied abroad there before, but it’s a part of the world that I think Americans don’t know much about and are pretty curious, but somewhat afraid of, because of the common media narratives that we see. This is a place I had lived for years off and on, and I loved it, and I wanted to show it to people at home the way I saw it.
TO: What does a typical work day look like for you?
AM: People see bloggers and they see the fun part. “You go out to eat, and you take vacations!” Especially as a travel blogger and a food blogger: in those two niches, I think it looks like our lives are just so glamorous. [laughs]
And sometimes they are; we get to do cool stuff, I won’t downplay that. But the day-to-day is mundane and difficult. There is no boss, no feedback, no goal-setting if you don’t set your own goals. There’s no structure; you have to make your own structure, as anyone who works for themselves knows.
So I spend most of my day writing, whether that’s writing captions or blog posts or tweets or responding to the insane amount of emails I receive. It’s not super exciting stuff. It’s like, “Hi, thanks so much for reaching out! Let me look at my calendar and get back to you!” Hours and hours of writing.
And also editing. Editing is kind of an art and a science. I’m not a professional photographer; I didn’t have a photography or videography background when I started this. Editing involves hours of watching YouTube videos to learn how to do new things, just practicing skills over and over again. And then filming. Filming can be having a dinner at a nice restaurant, but also, it can be like right now—this is my house. [gestures toward kitchen studio setup] It involves lights and tripods and things that take up a ton of space in a small city apartment.
And then there’s all the other things: keeping receipts, filing paperwork, keeping up with the accountant. This morning I updated my website—and I’m not a web designer, right? All the time, someone will say, “This thing on your website looks wonky.” I’ll think: Great! I don’t know how to fix it, so I have to learn how to fix it today. [laughs]
TO: You have to be every employee of your business.
AM: Yes, and for most influencers and bloggers, that’s how it is, especially at the beginning. I’m just getting to the point where I can start hiring people to help me, and that’s incredible—but it’s also just an added expense. If you do it yourself, it’s free, but it costs you time. If you hire people, you get that time back, but you’re probably going to spend thousands of dollars.
TO: Sounds like a huge balancing act.
AM: It is. And I would also say that one of the hardest parts is balancing that with the expectations that other people have of bloggers and influencers. I’m a full-timer; this is a full-time business, and I’m extremely busy. I’m trying to work relatively sane hours. Often, I think people assume that my days are free, that I’m just... watching TV or snacking? Because they’ll invite me to do things that are professional, but it’s tomorrow, or in two days. I get that a lot from restaurants and PR people. So a lot of my email communication right now has been about pushing back. I can’t drive across town and do things for you tomorrow—managing those expectations is a big part of it.
TO: You mentioned on your podcast that people try to put bloggers into boxes: you are either “a food blogger” OR “a travel blogger” OR “a blogger that speaks on social justice issues.” How do you work to break down those barriers and just... be all of the things?
AM: That is a very difficult process that I’m still going through right now. Most of my business relationships are in the food space, but I’m really interested in travel and sustainability, and a few other things that have been longstanding threads in my life. From the business side, that might mean that I need to start pitching new companies, developing relationships, because they don’t know me as anything other than a food blogger.
But from a communal standpoint, within my community, a lot of it is just boundary setting—which is difficult and painful, and something that a lot of people frankly don’t like. People will tell me to “stick to the food.”
TO: They straight up tell you that?
AM: Yes! It comes out in multiple ways. If I ask people to join my Patreon—which is the only way that I can continue to show them all of this food, because food costs money—they’ll say, “Well, we’re just here for the food. We don’t like that you’re trying to sell us something.” Well, then go buy your own food! And you photograph it, and take videos of it, and spend thousands of hours leaning how to edit it, and you can do this for yourself. [laughs]
I have also been pushed over the last year by many people—and many influencers, bloggers, and people in the public sphere have felt this pressure—to speak on every single social justice issue. That’s been difficult for me to grapple with, because frankly, I can’t address every single wrong in the world or I will personally just implode. That doesn’t mean I don’t care. It’s just that I am one person, and just as everyone else is fatigued, sometimes I am allowed to feel fatigued.
TO: What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about being a blogger?
AM: That it’s easy! That’s the big one: that it’s easy, and that it doesn’t really take a lot of talent, skill, hard work—all the things that building a career takes. I think that speaks to how we view influencers and bloggers in general, partly because [those groups] are predominantly women, and because in our popular culture, it’s extremely easy and funny at times to vilify this profession. To paint us as vapid, self-interested, egotistical walking billboards. It’s just the oversimplified view of the profession.
If you think about how much the digital media environment has changed just in the last 10 years, and you think about the fact that there’s now an entire cadre of people riding out these changes usually with just a phone, a laptop, and a camera, most of whom have no prior training, who have mastered social media algorithms that billions of people are trying to figure out, and who have learned how to persuade, educate, and entertain people consistently with nothing but themselves and those tools, I think that it’s very clear that it’s not easy, and it’s not something that just anyone can do.
I do think we should demystify the profession a bit, pull back the curtain and explain to people what’s happening and how we do it. But I would also say that our popular culture has treated these people in a way that I don’t think they would treat them if, frankly, they were predominantly men.
TO: Do you think that some bloggers and influencers are hesitant to pull back that curtain, for fear that it leaves them more open to those criticisms?
AM: Yes, I definitely think that’s part of it. The more personal you get, the more personal the critiques get. For all that I love my community members, people often forget that I’m a human. It’s just clear from the way that they approach me online. So I could totally see why some [influencers] wouldn’t want to do that. They don’t want to have those interactions, because it’s too painful.
TO: How do you decide which brands to partner with?
AM: Most of the time, they just pop up in my inbox. My initial read is always just to see if it’s for me. Have I tried this product? Do I like it? Things that I’m interested in and that make sense for me—I’m pretty clear now on what that means. I takes a little bit to figure out your “why” and your mission when working on stuff like this.
For me, it’s pretty much stuff that I think is good, and is accessible to people. I do a lot around allergy-friendly goods and various diets, because I think that good food should be accessible to everyone, no matter their preferences or medical issues.
I’m very privileged right now to be able to say no to things that don’t make sense for me. There’s a lot of criticism of bloggers and influencers who take on sponsored partnerships that people don’t think are genuine. And while I understand that, I do want to highlight that it’s a privilege to say no to money when you have to pay rent. It’s an absolute privilege. And also, we don’t have the same vitriol for people in other media professions who do things that might not align with their core values, like actors. If you’re associated with TV, it’s like you get a pass.
And I know that influencer brands are more personal, but also, most influencers that I’ve seen don’t have thriving subscription services, or a Patreon, or a Substack that could pay their rent. And so if their communities are getting all of their information for free, they have to understand that [influencers] have to pay their bills. Some people don’t have the privilege of just saying no to a bunch of [offers] that come their way.
The big brands are hard sometimes, especially if you’re social justice oriented, because a lot of them don’t have great track records. But do I still shop at Whole Foods even though it’s owned by Amazon? Do I still eat at McDonald’s when I’m on the road? Yes. So I try not to look at things in extreme black and white, and try to just approach it as, “Is this accessible, and something I would genuinely eat?”
TO: What do you love most about the work you do?
AM: I really cannot stress enough how amazing it is to not only be able to work for myself, and have that freedom, but to also have an online community that I really value. Some of my work is more obviously impactful, like some of the projects I’ve done with Black-owned businesses. I’ve heard directly from those businesses about the impact that I’ve made. But even the sponsored stuff that just seems fun and surface-level, I’ll get a message from someone about it.
I got one yesterday from someone whose son has food allergies. They hadn’t really been able to find a pizza that he liked, which is a shame, because everyone likes pizza and they couldn’t have pizza night at the house. I did this sponsored campaign [for an allergy-friendly pizza], and they were like, “he loves it, and it’s one of the only ones he can eat, so now we can have pizza night every week.” You know, that seems really silly, but to me, that kind of stuff matters. Good food should be accessible to all. Yes, food access and nutrition equity and all those things, but also just food that brings you joy.
TO: It’s nice to know that online communities, which we often associate with their most vitriolic moments, can have these beautiful little moments of connection, too.
AM: They definitely do, and most of the good moments far outweigh the bad. Most of the time, it’s mostly good. The angry people sometimes are the loudest, but not the most numerous.