Today we’d like to introduce you to Jessica Harlan.
Hi Jessica, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
I’ve been pretty focused on being a writer since I was in middle school. In middle school and high school, I was the editor of my school newspaper, and by high school, I also was hired as a string reporter for local newspapers to report on events in my suburban Chicago town. I’d do everything from covering village board meetings to attending and reporting on fun events like parades and festivals.
My interest in writing continued into college, where I attended University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an English Rhetoric major and worked in various roles at the Daily Illini school newspaper. While in college, I took a magazine-writing class where we had to pitch an article to a real publication… which is how I got my first magazine clip, an article in Dog World magazine about canine dental health.
After college, I moved to Chicago and got a job at a company that published industry magazines for gourmet food stores and restaurateurs. It was here where I discovered I loved everything about food and cooking — from industry trends to interviewing chefs to reviewing new kitchen tools. Among the highlights were being the judge of a gourmet food competition and visiting Italy — twice! — as part of a media tour with Colavita Olive Oil.
Chicago didn’t seem to have many options for an up-and-coming journalist, so I decided to move to the mecca of publishing: New York City. There, I worked for a couple of years as an editor for another industry magazine — this one for furniture and housewares products — before deciding to go freelance full-time.
As a freelancer, I had lots of flexibility and I remembered my love for food, so I enrolled in the professional culinary program at the Institute of Culinary Education. It was such a great experience to really take a deep dive into ingredients, cooking techniques, and classic recipes. I got the chance to extern for chef Jonathan Waxman at his restaurant, Washington Park, where I learned that my body and soul definitely couldn’t take the long nights and hours on my feet required of a restaurant cook.
With my culinary-school education, though, I was able to get many more writing assignments in the food world. I’ve contributed to a number of websites and print magazines, including Town & Country, Yahoo!, AllRecipes, Kitchn.com, Arthritis Today, Pilates Style, Clean Eating, and more. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing my knowledge by giving private and group cooking classes to kids and adults. I’ve also written nine cookbooks and am working as a contributor to a tenth.
Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Being a writer, and especially a freelancer, is never easy! I am constantly worried about losing clients… which does happen, but I’m a big believer in the old adage when a door closes, a window opens.
The publishing industry has changed so much since I started working at that Chicago publishing house in 1994. In some ways, things have gotten easier… back in the late ’90s, you couldn’t easily look up information on the Internet or email someone for an interview. I remember spending hours making phone calls and requesting slides or transparencies to be mailed to us for photography since there weren’t digital photos that could be sent via email within minutes.
But I’ve also been witness to the slow demise of print publications; so many beloved magazines have folded over the years. The housewares magazine I worked for in New York is more than 100 years old and was once a daily newspaper that was THE go-to source for industry news… now it’s a small supplement that’s printed a few times a year. And don’t even get me started on recent losses in the publishing world… I’ll always regret that I never got the chance to write for Cooking Light when it was a monthly magazine.
These days, most of my writing is for web publications, and most websites pay a fraction of what writers were once paid for print magazines. I’m lucky to be working for a handful of sites that value experienced and skilled writers and pay us a decent wage.
Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
It’s sort of a made-up word, but I like to call myself a culinarian. To me, this means that my work and skills focus in many aspects of the food world. As a writer, I like to inform, educate, and inspire home cooks to make food and cooking fun, interesting, and easy. As a cookbook author and recipe developer, I create recipes that are healthy yet delicious, easy to follow, and not too fussy or time-consuming. As a cooking teacher, I aim to show my students practical and useful techniques, encourage them to try new things, and also give them the tools so they can go on to have the confidence to tackle any sort of cooking project, whether it’s just tomorrow’s dinner or an ambitious dinner party.
There are two things I’m most proud of: First, I will never get tired of looking at the row of books on my cookbook shelf that have my name on the spine. My first book, Ramen to the Rescue, was published more than ten years ago but is still selling. And for one of my most recent cookbooks, Mason Jar Lunches, I partnered with my friend and local photographer, Kelley Klein, to shoot all the recipes in the beautiful kitchens of various homes in Atlanta. I did the food styling and she did the photography, and we are both thrilled with how it turned out.
Second, I’m always proud to hear of the cooking exploits of some of the kids I’ve taught over the years. I worked with one student for about four years, since she was nine years old. She auditioned for MasterChef Junior and made it to one of the final rounds of candidates. I like to think that she’ll use the skills she learned with me for the rest of her life.
We all have a different way of looking at and defining success. How do you define success?
If I’d been asked to define success when I was younger, I probably would have described big paychecks or a byline in a big consumer magazine like Bon Appetit. But today, I measure success by the fact that as a freelance writer and an entrepreneur, I’ve been able to have incredible flexibility in my life. Because I work from home, my kids never had to go to daycare, and now that they’re older, I’m home when they get home from school, and I’m involved in their activities and school. My freelance career also meant that when my husband and I moved from New York City to Atlanta in 2006, I didn’t have to find a new job because I was still able to work for most of the same clients from my new home.
I also have been able to make time for my own personal passions outside of work because of my job flexibility. In the past decade, I’ve taken up kayaking, figure skating, yoga, watercolor, and tennis. Being a freelance writer means I can take time out of my day to do these activities, even if it means that I’m finishing up writing a story after the kids go to bed.
- Email: email@example.com
- Instagram: @jessica_g_harlan
Book cover photos courtesy Ulysses Press Headshot photo courtesy Kelley Klein Photography Cooking class photo courtesy Leanna Ampola