Ree Drummond likes to call herself an accidental country girl and she considers herself something of an accidental cook. But there's nothing accidental about the success she's built combining those two.
Drummond writes the Pioneer Woman blog and gets about 13 million page views a month, enough to spin off a cookbook: The Pioneer Woman Cooks. Although not due out until Oct. 27, it is currently at No. 1 on Amazon's preorder list in the Cooking, Food & Wine category. Technorati ranks the Pioneer Woman on its list of the 100 most powerful and influential blogs in the world.
Each month, roughly 2 million women -- and her readers are mostly women -- flock to the blog to live vicariously as Drummond unspools her "how in the world did I end up here?" story of a would-be city girl who now finds herself a wife and mother of four living on a ranch in the middle of nowheresville. It is by turns hilarious, romantic, poignant -- and always illustrated by a gasp-inducing number of photographs that verge on the erotic as she chronicles her kitchen's goings-on. (A recent cake recipe used 53 photos -- 53!)
The heart of Pioneer Woman is its food corner, the Pioneer Woman Cooks. There are canning instructions, and one perennially popular entry is a step-by-step "how to" on cooking a steak. And there are hundreds of recipes. Recipes, though, are almost beside the point.
This is one food blog that is as much about the lookin' as the cookin'.
"I hear from readers, I know a lot of them love to look at the pictures. I'm not sure what that says about the rest of it," Drummond jokes.
She never intended to live on a cattle ranch. Though Drummond was raised in Oklahoma, she fled just as soon as she could, heading for Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. "There was just something about Los Angeles. It was the biggest city I could think of to go. I couldn't wait to get there," she says.
Her time in L.A.
And she didn't waste a single moment. Within her first week here, she'd hit all the major theme parks and hiked up to the Hollywood sign. Once in L.A., she discovered sushi. And Thai. And authentic Mexican food. And had a stint as a vegetarian. She was a journalism major at first, and then switched to gerontology, of all things. After leaving college in 1991, she worked for a while in L.A. before moving back home to Oklahoma. It was supposed to be just a pit stop on the way to Chicago, where she hoped to attend law school.
"It never, ever occurred to me that I would wind up back in Oklahoma," she says. "I was officially a city girl. In my wildest, wildest dreams my stay in Oklahoma wouldn't be beyond three months."
You see where this story is going, right?
She was having drinks with some old friends from high school during said pit stop when she locked eyes across a crowded room with an honest-to-goodness cowboy.
It actually took a few more weeks before the two had their first date. But within just 10 days, Drummond knew: It was goodbye, Chicago, and helllllooooooo, Marlboro Man. (That's Drummond's blog name for the man who would become her husband.)
Now, Drummond lives on a fourth-generation cattle ranch -- one of the biggest in the state -- that is about 40 miles from the very spot where she grew up. And it seems that everywhere she turns, she sees another hungry mouth to feed, including four kids, her husband, ranch hands, more than 4,000 head of cattle, 2,000 wild horses and a clutch of cows that wander up on the back porch, leaving cow patties behind.
And audiences just gobble it all up, as smitten by the photos and recipes as they are with a glimpse into a much simpler life, and a fairy-tale love story that is tempered by the less romantic parts of ranch living -- castrating calves and the bottomless pit of dirty laundry.
It's not at all unusual for her blog postings to get hundreds of comments. If she sends forth a call for reader recipes, she gets thousands of entries.
And no one is as surprised as Drummond that people are reading.
After all, the blog started in May 2006 like so many other blogs do -- as a place to post family photos and updates for far-flung relatives. She also began writing about her transition to country life, her recollections of L.A. and the challenges of home-schooling her four children, ages 5 to 12. "I had no idea that anyone would read it -- anyone except for my mother."
Then one day, she had a comment. "Any blogger knows that feeling, 'A comment! Wow!' "
It wasn't until nearly a year later that Drummond posted her first recipe, and that step-by-step guide to cooking a steak, and that's when she realized she'd struck a chord with readers. The comments began pouring in, many from people who appreciated her unique step-by-step photography. (Drummond, 40, takes all her photos herself and says that it can add quite a bit of time to even the simplest of recipes.)
"I think a lot of people look at a recipe and think, 'How do you do that?' because not everyone knows how. I try to show them how," she said. "Somewhere along the way cooking became something that was fancy, and it just left behind all those people who aren't comfortable in the kitchen."
In addition to accessible recipes, Drummond uses readily available pantry ingredients -- due to the fact that the nearest major grocery store is about a 90-minute round-trip drive away and that includes a five-mile stretch of gravel road. A few times a year -- woo-hoo! -- Drummond drives the two hours to Tulsa to shop at a Sam's Club.
She posts several times a week, and her style -- easy-going, self-effacing and filled with observational details -- makes readers feel like they just stopped by for a cup of coffee and a slice of pie.
The blog itself seems to echo country living. The photo presentation illustrates it best. Most blogs rely on photo galleries that practically challenge readers to Click! Click! Click!, and race by captions like they are an afterthought.
On the Pioneer Woman, a blog posting typically starts with a topic du jour and is followed up with photos and brief observations and interjections that serve as captions. The effect invites readers to sit back, and lazily scroll through the photos, devouring and savoring each morsel as they go.
This success aside, Drummond always comes across like regular folk, relatable to the masses. She recently posted about cleaning out her closet of clothes, and took loving photos of what was clearly designer label fare. But there could be no begrudging the woman who wrote openly about no longer being able to fit into said clothing, and how cap sleeves are not exactly her friend anymore.
Drummond would not discuss revenue from her site, except to say that her family makes its living from ranching, not blogging. Fans might be interested to know that many of Drummond's contest giveaways -- like those big shiny KitchenAid mixers and food processors -- are purchased out of her own pocket. "I give a big chunk of my revenue back in prizes. I don't give it all back, for sure, but I wouldn't have an audience if they weren't reading my site, and this is my way of showing them how much I appreciate them."
Her cookbook, which includes new recipes and old favorites, as well as her trademark step-by-step photography, is a natural extension of the blog. Just as Drummond never thought she'd end up back in the country, she also never imagined that she would be writing a cookbook.
"I think that's really the moral of all this. You can go ahead and feel free to make all the plans you want in life, but who knows where you'll really be in 15 or 20 years. I look around and I don't recognize anything about my life."