By Kevin Brennan ’07
Notre Dame Alumni Association
It all started with chicken enchiladas.
Erin (O’Neill) Clarke ’08 snapped a photograph of the dinner she’d just made and posted it, along with the recipe, on her new blog, The Law Student’s Wife. Clarke had recently decided to take up blogging to occupy the additional free time she had after her husband, Ben Clarke ’08, started law school.
Initially, the blog wasn’t meant to be food-centric. A few days after she posted her recipe, Clarke received an email from a friend who had cooked — and loved — the enchiladas. Energized, Clarke decided to share more of her meals, and they eventually became the site’s sole focus.
“I started my blog completely as a hobby,” she explains. More than two years and hundreds of recipes later, Clarke is leaving behind a successful business career to devote all of her energy to the blog that’s become her passion.
Clarke’s love of cooking dates back to a time when the word “blog” didn’t exist. Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, she loved shadowing her grandmothers in the kitchen and especially enjoyed learning to make different desserts.
At Notre Dame, where Clarke majored in marketing, she would share her skills with her friends in Lyons Hall. “I would attempt to bake in our dorm kitchen with what supplies and materials might be available, including a few bowls and pieces of silverware borrowed from the dining halls,” Clarke admits. Before one Christmas break, she went a little overboard with one of her grandmother’s recipes, leading to a surplus of treats. “The entire Lyons Hall basement was covered in sugar cookies cooling on plates. I made a lot of friends that day.”
In her senior year, Target recruited Clarke to join its corporate headquarters, so she moved to Minneapolis after graduation. Without the convenience of South Dining Hall, she was forced to expand her repertoire. “I had to face the sad reality that one cannot live on muffins and cookies alone,” Clarke laughs. “I started to prepare more savory recipes out of necessity and found that I had a love for that style of cooking too.”
Clarke had developed several standbys by the time she was married in 2012 and moved to Madison, where her husband attended the University of Wisconsin Law School. The earliest entries on her blog, such as the chicken enchiladas, evolved from Clarke making adjustments to a recipe she had come across. “I read cookbooks like most people read novels,” she says.
As she spent more time working on her website, she grew to rely less on cookbooks and more on her own instincts. The abundance of high-quality produce in the farmers market inspired summer veggie burritos. A yearning for some healthy comfort food yielded one skillet spicy ranch chicken.
Clarke’s recipes reflect her priorities. She makes healthy meals without sacrificing taste. As a law student’s wife, she focuses on dishes that are affordable and aren’t too time-consuming, and as a nod to her grandmothers, Clarke includes plenty of delicious baked goods.
Thanks to a lot of hard work, Clarke’s audience grew beyond her wildest dreams. “I’ve posted hundreds and hundreds of recipes, and I never get tired of hearing from readers who make what I write at home,” she says. “It’s what keeps me energized.” Her background in marketing has certainly helped, but Clarke says quality content — her largest focus — is the biggest driver of readership.
Before she posts a recipe on her site, Clarke makes the dish again and again, tinkering until the ingredients are just right. She takes hundreds of photos of each plate, looking for the perfect shot to entice her loyal readers. And she relies on her creativity and strong writing skills to craft engaging, personal posts to go along with each recipe.
Eventually, the success of the blog started turning some heads in the food industry. Red Star Yeast reached out to Clarke after seeing some bread recipes on her site. “I was at my friend’s wedding and I got this email saying they wanted to pay me to do a recipe, and I almost passed out,” she says. Clarke now writes original recipes for several different food companies, and KitchenAid and General Mills have tapped her to blog for their websites. The local ABC affiliate in Madison discovered the blog and brought Clarke onto their morning show several times to cook some of her dishes.
Clarke has achieved all this while working on the site in her spare time. With her husband attending law school full-time, she’s spent the last few years working as a business analysis consultant at a firm in Madison.
But that’s about to change. Ben finished law school this spring and is set to start working at a corporate law firm in Milwaukee. When the Clarkes leave Madison, Erin plans to leave her day job behind.
She’ll devote her days to developing new recipes, evolving as a photographer, and fostering a sense of community among her growing number of readers. What began with a particularly tasty plate of chicken enchiladas has blossomed into a full-time job and a future filled with possibilities.
“It’s definitely the riskiest thing I’ve ever done professionally,” Clarke said. “I’m very open to seeing where the journey takes me, and I hope that I can inspire even more people to bring healthy, satisfying recipes to life in their own kitchens.”
Allen Hemberger ’01 is not a professional chef. That didn’t stop him from mastering one of the world’s most difficult cookbooks from his home kitchen.
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