"I wanted to share what I knew and what I grew up on...not just the food but what the food meant to us and where the food came from."
Renee "Renz" Robley is a content curator for her food blog, HomeMade Zagat, where she provides recipes for authentic Caribbean meals. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Renz moved to the US to pursue her master’s degree in computer and information systems security at DeVry University.
We sat down with Renz to find out about traditional Caribbean foods and to get some helpful tips for anyone interested in starting their own blog:
I'm originally from Trinidad and Tobago. I moved to the US to pursue tertiary education. And while doing my Masters, to get my mind off IT and work, I started my food blog with no idea of what to do or anything. But Pinterest had just come out, and I started looking through Pinterest. And then I'll just go online and get ideas. It was mostly like a diary thing. And then I realized that I wasn't finding a lot of Caribbean [food]. I mean authentic from real people who grew up in the Caribbean eating the food. It was just people calling anything they could think of Caribbean or people who went on vacation to Jamaica. You see a lot of jerk recipe. My mother never had anything jerk in her life. Jerk is not Caribbean. So I wanted to share what I knew and what I grew up on. It took a few years, and it started picking up. I kept going with it. I shared not just the food but what the food meant to us and where the food came from, because a lot of people don't know that Trinidad and Tobago is multicultural. We have people that came from India. We have Afro-Cubans. Afro-Caribbean food. We have Indian food. We have a whole mix of Creole food. So it's nice to be able to share not just the recipe but the story behind it, what it means to me eating this food now. It so upsetting when I see Caribbean chicken. What is this? We don’t even eat pineapple like that. That's a resort decoration when you come to the Caribbean and go to the hotel they dress up. We don’t eat pineapple like that.
When did you start cooking?
I started cooking early, but I was very active. From early my mom put me in stuff. I started dancing at three. I started playing tennis at seven. That took up a lot of time. But in between I would bake a cake. I started really cooking when I came to the US, and I had to eat. There was no money to eat out. Eating is expensive, and I started seeing my money go way down. So, I'd call my mom and ask her how to do this and that. I had failures like crazy. But after a while, you start to create your own stuff as you go along. Even when I went out to eat, I would come back home and try to recreate what I ate.
What are some traditional like Caribbean dishes?
Our food varies per Island depending on who went where and what produce they got at the time. Stew and curry are really some of the most prominent things. Stew for us is basically using sugar and caramelizing it and adding meat. It can be any meat—chicken, goat, any meat you can think of. We use all the meats: iguana, horse, deer, turtles. It's classified as game meats, but we call it wild meats. When someone is stewing that, it’s basically taking brown sugar and making it bubble where it’s at the point where it starts to caramel and throwing the meat in there and cooking it.
We have another dish called Pelau that is a brown meat, along with rice and peas. That's a tricky one because if you leave the sugar too long, its burns. Depending on when you throw the meats in, the sugar will get hard on the chicken and you can’t use it. It can go wrong quickly.
We also make the curry from Trindad: the guyana and roti, or floured wrapped roti inside with curried potatoes, curried chicken, or any meat with garbanzo beans mixed in.
We use curry powder or even curry leaves. But the more common thing is they will sell the curry powder commercially. Everybody has a different way of doing things, but generally they will make either a paste with the curry, or throw the powder in oil, creating a paste in the pot and then putting a meat in and leaving it to cook.
What are some spices unique from your home island?
One of our top ones is shado beni. Culantro is another name for it. We also use big leaf thyme. What’s important to us is the seasoning—garlic, onions, and flavor pepper. We blend all those things together, and we season our meats with it. That is the base of most of our things.
As you're preparing your meals, are there any go-to kitchen supplies use you?
A grater. I use a food processor and make things in an instant pot. A heavy-duty iron pot (we call it a Dutch pot) is important because we cook heavy. We need a pot that is sturdy. We don’t cook in small amounts. You need to be able to take two pounds or more of meat, add water and everything else. A big, heavy pot is ideal.
Honestly, a food processor is needed. We use a lot of coconut to make milk. I prefer the fresh ones, and it takes a little bit more work. The tin ones I use when I’m in a rush sometimes, but I don’t like the consistency of it. So, if I know I’m going to make something and I’ll need coconut milk, I’ll get a coconut, put it in the blender with water and strain it.
What is your favorite thing to prepare?
Probably stew chicken and dumplings. I will eat dumplings in anything. It’s just flour and water. I don't understand how flour and water can be so amazing. But I will eat dumpling anything—dumplings and crab, dumplings and chicken. That is my comfort food.
When did you first start blogging?
I think in 2014 is when I started to do random little posts. But I am not sure exactly when I started becoming consistent and serious taking pictures. It's been four or more years that I've been pretty steady with posts.
How do you manage both working and blogging?
I do not. It is always a rush. A year and a half ago, I was just getting into them. I worked out that I would do a post a week. And my dad passed away, and that threw everything off. For almost a year I just wasn't doing anything at all. It was horrible. Then, I decided to get back in it. I worked out a schedule of posts that I wanted to get out there, and I kind of tried to blindly schedule out when I wanted to get things done. I gave myself two posts a month to get back in. On weekends, I'd do grocery shopping for whatever I needed, and I'd cook on Saturday and take pics the next day. It’s a rush most times, but I like staying busy so it's not like I'm dying from it.
Typically, how many hours a week do you allocate towards your blog?
About 20 hours. After work, I do something. Weekends are when I cook and do pictures. During the week I write posts, edit pictures, update stuff, do recipe cards, do sharing on social media, newsletters, etc. If something gives at some point, that’s ok. But I tried to schedule around 20 hours.
Do you get paid off your blog? Can you elaborate on that process?
Yes, I make money off it. When I started, I had no idea that was possible. I didn't know anybody blogging or anything. I knew how to use blogger. I had a website before. I just went in with the knowledge I had. At some point I got into a Facebook group, and I realized people were seriously doing stuff, sharing their posts, and gaining traffic. I jumped in then, I started sharing. And then I saw people saying that they were making money through the ad network based on their traffic. And that's how it started. I was making $5 every two months.
Eventually, I had enough traffic to go to another company called Gourmet Ads. And it increased with them too since they had more ad buyers. It’s basically traffic. You have to be posting consistently and sharing for people to find you. And it’s not just about posting. It’s about SEOs and making sure your posts are what people are looking for. When I started, I worked in reverse in that I was sharing posts thinking people would want to find them. But in reality, you need to know what people are looking for and create your posts to fulfill their search. When I changed the direction of doing that, that was when the site actually started growing more.
What recommendations do you have for someone entering into the blogging world?
Have a group. I know it's probably hard when you’re just started and you don’t know anybody else. But I think it’s really important to make friends and network with a few people to bounce ideas off them. That really helped me a lot to get past my plateau. And it was simple things that you didn't think about or you didn't have any knowledge about. If they’re larger than you, they can help you share your content to their audience. And that helped me too. At one point, I was guest blogging for another bigger blog two recipes a month. And she allowed me to link back to my own website with other recipes besides the ones I was doing for her. That helped too with traffic because now I was open to a whole new audience.
Having a support group is really important because it gets lonely blogging. People don’t understand you. People who are not in that world don’t understand what's going on or how much work it takes to get it going.
How would you recommend finding that support network?
Networking at conferences, mingling and making friends there. There are a lot of groups on Facebook to join. Talk to people. Ask questions. People are friendly. I mean, there are some people you who don't want to share information with. But there are people who would gladly give information they have which they used to succeed. This year alone, I've had a lot of people who have done cookbooks sit down with me and show me a direction I can go in to get past just having a blog to building a brand. You have to step out. You have to step out of your comfort zone and reach out. It’s either yes or no.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I don't know. I'm working. I'm just trying to be consistent right now. At least for the rest of the next six months I'll continue to do a post a week or whatever plan I have. I also want to start doing guest posts on bigger sites. Not just recipe based, but about food in the Caribbean and the culture of food. Even baking bread for us was a whole experience. My mom and dad grew up baking bread in a dirt oven verses of a conventional oven. They still they use that at home sometimes. They're still built there, and you put it in and it's a whole different taste in bread. Just to share that history and to let people know about it because I feel like it’s not shared enough. Caribbean food and its history in general—the communal history of food is not being shared a lot.
What is the ultimate legacy you want to leave behind?
I really want to do a cookbook. I want it to be about the history of food. All the food we have—the community, the going to harvest, going to someone’s else’s house you don’t know and eating food like you grew up there, that family feeling—I want to be able to get that in print and get it out there so people can just learn more about it.
You can follow Renz and get all her delicious recipes here:
or on social media: @homemadezagat