She shouldn’t have found a career in food – certainly not as a best-selling cookbook author. On paper, it doesn’t seem to fit. Lindsay Shay Nixon ’04 didn’t spend years working toward a culinary degree or sweat the frenzied late nights as a line cook or suffer through an apprenticeship under an egomaniacal executive chef.
Rather, the Classics and communication double major and four-year student government representative should have done something more political, perhaps in a world defined by corner offices and corporate ladders – like a high-powered attorney. In fact, that was Nixon’s goal. After earning her law degree in Boston, she embarked on a legal career that took her to the West Coast arguing cases in administrative law and medical malpractice.
But something wasn’t right. Law just wasn’t her passion. What did capture her imagination was a blog she had started in law school: the Happy Herbivore. So, she took a leap of faith and traded in the power suit and courtroom for an apron and laptop, putting all of her energy into the blog. On it, Nixon detailed her struggles and successes living within a plant-based diet and posted vegan-friendly recipes.
Perfected in her apartment kitchen, these recipes were her personal creations, labors of love transforming various meat and dairy dishes into vegan substitutes, such as meatless balls and dairy-free mac and cheese. As you might expect, the number of people checking out her blog was modest in the beginning, but all that soon changed with one post in spring 2009.
“A friend of mine had asked me to experiment with a brownie recipe,” Nixon remembers, “one that was made without white flour or eggs. My black bean brownies recipe went viral, with about 5,000 likes on Facebook, and it really launched my career.”
Later that year, she had several recipes appear in Vegetarian Times magazine. Momentum was building as more and more people were taking notice of her work. However, her big break, according to Nixon, “fell completely in my lap.” On her blog, she gave away vegetarian cookbooks to encourage more readers to check out her site. Nixon called various publishers to see what vegan cookbooks they had for her to review, and during one of those random calls, a publisher suggested she write a cookbook of her own and they would produce it. And just like that, Nixon had a book deal.
“That was truly amazing,” Nixon admits, “but I was worried that no one would buy it.”
She needn’t have worried. Plenty of people bought it. To date, she’s sold more than 100,000 Happy Herbivore cookbooks.
In 2012, she completed her third cookbook in a six-book deal and she cracked the top 25 list of Amazon bestsellers. And her website, utilizing various facets of social media, gets about a quarter of a million visits a month.
“I wouldn’t have a career doing Happy Herbivore without Facebook and Twitter,” Nixon says. “Through social media, I’ve been able to communicate directly with an audience that is as passionate about food and diet as I am. And, just as important, I’ve been able to make connections throughout the food industry because of it.”
Those connections have landed her appearances on The Dr. Oz Show and the Food Network, recognition at SXSW, a speaking gig at Google and a featured spot at last summer’s Farms 2 Forks conference. Nixon is also partnering with the founders of San Diego’s Evolution Fast Food (what she calls “a vegan McDonald’s”) to develop more plant-based options for their menu. “I’ve chased this dream with everything I have,” Nixon says. “I’ve traveled nonstop around the world doing food presentations and speaking engagements. Although I live in Los Angeles, my suitcase has really been my home for the past couple of years.”
But this spring, it’s time for a bit of rest from the frenzied schedule. It’s time for Nixon to reflect on how far she’s come since working alone on that first blog entry (she now has a team of six working on Happy Herbivore). It’s time to celebrate what she’s achieved and determine where she’s going next.
Oh yeah, and there’s those three other cookbooks waiting to be written.
– Mark Berry