It only took 100 days to land Lisa Leake on the New York Times best-seller list.
To be more specific, it was 100 days, five years, two kids, one very involved husband and a few million page views on her blog. But her first book, “100 Days of Real Food,” is No. 1 on the Times list of food and fitness books and has been on the best-seller list since it debuted in September.
Even in the changing-by-the-second world of Internet-based writers, that’s a fast journey from a self-professed junk-food eater to a best-selling author with a mission.
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Leake, 37, who lives in a small subdivision in Matthews, is still startled by it all. “This started without even thinking about a business. It was about spreading a message.”
Leake’s road to a book started in 2009 with TV, an episode of “The Ophrah Winfrey Show” that featured food-policy writer Michael Pollan and his book “In Defense of Food.”
Leake calls herself a child of middle America, raised on a processed-food diet of Honey Nut Cheerios, McDonald’s birthday parties and Doritos.
When she met her future husband, Jason, 38, in college and wanted to cook for him, she got a recipe from a roommate for a canned-soup casserole.
Jason, meanwhile, was from a different background: He was raised by hippie parents and spent part of his childhood on a commune in Oregon.
The Leakes like to say she was white bread and he was whole wheat. After they married and had two daughters, he was in favor of improving their diets, but she still didn’t give it much thought.
Then she saw Pollan and his message about the prevalence of processed food in America. Like any new acolyte, she become obsessed. Reading labels launched her on a mission to rid her family’s life of anything processed.
Writing about it on her Facebook page, family and friends kept asking what she was learning.
Finally, someone suggested she start a blog. Her response?
“ ‘Well, that’s ridiculous.’ I never wanted to be a writer. I’m a math person.”
Remember when blogs were still called Web logs? It doesn’t seem like that long since they were simply publicly personal journals, places people could type what they were thinking. After a few years, though, blogs became something bigger – missions for people who wanted to make their lives about their message.
And that came at exactly the right time for Jason and Lisa Leake.
Ready for change
Both had aimed at corporate America, and neither had found it all that satisfying. Jason’s background is mechanical engineering, but he bounced around jobs, looking for something that excited him.
Cubicle life, he says, “was a bucket of water in the face.”
Lisa, meanwhile, was in corporate-event management for Bank of America. She thought they were both creeping along, a little better one year, a little worse the next.
In 2009, she had the same setback a lot of people got: A layoff.
It was sort of a relief. She wanted to work part time to focus on their two daughters, Sydney, now 9, and Sienna, now 7. She started making embroidered children’s clothes for sale. It was fun, but a lot of work for not much return.
That’s when her food mission came along. Her blog, first called Food Illusion, started in March 2010. Jennifer Rothacker, the editor of The Observer’s MomsCharlotte website at the time, gave it a spot on the site’s blog list.
Still, Leake only had a small list of followers. She wanted to spread her message further.
Eating ‘real’ food
That’s when she got her big idea: The 100-Day Pledge. The Leakes would spend 100 days eating nothing that didn’t fit their definition of “real”:
Whole foods, like fruits and vegetables; packaged foods with no more than five unrefined ingredients; local or wild-caught meat and seafood; whole grains and natural sweeteners. If they ate dairy, it would have to be whole or unsweetened. If they drank it or ate it, it would be all-natural.
It wasn’t vegetarian, but it used less meat. It wasn’t strictly local, although it encouraged local food. It allowed nothing deep-fried or drive-through. And she would chronicle it on her blog.
“I wanted to prove it could be done,” she says. “We’re a real family.”
It took a lot of research, though, like when Jason took a business trip and Lisa hit the Web to find somewhere he could get dinner: Ruby Tuesday, salmon with no sauce and brown rice.
The blog, now called 100 Days of Real Food, started to grow.
Soon, Leake was sitting up all night, writing posts, answering questions and responding to comments. Her “hobby” was taking 50 hours a week. In January 2012, it hit a million page views and she turned to Jason:
“ ‘You have to help me,’ ” she said. “ ‘I’m dying here.’ ”
Engineering a new life
With an engineer’s mind and an entrepreneur’s appetite for risk, Jason Leake found his wife’s blog exactly the challenge he needed.
“She handed me this jumbled mess,” he says. He made it his mission to improve the design, add a little advertising and maybe make a little money. He threw himself into research, finding sources like the blog Smart Passive Income and other two-spouse blogging teams, like Young House Love and Steamy Kitchen.
And they started to realize that this might be the way to a new life. They had always lived a modest lifestyle, and they knew how to budget.
By early summer 2012, they decided to see if their raft could hold them. With the boost of Lisa’s cookbook contract, Jason left his job to work full time on 100 Days.
“Obviously, it’s a very new way to work and live,” Lisa says. “I don’t know if all couples could work together.”
They share an office at home, but they both do different jobs. He manages the blog and she fills it.
He’s also started his own business: Flip over her business card and you’ll find his, the Pro Bloggers School. He has his own blog on how to turn a hobby blog into a money-earning website.
“I’ve learned so much, and a lot of the information I’ve needed, I couldn’t find,” he says. “It’s a creative outlet.”
And the 100 Days pledge? They toned it down a little after that first 100 days. Now they offer mini-pledges and guidance for people who want to clean up their diets, along with a free meal plan.
With everything going on, they loosened up, just a little. She thinks they still follow about 95 percent of the rules. But life does intervene. When one of their daughters started swapping her lunch for Pop Tarts, Lisa bought her a box.
The main thing, she says, is to stay authentic and honest.
“I think people can tell I’m just a regular mom. I’m not perfect and I don’t try to be.”
Of course, not everyone buys into the earnestness of Leake’s message. On Sunday, her book was one of several that came in for a ribbing in an anti-cooking essay by Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times Magazine: “What If You Just Hate Making Dinner?”
Still, Leake’s editor at William Morrow, Cassie Jones, thinks books like Leake’s are providing an answer to a lot of family cooks who want simple guidance on what they ought to cook.
Jones certainly understands the power of a populist message: She also was the editor for “Pioneer Woman” writer Ree Drummond.
“There's a lot of anxiety in general around what we should be eating, and parents are especially concerned because it’s so hard to know what’s going into our food,” Jones said in an email to The Observer. “Meanwhile, parents are generally short on time and need to be efficient with their money.
“Lisa truly understands what this audience needs – she’s living it every day with her own family.”