How TikTok got me out of my pandemic cooking rut

It's a weird and wonderful world of food slime and celebrity chefs

Published November 2, 2021 5:45PM (EDT)

 (Mark Weinberg / Food52)
(Mark Weinberg / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

Like many geriatric millennials, I was slow to come around to TikTok. As Joan Didion once wrote about New York, it struck me as a place for the very young. But last summer I began freelance recipe development for a French food media company, a gig that required keeping tabs on the latest cooking hacks and trends bubbling up on social media. Hand forced, I finally downloaded the app, but strictly, I told myself, on a lurking basis.

To wade through the ocean of content on TikTok, an app with more than 1 billion monthly users, I began with the hashtag pages, where you'll find the most popular videos relevant to a particular topic. It was near the top of the #waffle page that I stumbled upon creator @peachyslime.

I watched as the hands plated three golden-brown chocolate waffles in a stream of sunlight. The waffles looked perfect — maybe too perfect. The hands added a few pats of daffodil-yellow butter and topped it off with thick, amber syrup. They cut the first bite and then proceeded to smash it all like Play-Doh. A voiceover said the scent reminded her of Eggo chocolate chip waffles. "It has the best texture to play with."

Spoiler alert: The video didn't feature actual food but rather food slime, a thriving trend on TikTok — videos in which someone prepares a trompe l'œil dish that is as beautiful as it is inedible. Some users watch for the food porn — "I wanted to eat it," commented one on the waffle video — others for the nostalgia of childhood pastimes. Commented another, "I am 30 years old. WHY DO I WANT THIS SO BAD." The video has over 7 million plays.

The more I sifted through FoodTok, as it's sometimes called, the more I discovered what a strange and fascinating place it is. Food slime is just one example among the multitudes of weird shit uploaded onto the app, alongside other oddities like fake food and cooking on iPads. They exist on a spectrum of food and cooking videos that run the gamut from slick and studied to seemingly impromptu. Their common thread is that they pique the appetite, even the fake ones, and might just move you to cook something.

Hashtag pages turned out to be a good introduction to who's who in the Wild West of FoodTok. Pretty soon, I began noticing the same faces (or hands) over and over — these were the influencers, with massive, multimillion-person followings. The #ramen page, for example, led me to Ivan McCombs, also known as @ramenkingivan. His cooking videos are mostly devoted to his preferred noodle and are a joy to watch, especially when he tastes something "bussin." His ramen lasagna (4.5 million likes) holds a spot in the top three #ramen videos, just ahead of real-world celebrities Gordon Ramsay and the rapper Saweetie.

In his video, the king layers uncooked ramen noodles with Prego tomato sauce and grated cheese. The 26-second video ends with a slurpy noodle bite and a quick review: 8/10. "This is good," reports Ivan. As far as recipes go, a craft prone to flowery intros and soul-baring backstories, it's not a very meaty review — but as a viewer, I don't necessarily need more either. It has all of the ingredients of a certain type of viral cooking video: intriguing, pretty tasty, and a dash of ASMR. Above all else, it's approachable, no culinary training required. Set to "BOO!" by Championxii, it has a good beat, too. What's more, it left me thinking about my cupboard and what I could do with those forgotten packets of Maruchan.

Further down on the ramen page, I recognized other viral-video creators, like @nickdigiovanni, a former MasterChef contestant whose videos are polished and rigorously consistent. They kick off with his steely blue gaze and signature knife toss, and end exactly where they began, creating a hypnotic loop. I also spotted @bayashi, one of Japan's top food TikTok creators, who appears before a midnight-black backdrop that contrasts with his megawatt smile. Like many creators, he wears black latex gloves, a trend perhaps borrowed from BBQ culture, as he prepares and devours his food.

When I first landed on @bayashi's profile, I found myself submitting to the algorithm and clicking through video after video. Some of his recipes made my mouth literally water. Others were pure theater — and hugely successful. What, I wondered, does it really feel like to consume an entire block of deep-fried butter? Many of his 9.7 million followers seemed more concerned with food waste, though it's unclear if they were driven by the environment or sadism. "Finish the butter," one commented, followed by an army of angry face emojis. Bayashi polished it off between two toast halves, topped with ruby-red jam.

If the highly stylized videos represent one kind of TikTok cooking, I discovered plenty of creators who took a more informal approach, trading the studio aesthetic for intimacy and authenticity. "You guys are fake as hell because when I styled my hair like this, no one said anything," says @newt(7.6 million followers), a non sequitur before his bang-bang shrimp recipe. "I literally look like I'm about to sell real estate." As Taylor Lorenz has written, "It's almost as if you're FaceTiming a friend while they make themselves dinner." These more casual videos, however, fare no worse in terms of metrics. When @newt paired the trending Korean cheesy hot dogs with Olivia Rodrigo, I watched his version no fewer than 30 times (and with 12.9 million views, I know I am not alone!)

The more I scrolled, the more I came to see TikTok as a neighborly place, where collaborations, in the form of stitching, duets, and cameos, are encouraged. Take one of my favorite TikTokers, @Lynja, a "regular mom with killer cooking skills." She teamed up with DiGiovanni to prepare homemade pasta, fusing both of their styles into social media synergy and a plate of glossy fettuccine alfredo with a flurry of chopped chives (16.4 million views).

It is a place that rewards jumping on trends (which is why even the influencers are choking down frozen honey and pasta chips) and at the same time, cultivates originality. Creator @thekoreanvegan mixes thoughtful recipes with heartfelt confessionals; @menwiththepotprepares gorgeous rustic meals in the wilderness, set to the soundtrack of a babbling brook; @justine_snacks signs off her feel-good breakfast recipes with a quick bite and a sunny "good morning!" And suddenly, I'm craving a savory toast.

Eventually, my voyeurism gave way to confidence. I felt I knew the landscape well, and the stop-motion flow made everything seem so doable — all I needed was my smartphone and a recipe idea. It was time to discover my signature TikTok style; time to transition from lurking to creating.

And so, I filmed the making of a croque madame — delicious, cheesy, and with a bright, wiggly egg on top, I figured it was bound to go viral. Unfortunately, the result was far too cringy and shall remain hidden in the abyss of my phone's video gallery. My respect for creators only deepened. Even casual-looking videos are far more work and preparation than they appear.

Influencer status may not be in the cards for a geriatric millennial like me, but one thing's certain: My home cooking has changed since joining TikTok — a place where food and music and personalities and cooking sounds (cracks, slaps, and sizzles) coalesce into a light and, dare I say, joyful cooking community.

If pandemic cooking left me empty — dinner had been reduced to a steady rotation of white rice, fried egg, and [insert roasted veg] — TikTok has refilled my tank with inspiration. It has motivated me to be more ambitious in the kitchen, and at the same time, reminded me that sometimes all you need is one good ingredient — a bright fillet of salmon or a hunk of nutty Parmesan — to throw together an exciting meal.

I recently tackled @bayashi's stuffed chicken breast and @the_pastaqueen's mint-kissed mac and cheese. Next, I've got my eye on @jennymartinezzz's quesabirria tacos.

Maybe I'll try uploading another video soon. In the meantime, I'll keep scrolling for ideas.

By Caitlin Raux Gunther

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Cooking Covid-19 Food Food52 Social Media Tiktok