Why our joy of cooking now arrives by video clip

Kitchen food chief
(Photo: AI-Generated)
A few months ago, a decidedly unsexy, 1970s-era diet food began flying off supermarket shelves. Nearly overnight, cottage cheese was as trendy as Barbie pink.اضافة اعلان

People put it in dips and pasta sauce. They turned it into ice creams, even breads. Cottage cheese suddenly could do it all.

Cottage cheese
Who or what, exactly, revived your grandmother’s afternoon snack? TikTok. Across the internet, videos of cottage cheese dishes abounded. Maybe you even bought a tub yourself.

Cooking videos have never been more persuasive, more inescapable, more addictive, more entertaining. And they’ve never been a more powerful driver of popular culture.

Videos on TikTok with the #foodtok hashtag have been viewed more than 64 billion times. But cooking videos are not only an unavoidable part of being online, they have also infiltrated physical spaces. TikTok-esque cooking videos air on large vertical screens on New York City subways and on iPad-size displays in the back of cabs, in the lobby of the Department of Motor Vehicles and the waiting room at the doctor’s office. They are everywhere.

From Julia Child to ‘For You’
TikTok may be the look of today, but cooking videos have captured our attention for decades, shaping how we eat along the way.

In the 1940s and ’50s, they emerged as instructional television shows on local stations hosted by cooks such as Julia Child and Joyce Chen. These shows were meant to educate above all, and many were “almost sterile in tone,” said Ashley Rose Young, a food historian at the Smithsonian Institution.

In the 1990s, an entire channel devoted to cooking emerged: the Food Network. Shows such as “Emeril Live,” “Good Eats,” and “East Meets West” brought both instruction and personality, and were filmed in studios with state-of-the-art kitchens and cameras that could capture the carefully styled glisten of a roast chicken. Food Network popularized the idea of celebrity chefs, who were as charismatic as they were good at cooking.

In the early 2000s, the arrival of YouTube allowed anyone to upload a clip to the internet in the hopes of going viral. Many of the tropes that are widespread on social media now — such as re-creating dishes from movies, making outrage-inducing portions of calorie-laden foods and creating cake-decorating tutorials — got their start on YouTube.

Starting in 2015, hostless cooking videos shot from overhead — or “hands and pans” clips — put viewers across Facebook and Instagram in the driver’s seat. Using little more than a stand and a camera, these videos were, critically, cheap to make, said John Gara, a former producer at BuzzFeed Tasty, which pioneered the style.

In 2016, TikTok arrived in the United States, but COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 supercharged its use, as many Americans stuck at home began scrolling the app’s algorithm-driven, hyper-personalized “For You” feed.

Appetizing and Bite-Size
TikTok transformed videos into interactive two-way conversations with tools such as Stitch and Duet, which allow you to combine other people’s clips with videos of your own.

All of this benefited every category of video on TikTok — but especially cooking videos. While television shows guided viewers through the entire cooking process and Instagram brimmed with stylish photos of the final dish, on TikTok, people could have both, said Sunny Xun Liu, a research scientist at the Stanford Social Media Lab.

“It changes the whole hourlong cooking process into 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 45 seconds of entertainment — consumable pieces,” she said. “The product and process become one video that is entertaining, appealing, and satisfying. That is what makes these videos so engaging.”

Cooking on TikTok, three ways
Today, there isn’t just one way to make a successful cooking video. What matters most is not creating a delicious, foolproof recipe, but grabbing someone’s attention immediately. On TikTok, three styles of video define the genre:

The turbocharged MC: An energetic host injects every slice and sauté with personality.

“They are in a nice Hedley & Bennett apron or denim or black,” said Hetal Vasavada, whose TikTok account, @milkandcardamom, has 54,000 followers. “They will have their kitchen in the background. They will cook and talk and shove food in your face and bring the knife up and quick shots. But it is always like, ‘This is the sexiest potato you will ever have,’ and chop, chop, chop.”

The gentle storyteller: A soft-spoken creator soothingly tells a winding story played over hands-and-pans clips.

Althea Brown, who runs the Caribbean food-focused TikTok account @Metemgeeblog, recently started making more videos that feature her cooking set to the tune of her own voice recounting childhood memories. People, she said, “don’t want to just feel like they are being fed some tasty creation and there is nothing connecting them to a broader story.”

The mad scientist: A frenzied cook prepares Frankenfood designed to outrage.

These videos are made not for instruction, but for rage-baiting. “I feel like it has started to swing back to where it was in the early Facebook days, with this maniacal TikTok twist to it,” said Gara, formerly of BuzzFeed Tasty. The mentality is, “‘I don’t care if this is a good recipe; I am going to do it and people will watch the car crash.’”

Are these videos still teaching us how to cook? It depends on your perspective.

The pressure to assemble a picture-perfect dinner is certainly less intense on TikTok than on, say, the Food Network. And the quality of a recipe doesn’t matter as much on TikTok.

“People now want to buy into the human behind the camera rather than just the recipe,” said Ahmad Alzahabi, who runs the TikTok account @thegoldenbalance.

But TikTok’s algorithm doesn’t reward originality, diversity, or complexity. The thing that trending recipes — such as Baked by Melissa’s green goddess salad dressing or cottage cheese ice cream or butter boards — have in common is that they are “low-cost and easy to execute,” said Liu, the social media research scientist.

That is the catch of going viral: The lowest common denominator will always prevail at the expense of innovation and individuality.

Cooking is such a personal, deeply human activity. But the evolution of cooking videos represents a broader shift: Algorithms and artificial intelligence increasingly drive everyday behaviors and can stifle creativity.

This can be discouraging to the very people whose videos we can’t stop watching.

“It is democratizing but also narrowing the field down in a sense that you’ll just see the same trend,” said Vasavada of the @milkandcardamom account. “I don’t want to see 100 versions of feta pasta.”

Cooking videos began with a clear aim: to educate. If that’s still the goal, they’re not as effective, said Gara, the former BuzzFeed Tasty producer.

“We had a really cheesy but earnest desire to help people learn how to cook in some way and eat things that tasted good,” he said. “We got so far away from that.”

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