April 14, 2024

CPS

Travel Adventure

Terrible TikTok food videos are enthralling and enraging and we can’t stop watching

9 min read

Have you ever watched someone cook steak in a hotel bathroom toilet tank? Or make a bacon-wrapped, spaghetti-stuffed meatloaf that looks big enough to feed a high school football team? Assemble a frank-and-beans concoction where the cook has to fish out can lids and plastic before putting it in the oven?

Well I have, and so have millions of other people on TikTok and across the internet.

With each second I spend watching these videos, the questions pile up in my head — mostly “Why?” Why is he making French onion soup in a bathroom sink? Why did she stick a chicken drumstick in a jar of peanut butter? Why is this person putting dried pasta in a blender only to make “fresh” pasta? Will they actually eat that? Is this a joke? Why are they making these kinds of videos? And why are they so popular?

“The whole thing is to try to get as many views and clicks and comments as you can,” said TikTok creator Barfly (he of the hotel bathroom recipe videos), who goes by the handle @Barfly7777 and spoke on the condition that his real name not be used because of concerns that it may interfere with his ability to make future hotel reservations. “And the controversy of what I do is part of the reason why it’s so successful.”

Fanning the flame is an entire genre of social media dedicated to reacting to these over-the-top cooking videos, in which people express confusion, disgust and horror, generally in the name of comedy. By using TikTok’s stitch, duet and green-screen features, these reaction videos add another layer, figuratively and sometimes literally, to the conversation. The hashtag #chefreactions has 1 billion views on TikTok, powered by an ecosystem of creators and critics that has resulted in a feedback loop of outrageous videos and outraged or confused critics on social media.

I struggle to even know what to call this category of videos. Disgusting? Absurd? Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad?

Tanara Mallory, who goes by @tanaradoublechocolate on TikTok, settled on “creative.” In the summer of 2022, the 47-year-old former supermarket production cook started sharing food reaction videos when she stumbled upon a recipe post on her TikTok For You page and decided to give voice to her internal monologue while watching it. “It drew my eye because it did not look like a real recipe. And once I did the commentary over it, I got so much reaction,” Mallory said. So she continued, and just a couple of videos in, she landed on a catchphrase — “Everybody’s so creative!” — that you can now see repeated in the comments on video after video of cooking atrocities. Per TikTok, the hashtag #everybodysocreative has 583 million global views; about 90 percent coming in the past 12 months.

Though TikTok is the social media platform of the moment, these types of videos didn’t start with the app.

Writer Amanda Mull in the Atlantic traced the style back to Food Network personality Sandra Lee, who championed “semi-homemade” cooking built around using packaged and processed foods as ingredients. Mull calls her “a foremother of the accidentally viral cooking video” because “some of her recipes, like her infamous Kwanzaa cake, test the bounds of credulity.” (The recipe featured a store-bought angel food cake covered in a chocolate frosting with canned apple pie filling poured in the center and topped with corn nuts, pumpkin seeds, popcorn and, finally, black, red and green candles symbolic of the holiday.) Television shows such as “Chopped” and “Worst Cooks in America” also forced people to cook with strange combinations of ingredients or are built around watching people who don’t have a clue what they’re doing in the kitchen, respectively.

While Lee’s sometimes questionable concoctions may have been earnest attempts to teach people how to feed themselves, these “creative” food content producers don’t really seem to care if viewers try to follow their recipes. Instead, it’s all about chasing views, likes, comments and shares, which means pushing the boundaries of cooking as entertainment to its limits. Success on social media is about engagement, which is easier to find with videos that are polarizing, defy expectations and are geared toward the masses.

“Viral/meme culture thrives on eliciting emotions, often strong ones. Whether it’s humor, surprise or disgust, these emotions act as hooks,” said Alex Turvy, a doctoral student and researcher at Tulane University studying memes and digital culture. “Disgusting food videos tap into this principle.”

Barfly began cooking in hotel bathrooms before he started filming his creations as a way not only to feed himself but also to keep himself entertained. His day job has had him on the road for more than a decade, traveling for half the year in 10- and 11-day stretches. “After 13, 14 hours [of work], I don’t want to sit down at a restaurant,” he said. “Fast food got boring as hell. It started off with, ‘Okay, what can I cook in a room?’” Interest in his wacky creations from friends spurred him to hit record.

“I am trying to always be innovative,” he said. So instead of using a hot plate or electric skillet, he carries around “a suitcase filled with complete junk — it’s nothing but wires and chaos.” Past inventions include a hairdryer-fueled pillowcase oven to cook baby back ribs — “It took a long time, but those were good” — and turning Pringles cans into a smoker for tri-tip steak and asparagus. And when there is a conventional piece of cooking equipment involved, such as an immersion circulator to cook sous-vide, the container it’s placed in might be the bathroom sink, a trash can or the tank of a toilet.

For Jane — a content creator based in Ontario, Canada, who runs the @myjanebrain account on TikTok with her friend and creative partner Emma — it all started in earnest. (Jane spoke on the condition that her real name not be used to keep her social media work separate from her personal life. “JaneBrain is a character. It’s our cooking show. It’s not me walking around on the streets,” she said.)

“At first we really wanted to just make real recipes,” Jane said. “And then in our fourth video, we were just making yogurt deep-fried chicken. It was so normal. And then the internet went crazy. It got over 30 million views. People were destroying our cooking.”

The video shows Jane using tongs to coat raw chicken breasts with yogurt in a casserole dish; then dumping measured spices on top, mixing them in with her (latex gloved) hands; then cracking an egg over top, juicing a lime and again mixing it together by hand. That process is the object of much of Jane’s commenters’ ire.

“Is there a reason we wouldn’t just mix the spices and egg and lime into the yogurt before spreading it on the chicken?” one comment reads. Another chunk of comments are responses to the video’s caption — “You won’t make chicken any other way!” — and an unfamiliarity with using yogurt to marinate meat. “Yogurt tho? What’s yo problem,” another comment reads.

So they decided to just roll with it. “We said, ‘All right, if you don’t think we can cook, then we’re going to take it up a notch and make people even more surprised,’” Jane said. The result: pickle-flavored gelatin with hot dogs, chicken cooked inside a pumpkin and a ground beef-egg dish with cheesy potato chip mashed potatoes. “We have no culinary training, so everything we do really irks people — the lack of gloves or the not sharp knives, all of that fun stuff.”

But then they’ll post a recipe that appears relatively normal, such as a no-bake cheesecake. The abrupt shift can cause viewers — myself included before speaking with Jane — to question the sincerity of all their videos.

“Something interesting about these videos is that the creator or narrator always plays it straight and doesn’t acknowledge the strangeness of what’s going on,” Turvy said. “Sometimes they even play up how incredible the food looks, how much they’re looking forward to eating it, etc. Memes and viral content often rely on insider knowledge, requiring an understanding of context that might not be immediately obvious to outsiders.”

Chef Reactions (@chefreactions on TikTok), who worked in professional kitchens for almost two decades, has difficulty discerning between fact and fiction at times. “I can’t put my finger on JaneBrain, whether or not she’s being earnest,” or just messing with people, said Chef Reactions, who spoke on the condition that his real name not be used because of privacy concerns. “Every now and then she’ll throw something in there where it’s not terrible, it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

“You never know what you’re going to get. To be honest, neither do we. We cook everything in the first take,” Jane said. “Not all the recipes are bad, and now we’ve lost the viewers’ trust a little bit.”

Chef Reactions began posting his (often expletive-laden) reactions to TikTok recipe videos in May 2022 “as an outlet, because I was just kind of frustrated at work and I just needed to decompress,” he said. “So when I had a spare moment, I would go into my office and just record a couple of TikToks and just put them out into the ether.”

The videos show his gut reactions to viewing people cook across the spectrum — from earnest to ridiculous. At the end, he awards each a score out of 10 and states whether he’d be willing to try the food. Some of the creators even repost his reactions. “It’s a little inception-y,” he said.

So how does he view his role in the bad food video ecosystem? “I do it for comedy sake to make people laugh. So I feel like, if anything, I’m maybe highlighting some of the dangers,” said Chef Reactions, who often knocks people for bad food safety practices. “If I can prevent somebody from getting food poisoning or burning themselves or burning their house down, then that’s a win.”

But why are we — okay, why am I — drawn to these videos in the first place? “Memes allow us to enjoy benign violations of norms or taboos without real consequences,” Turvy said. “The humor grants permission to enjoy boundary pushing.”

In watching hours of videos for this story, I often found that I couldn’t look away from the cooking train wrecks happening before my eyes. When someone dumps a bowl of elbow noodles into a toilet, don’t you want to see what happens next? And when you reach the end, there’s a desire to share and talk about it with others. “Negative feelings like shock and disbelief make content more ‘spreadable’ as people share, not necessarily because they like what they see, but because they want to see others’ reactions and to be a part of a larger communal experience,” Turvy said.

Beyond poor cooking techniques, the genre faces other criticisms. Chief among them is the food waste resulting from things that are unsafe to eat or made in quantities far too large for the average household.

“To spend $100, $150, which is some people’s weekly, if not monthly, food budgets, just for the sake of p—ing people off on the internet? That kind of gets me,” Chef Reactions said.

“That is the worst part about even doing these videos, because I don’t want to make it look like it’s okay,” said Mallory, who has experienced difficulty affording groceries at times in her life. “So when I’m doing the videos, I am bringing awareness.”

Jane, whose videos depict (mostly) edible food, says recipes that don’t turn out are learning experiences. “And if they do turn out, we eat it,” and share it with friends and family. She said she welcomes the critiques, from the general viewers and reaction personality accounts, using the feedback for future videos. “They’re judging what I’m putting out there for them and it’s their right,” she said. “It’s really awesome getting input from Chef Reactions and from Tanara [Mallory] and all those people, because I don’t know what they’re going to say. He might say, ‘10 out of 10, I’ll try it.’ Or he might say, ‘One out of 10, I’ll try it.’ Who knows?”

Chef Reactions has reviewed several of Jane’s videos, including one for a layered breakfast lasagna. “Five eggs on top of pancake mix. A slab of bacon. More pancake mix. Part of a completely unbalanced breakfast. Or unhinged breakfast,” he says. Then, after an exasperated sigh: “I’m eating it. I’m eating this for sure. It’s a two out of 10. Would try.”

At the end of the day, the creators I spoke to said they’re simply trying to entertain. “I get a lot of people telling me that my videos get them through a tough time because of the laughs,” Chef Reactions said.

Barfly said he’s aiming higher: “Believe it or not, I’m actually trying to make something artful.”

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