Before this year, Caleb Levine had never cosplayed as a hobbit. Since April, though, he's donned breeches and pointed ears every two weeks, if not every week, for his popular Lord of the Rings-inspired TikTok cooking series. Set to Howard Shore's iconic soundtrack, Levine makes one-minute clips cooking themed dishes like Radagast the Brown's roast mushroom dinner; Rosie Cotton's candied lemon peel; most popularly, the elves' legendary lembas bread; and so on, with each cooking instruction shown in Shire-inspired calligraphy on a weathered paper card.
"On TikTok, I guess I'm a hobbit chef," Levine, who posts as @cwlbuilds, said. "But professionally I'm trained as an actor and a costume designer." Like many new projects, Levine's was a lockdown hobby, cobbled together using costume pieces he had from Renaissance festivals and other cosplays after the local theater where he'd been working was shut down in March. He pulled together a costume, thought up simple recipes that fit Tolkien's world, and found a font with which to print his instruction cards. (Though it looks hand-penned, the writing is printed, which surprises people; Levine then weathers the paper using coffee and tea.)
Not everything Levine cooks is canon necessarily, but his goal with his recipes is simplicity. For one thing, TikTok's one-minute limit makes it harder to show off complicated food, and anyway, simpler dishes seem better suited to the cottage kitchens he imagines in the Shire. Plus, as a home cook with no professional training, Levine wants all the food he shares to be easily replicated. "It's that kind of simple life, that kind of farmland, cottage cooking," he said. "You just need a bowl, some ingredients, and an oven, maybe—that's it."
The Lord of the Rings cooking premise has been popular: Levine now has over 122,000 followers on TikTok, and his hobbit-themed videos pull in far more views than anything else he's posted on the platform. "I think the number one thing that people like about the videos is how relaxing it is," Levine said. Indeed his videos are an escape into another world. In other hobbit-themed clips, Levine sits outside while eating his food and at times, puffing on a long wooden pipe. In one clip, he and his sister, both dressed as hobbits, have a tea party in the woods with their teacups and kettle propped onto a wooden stump. "For 60 seconds, they sort of forget about all the troubles of the world, especially right now with everything that's going on with COVID."
As people seek escapism via social media amid the challenges of 2020, we've seen the rise of the wholesome cottagecore (a "soothing, escapist aesthetic dominated by meadows, teacups, and baby goats") and the wilder goblincore (its "distinctly gritty, chaotic, and more often than not, a little bit occult" sibling). But Levine's videos, which he tags as "cottagecore" due to the thematic overlap, suggest a potential new subset: Shirecore, in which we might more specifically imagine escaping into small homes built into rolling green hills and sharing breakfast and second breakfast with our band of hairy-footed distant relatives. Middle Earth certainly has potential beyond that, too, with plenty of other subsets to emulate—though some seem more relaxing than others, like the brutish world of the dwarves.
Like many TikTok creators, Levine has briefly considered taking his work to other platforms, especially in light of President Trump's threats to ban the app. Though he's tried YouTube for prop-building content in the past, he found it much harder to grow a following compared to TikTok. More importantly, though, is the music: Platforms like YouTube make it much harder to use copyrighted music, so Levine worries that his videos could get taken down if he used the official Shire theme as he does on TikTok. "If I don't have that music with my videos, I don't think they'll have the same feeling to them," he said.
For now, Levine's version of the Shire exists in quick yet relaxing doses on TikTok. Even if you don't actually make a batch of lembas bread—because who among us really needs magical sustenance for a long journey, in this world?—or Cornish pasties, you can at least imagine yourself in a tiny, rustic cottage kitchen, existing pleasantly oblivious to the chaos outside your countryside home. We all deserve it, even if just for a minute.