TikTok, the food platform of the people, features cooking videos of all flavors, from Chinese cottage core to tiny baked potatoes. I'm not a user of the platform, but I enjoy watching these cooking TikToks when they are shared with me or land on my Twitter timeline; sometimes they even inspire my own cooking endeavors. But recently, I've been noticing that many of the videos that have been breaking through the clutter are of a far less appetizing sort: ill-advised recipes that are probably better left unfollowed.
These viral videos are reminiscent of Tim's Kitchen Tips from Tim and Eric, but they seem to be mostly in earnest—and they're typically presented as "quick" and "easy" recipes, or "hacks." One of them, which went viral on TikTok, then subsequently on Twitter, is a "fresh chicken noodle soup" recipe that calls for an interesting mix of ingredients including whole chicken drumsticks, uncut baby carrots, onions, with zero prior cooking or seasoning—save for a hefty scoop of Knorr powdered bouillon added at the last moment.
Another video within the genre, but with a separate suite of concerns, is a recipe for a pasta and pre-cooked shrimp dish with a creamy sauce, claiming to be superior to Olive Garden. The dish calls for "a block or two" of cream cheese, a cup and a half of heavy cream, and—once again—the same Knorr powdered bouillon. The video is less of a recipe than it is a threat to your guts, and again, there is a disturbing absence of non-Knorr seasoning.
Across the board, these videos seem to have little regard for flavor balance, nutritional value, or gastrointestinal sensitivities. And they aren't contained to TikTok. In an Facebook video captioned "EASIEST DINNER HACK EVER!! 🤯🤯," a woman makes a SpaghettiO with Meatball and cheese pie, complete with a splash of milk for juiciness, along with a side of garlic bread made in part by using her forearms as rolling pins, for no apparent reason other than making people mad. This video is the top result on Facebook for "dinner hack," and based on the other videos on the page that published it, is part of a wider push of cringe content as a traffic strategy.
Despite my strong reaction to these "recipes," I was hesitant to comment on these videos, especially the ones authored by everyday social media users; it seems to go against the preschool adage "don't yuck someone else's yum." But I can't help thinking that similar recipes to these, with the same sorts of ingredients, could be used to create more visibly palatable dishes—such as seasoning the chicken and vegetables and cooking them in a little oil before throwing them into the water to make the soup, as the creator of the first video I mentioned does.
And maybe that's why these are the videos being shared: They're so clearly "off" people can't help but share and comment. It's unclear what the motive is behind them; sometimes they seem click-motivated, other times, maybe just misguided—possibly the product of watching too many of the traffic-focused cooking videos, in a case of life imitating SEO. And I have to say that it also crossed my mind—given some of these ingredients, and their ratios, and the nebulous relationship between brands and social media content—that these videos are part of some corporate scheme to increase demand for GI relief medication, or Knorr powdered bouillon. A spokesperson for Knorr told VICE they are not working on any dedicated marketing on TikTok, “there is just organic love for the products.”
Then again, there's also the possibility that people are sharing these recipes because they think they're good. If that's the case, until the situation improves, then maybe Gordon Ramsay should start a hype house where he tries to teach these people to cook. There is already a genre of videos made to taunt the cranky celebrity chef.
With the coronavirus death toll approach 400,000 in the United States alone, this is decidedly low on the list of things to care about. But even during times of despair and desperation, it's important to examine why we're seeing what we're seeing.