Food is a powerful thing. It has brought people together for centuries, between families, communities and cultures. From birthdays to neighborhood potlucks to holiday feasts, the nature of sharing food with others is a tradition carved into our very existence. We’ve found bread with score marks in the ashes of Vesuvius, indicating its intention to be divided and shared, and a OnePoll study found that 84% of Americans say food has the power to connect people of different cultures and backgrounds. Indeed, the sharing of food and recipes is nothing new, but recently there’s been a shift in how we share recipes, as well as who shares them.
The digital age has brought on the popularity of cooking videos. TikTok in particular, with its unparalleled ability to create widespread virality, is a giant in the age of the viral food trend. You might remember Gigi Hadid’s famous pasta alla vodka recipe, simply consisting of fried onions and garlic, heavy whipping cream, tomato sauce, vodka and the pasta of your choice, or the feta pasta trend that was so popular it caused feta cheese shortages. Hadid was obviously not the originator of pasta alla vodka and feta cheese is no new ingredient, but with this new era, watching cooking videos is far from an isolated moment an individual experiences before dinnertime. Rather, it is a concept commonly shared and discussed throughout popular culture.
This isn’t to say food trends are a new concept — I mean who could forget the Jello trends of the 1950s, which included adding gelatin to practically everything, from a vegetable and sugar mix called “Perfection Salad,” to submerging lamb chops in the mix. Even in more recent times, there has been the avocado trend of the 2010s, which caused the relentless slander of millennials and their spending habits. Yet the recent rise of food trends originating from TikTok is different from the trends of the past: The food is usually cooked rather than bought and can be made by anyone, often including younger generations. The most viral food trends usually use simple, accessible ingredients and don’t require much skill to master. Part of the allure is that even someone with very limited cooking experience can watch a minute-long video and think, “I can do that!” (And of course, the foods must also look enticing enough to warrant the desire to make them.)
Why is this change so significant? We have lived in a popular culture that has frowned upon eating or has provided narrow definitions for what we’re allowed to talk about. We can be quirky with phrases like “I love pizza!” and “Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my coffee!” but there are unspoken limits. Dialogue usually doesn’t center around nourishing, balanced meals, and rarely centers around the process of cooking. Yet the emergence of viral cooking videos on TikTok, a platform where 62% of users are between the ages of 10 and 29, has changed this, and more people who have never cooked before are now encountering fun cooking content that they can replicate themselves.
There are benefits to conversations about food that aren’t centered around caloric intake or body image. Normalizing society’s relationship with food, particularly within the digital world that so often fills our feeds with unattainable ideals, is a healthy thing. While 69% of girls ages 10 to 18 state that photographs of models and celebrities in the media motivated their “ideal” body shape, it can be helpful to build a neutral relationship with food — one that isn’t motivated by any endgame outside of creating something tasty for the fun of it. Not to mention that cooking is a life skill everyone should pick up, and the affordability and simplicity of viral meals makes cooking accessible in addition to fun.
Of course, with all things on the internet, there are inevitable drawbacks. While sharing the foods of different cultures can be a way to connect us, those chasing virality run the risk of the culturally appropriating cuisines, or attempting to capitalize on a culture without giving that culture necessary acknowledgement. TikToker Joanne Molinaro explained in an interview with PopSugar that “On TikTok, it’s very easy to be perceived as being disrespectful to cultural cuisines because you only get 60 seconds. I think because of the limited amount of time, you start taking shortcuts in your content, and you just don’t have time to explain intricacies and all of the ingredients that you’re using.” Molinaro highlighted the issues that come with the length of the modern viral video, and the spontaneous nature of internet virality only perpetuates the ability for videos to spiral into something harmful.
Yet despite its cons, cooking trends still kickstart many conversations that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. As a current college student, I can’t say that much of my high school experience included discussing recipes with my friends. But watching videos on TikTok has shown me plenty of high schoolers cooking their favorite meals, and has even launched some young chefs to stardom. Jeremy Scheck is a current Cornell undergraduate student who launched to stardom after cooking Gigi Hadid’s pasta alla vodka recipe; he now boasts 2.1 million TikTok followers and has accumulated over 71 million likes on his videos. His videos feature food from 13 different cuisines and accommodate dietary restrictions as well.
Other content creators have expanded the way they share food content, using a number of formats like mukbangs (where creators consume meals in front of the camera), taste tests, ASMR videos, “oddly satisfying” videos and even videos exclusively made up of shots of cooking sounds formatted to a steady beat. More and more frequently, we’re seeing a younger audience engaging with accessible food content and transforming the way popular culture approaches cooking. These days, you can hear young people having conversations like “have you tried that one focaccia recipe?” in addition to the run-of-the-mill conversation topics. It’s heartening to see humanity’s tradition of sharing food continue into the digital age, and now even more people can join in on a long-held conversation.