On September 6, 2016, Rebekkah, better known by her YouTube channel name Hungry Cakes, uploaded a 13-minute-long video titled “ASMR: Taco Bell Taco Supreme *Eating Sounds*.” The video begins with the young woman sinking her teeth into a golden hard-shelled Taco Supreme from the titular fast-food chain. For the entire duration of the clip, Rebekkah eschews traditional dining etiquette by providing maximum cacophony while wolfing down three Taco Supremes, chomping and smacking her way through each bite, slowly unwrapping the white paper wrappers, and displaying the scarlet-red “Diablo” hot sauce dribbled on the taco.
“It’s pretty hot,” Rebekkah tells the camera in a low whisper, just before taking a long, noisy slurp from her soda. In a restaurant, this sort of eating might prompt disgust. But for a majority of the nearly 200,000 individuals who have viewed and commented on the video, this sensory stimulation is delicious.
Every day, millions of YouTube viewers sit down to watch lengthy videos — often 10 minutes or longer — of whispering to the camera, hair being brushed, or the late Bob Ross dabbing paints on his canvases. For a select group of individuals, many of the 6 million videos filed under the search keyword “ASMR,” short for autonomous sensory meridian response, trigger “brain-gasms,” or what devotees describe as a tingling sensation down the spine that is accompanied by relaxation. (Scientists don’t yet know what causes the reaction, but it’s the subject of much ASMR-related research.) Once a micro-community of the internet, ASMR has seeped into the mainstream, overtaking searches for “chocolate” and “candy” in April 2015.
Within this internet subculture, a fringe group of ASMR producers has emerged. Specializing in creating videos that use all of the natural sounds flooding the culinary world, the food-centric ASMR community has seen a sudden ascendance up the rungs of YouTube and Reddit worlds. So what’s going on inside the minds of those producing footage for this alt-food-porn community?
After graduating from college, Cooper Nelson, a local news reporter in Albany, New York, started a YouTube cooking channel called Silently Cooking. Tired of cooking shows with egocentric hosts and cheesy music, he focused his show entirely on meal preparation and made special use of the sounds that occurred naturally as he was cooking.
When he posted a video showing how to make a gooey grilled cheese sandwich, Nelson realized that his hits weren’t coming from an audience in need of cooking lessons. Many of his viewers were captivated instead by the tingling sensations his video triggered.
“The ASMR crowd [on Reddit] got ahold of them,” Nelson says. “I had no idea what it was, so I Googled it, and [I was] fascinated.” Although he doesn’t experience the tingles from ASMR, he believes that almost everyone reacts in same way to soft sounds like the sensual hiss produced by searing a steak or light metallic scratches from a metal whisk. After awakening to this previously unknown audience, he began focusing on these sensory effects. “I decided to have that really be at the forefront of my videos,” Nelson says. “So now they’re all about the visuals and they’re all about the sound.”
It might sound simple, but Nelson found that attuning one’s attention to detail for ASMR video production, especially as someone who doesn’t experience ASMR, is tough. Often, viewers will comment that the sound in his videos is too harsh — a complaint that might make little sense to the non-triggered ear. Noises like clanging pots and pans or the creaking of a broiler door being opened can kill the sensory buildup.
“I remember putting up one video, and a lot of people said, ‘Hey, it’s a good video, but some of the harsh sounds didn’t give me the ASMR feel,’” Nelson says. He later explained that in addition to being conscious of metallic clanking (like this past weekend when baking chicken wings in the oven), he recognizes that he can get brain-melting sounds from routine techniques like the gentle bubbling of stock or the light chopping of vegetables. “You do have to mingle them,” he explains. “You’ve got to make sure there’s a nice equilibrium, which I’m still trying to get. But now I focus a lot on [creating] a very pleasurable audio experience.”
In 2015, experimental psychologists Emma Barratt and Nick Davis published the first peer-reviewed study on ASMR, hoping to better explain why certain people react with tingling euphoria after viewing ASMR videos. The researchers found that a significant number of the subjects possessed synaesthetic capabilities, but also report that mental health plays a significant role in determining how strongly people experience the effects of ASMR.
“One thing we were surprised by in our study was the effect on mood: the degree to which people became happy and how long that effect lasted,” Davis says. “It was particularly stronger in people who were generally of low mood — they get a bigger benefit from ASMR.”
Davis speculates that there are two different groups of individuals likely drawn to food-related ASMR videos. The first is made up of people who find themselves at ease watching intricate, repetitive processes with soft sounds, like the dull thud from chopping vegetables or pressing the moist rice on a roll of sushi. The other group, Davis believes, comprises people who experience a sense of comfort. As he puts it, they “might be responding to the food itself.”
“They think of mom’s apple pie, for example, and that takes them back to childhood,” Davis says. He explains that video streams featuring food we’d classify as comfort food — mac n’ cheese, for instance, or meaty stews “with umami as a flavor” — will probably produce similar effects.
If Davis is right about these two groups, the second group of individuals would likely veer toward the channels of YouTubers like Rebekkah of Hungry Cakes, where the subjects record themselves eating. Although many associate these YouTube videos with the subculture mukbang (during which video producers film themselves eating, often chatting live with their audiences as they do so), Rebekkah explains that ASMR videos’ production technique, as well as the viewing audience, differs. “There’s a lot of storytelling in mukbang,” she says, citing the YouTuber MommyTang, who tells stories about her personal life while chowing down on a meal. “Their audience is mostly people who like to watch people eat because they don't like to eat by themselves.”
On the other hand, Rebekkah believes that the audience food ASMR caters to includes those who are looking for pure sensory stimuli. Viewers sometimes request that she eat food that’s connected to their childhood or cultural backgrounds, and she tailors many of her videos toward followers who who use them to help with studying or fasting during religious holidays. Other fans of her channel are there simply for relaxation. In the comments section for the Taco Bell video, the YouTube user Canadian Brownie writes “This video is pure gold. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. I don't even have words for the relaxation I feel right now.”
Given the perception of ASMR as a growing trend, combined with the food media boom in general, it would have been a surprise if major food companies didn’t try to cash in on the phenomenon. This past July, KFC ran an ASMR-tailored Extra Crispy Chicken ad campaign that featured the ever-tan George Hamilton as the Extra Crispy Colonel. According to Kevin Hochman, KFC’s CMO, “It’s very important for [KFC] to be relevant to people, especially with such fragmented media. And there are groups of people passionate about ASMR.” In the commercial, Hamilton whispers in a low, husky voice; folds bright red pocket squares; and, of course, chomps down on fried chicken, producing several clamorous crunches. “Honestly, we were just trying to appeal to the population,” Hochman says.
This sense of comfort is what motivates producers like Cooper Nelson of Silently Cooking and Rebekkah of Hungry Cakes to record themselves in what some might see as an intimate moment. “People ask, ‘Is this a fetish?’” Rebekkah says. “I'm not one to judge.” Davis, the experimental psychologist, believes that the reasons that internet users seek out porn streaming websites, or food ASMR, are likely similar.
Although their view counts and subscriber numbers are impressive, Nelson says that for ASMR video creators, nothing beats knowing that their channels help others rest easy. “The greatest compliment I’ve yet received for any of these videos has been from several different people, and that’s when they say they’ll put on my videos as they’re falling asleep,” Nelson says. “I think that’s the coolest thing.”
Matt Sedacca is a writer based in New York City. Gurleen Rai is an illustrator and comic artist who splits her time between Toronto, Canada and New Orleans.
Editor: Erin DeJesus