2019 ends not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with the catchy, visceral beats that dominate the Wild West of TikTok. This was the year that the Chinese-owned social video platform — known for its vast array of algorithmically surfaced micro-clips, often set to tracks whose TikTok success then leeches into the real world of charts and label deals — rose to new heights as the viral video factory.
While the most prolific example is that of rapper Lil Nas X and his hit song “Old Town Road,” which snowballed from the soundtrack of a meme challenge on TikTok into the longest-running No. 1 single in Billboard’s history, plenty of other videos broke through the noise, reaching millions of viewers not just on the app, but on platforms like Twitter and Instagram, too. Included among the agglomeration of genres and subcultures that make up TikTok’s boundless ecosystem are standout food videos. Hardly surprising considering the role that food plays in performance and curation of a public persona, as well as in the everyday lives of the smartphone-native teens who make up the majority of the app’s 1.5 billion total users.
Food is fuel, but it’s also something to be memed and transformed into punchlines for clout. Some of this year’s big food TikToks were about as funny, weird, or stunt-y as you might expect from any social media site populated by bored, creative young people. There were feats like this intrepid young man devouring a 10-patty Whataburger on camera, which Texas Monthly called “the most inspiring video of the year”:
And accidental memes like the iconic Kombucha Girl, whose series of rapid-fire facial expressions after taking a sip of kombucha turned her into a bona fide social media star with enough subsequent hits — including the excellent “noodle weenie dogs” — to prove that she isn’t a one-hit wonder:
Beyond the typical jokes and antics, many of the food TikToks were notable for how they turned the act of food preparation into catchy clips or misleading how-to videos making difficult work seem easy. Take, for instance, the internet’s brief fixation with the deceptively simple-looking hack of pineapple pulling, stemming from a couple of TikToks that went viral on Twitter.
Or meal preparation videos that get at the same strain of aspirationality through foreign (outdoor cooking in the rural countryside of China) and domestic (a typical American mom putting together lunches for her kids, often using the packaged and processed foods familiar to many kids across the U.S.) lenses:
Or the TikToks that take it one step further by literally making dances out of cooking. Imagine a world in which painstakingly producing meal after meal feels not like a chore, but like an act of leisure or even party-rocking fun!
One of the most intriguing genre of food TikToks has to do with modern work in the life of an average American teen: food service, the archetypal high school job. TikTok, as the New York Times’s John Herrman writes, has “become an unlikely force for labor visibility,” showcasing how employees across industries waste their time at work. Whether the videos depict fast-food workers griping about customers and bosses, describing weird interactions in autotune, or rallying with their coworkers, the effect is one of refreshing humanization, making visible the real people and labor behind fries and frappuccinos.
These TikToks are also a window into how fast food gets made, an object of morbid fascination that has preoccupied Americans for ages. It’s no secret that most dishes served at a high-volume fast-food or fast-casual restaurant have been engineered and optimized to be produced as cheaply and efficiently as possible, and yet it’s hard to look away from TikToks that show the making of Chipotle guacamole or Subway tuna mush, whether it’s to be pleasantly surprised by the use of fresh ingredients, or to have your worst fears confirmed about how your favorite dish gets made.
The most striking example of the latter this year was the infamous Panera Bread mac and cheese TikTok that revealed that Panera essentially cooks its classic dish through sous vide, and got the worker who filmed the TikTok fired. While there’s actually nothing wrong with that technique of preparation — Eater’s Jaya Saxena points out that “this isn’t so different from freezing servings of soup at home and reheating them as needed” — the controversy, and the resulting termination of the young employee, serves as just one example of how TikTok and “real life” are leaking more and more into each other now that adults and brands are taking notice of the platform.
Apparently, this is how Panera Bread prepares the mac and cheese. (via TikTok) pic.twitter.com/jUv47TYBhm— UberFacts (@UberFacts) October 11, 2019
TikTok can get you fired, but it can also get you a record deal, fame, and sponsors. (On the downside, it can also potentially censor and surveil you.) Advertisers are eyeing the platform, with some food brands, like Chipotle and Kind, issuing hashtag challenges that can snag millions of views. This year saw the mainstream explosion of TikTok, even amid political contention; next year, expect to see even more money and public attention flow in TikTok’s direction. And maybe even a professionalized, monetizable cooking show or two.
Nick Iluzada is a designer and snack enthusiast in Los Angeles.