OPINIONFood

Democratizing food media in a waffle iron with Skittles

Nancy Kruse and Lisa Jennings debate the changing of the guard in food media as TikTok steals the show.
TikTok food
Is TikTok the new Food Network? |Photo: Shutterstock.

Lisa:

Nancy, can we talk about TikTok?

I understand, of course, that China is trying to take control of all our brains. And certainly I’d love to have all those hours back lost to watching people doing mashup dances, women getting chin filler to make them “way pointier,” or that lady who keeps bats as pets. Like, loose inside her house.

Okay, I admit that guy who does dog voice overs is pretty funny.

But TikTok is also where people go for restaurant reviews and hacks. My 20-something son recently showed me how he now orders a regular bowl at Chipotle along with a tortilla. He takes about half the bowl and rolls it into the tortilla, making a well-stuffed burrito. Then he is left with enough still in the bowl to make a second meal.

It was a trick he’d learned watching How Kev Eats, who appears to be in the Los Angeles area and has 3.3 million followers. Or maybe it was one of the many other food people he follows, he wasn’t sure. But, from them, he has learned a pretty delicious way to cook asparagus and some other dishes. And he has put me on to some great new restaurant concepts.

So Nancy, I ask you: Is TikTok the new Food Network?

Nancy:

Well, the good news, Lisa, is that your son actually ate his tortilla and didn’t turn it into social-media fodder. You may recall the Tortilla Challenge on TikTok last year that racked up more than 60 million views of a woman and her friends slapping each other in the face with floppy tortillas. So madly popular was the post that it generated what in old-media terms we’d call sequels, in which the creator re-released the footage in slo-mo versions to increase the hilarity.

 This goes a long way toward explaining why I’ve been so amused, bemused and totally flummoxed by some of the stuff that’s been popping up on #FoodTok, the umbrella term applied to content about comestibles as opposed to, say, that of nice ladies with bats in their belfries.

 A partial list of FoodTok hits from the recent past includes fads like corn ribs and butter boards, feta-cheese pasta and lasagna soup, sushi and even Skittles smooshed in a waffle iron, tiny ice cubes and bubbly Negronis. Cottage cheese, the disrespected diet food from another era, has been rediscovered as part of what Thrillist calls—and I'm not kidding here—the “curd zeitgeist.” 

While head-turning, perhaps, these are relatively benign examples of the power of engagement, unlike, say, last year’s Nyquil chicken phenomenon, in which chicken breasts were baked in the over-the-counter medicine, thus prompting the FDA to warn sternly that the heat could release dangerous fumes and change the property of the medication such that it could sicken consumers.

Equally hair raising was the pink-sauce sensation. The condiment, created by a home cook who dubbed herself Chef Pii, used dragonfruit to concoct a Pepto-Bismol-colored product in her kitchen. Some buyers of the non-shelf stable, poorly packaged stuff complained of rancid-smelling bottles bloated by bacterial growth and of misspelled, inaccurate labeling.

(But as an aside, the moral of this story and a real lesson on the power of engagement is that an actual food manufacturer stepped in and collaborated with Pii to create a safe product that ultimately ended up on the shelves of Walmart. Go figure.)

So, you ask, is TikTok the new Food Network? Well, lots of people seem to think so, touting the “democratization” of digital food media.

But this begs the question, I think, of the role of traditional food experts, like, say, James Beard. Or Julia Child. Or maybe even professional observers and analysts like us.

 Do you think we should be worried?

Lisa:

Well, I’m not worried, based on the success of my new TikTok series, which involves skeet shooting various fast-food burgers in my back yard. Those Double Doubles really fly and the dogs handle cleanup. I’m sure I’ll be hearing from potential sponsors any minute.

I was today years old when I learned that “democratization of digital food media” means we must suffer through content that makes me want to scream at people to get off my lawn.

I will concede that influencers like Keith Lee do a great job of introducing new and interesting brands. He describes himself as “just a normal person,” though one who now can’t walk into a restaurant anywhere in the country because he will be recognized.

Lee reportedly rolled through Atlanta like some kind of restaurant-reviewer tornado. Some venues he visited were sold out after one of his glowing reviews. Those he criticized received the wrath of his followers.

Fundamentally, it’s a good thing when reviewers (in any format) are honest, whether an experience was good or bad. I wish influencers would disclose more about whether they pay for their own meals, and soon a new rule from the Federal Trade Commission may bring more transparency around these types of user-generated reviews.

I have written restaurant reviews for a big city newspaper, and it’s hard. There are rules to ensure fairness and ethical behavior. In those days, if a restaurant was really terrible, we believed it was better to not publish a review at all, rather than slay someone’s business. Now on social media, people slay for sport.

So, Nancy, what good can come of this democratization?

Nancy:

The short answer to your salient question, Lisa, is that I don’t know for sure all the good, bad and ugly that will come of this. But I do know there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.

The media, both conventional and digital, have been absolutely chockablock with stories like “How to Be Food Famous” that popped up on Eater. The answer, BTW, is “a decent video camera, a hook, and the grace of god the algorithm.”

A few weeks back, The New York Times reported how TikTok stars reshape the cookbook world and recounted that an unemployed musician in Wyoming, who freely admits he’s only been baking for two years, created “Baking Yesteryear,” which promptly became not just the best-selling cookbook, but the No.1 book in the country.

Dylan Hollis, the unemployed-musician author in question, noted wryly that “to be known for baking without being particularly well versed in the topic … is a very peculiar notion. You have to ask, ‘Who deserves to publish a cookbook?’”  You do, indeed, Dylan.

The Times article also quoted another author’s assertion that “TikTok is the greatest selling machine right now,” a claim seemingly borne out by some extraordinary data in a Vox story about the waning influence of old-guard food media.

To wit: influencer Keith Lee may be “just a normal person,” but he has a whopping 13.5 million TikTok followers. By contrast, The New York Times Cooking section has 309,400 and Bon Appetit has just under 300,000.

You know, my dear, one of the advantages of being in Vox’s “old guard” is that we have benefit of hindsight and historical perspective, not to mention a healthy skepticism about the staying power of the “greatest selling machine” and, in fact, of the greatest anythings.

No question that TikTok is social media’s flavor of the month from the food perspective, and it’s certainly not going to disappear. But it will evolve, as it is doing even as I type this, with TikTok Shop, an e-commerce site that plans to leverage its billion followers to become “QVC for Gen Z,” while it takes aim at Amazon’s domination of e-commerce.

In response to all of this, an Eater story asked the rhetorical question, “Is the Wild West of TikTok Foods Coming to an End?” At about the same time, an article on the business website Insider noted specifically that homemade food, whether Pepto-Bismol pink or Nyquil blue, will not be welcome in the marketplace. Too many concerns regarding food safety and consumer protection.

And I’m not at all convinced that it’s time to write off the so-called old guard. Consider if you will the Food Network’s Guy Fieri, he of the crazy hair and sexy cars, who chases around the country scouting “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” His enduring popularity has made him a millionaire many times over, given him his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and attracted a reported 73 million viewers who tune in at least once a quarter.

So I say we should keep calm and carry on as food media, both new and old, move forward in time to address a changing audience in a changing social, cultural and culinary environment.

To ensure that I’ll be around to see this, I’ve made a note not to go near your backyard any time soon. I’d like to think my buns are a larger, if not cuter, target than those Double Doubles.

 

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