A rooster crows as Ángela, a Mexican woman in a purple apron, takes her place beside a wood-fired grill to teach us how to make gorditas, corncakes plump with fillings. “Hola, mi gente bonita,” she greets us. Hello, my beautiful people. Doña Ángela — no one seems to know her last name, only that she lives somewhere in Michoacán — is the host of De Mi Rancho a Tu Cocina, a YouTube cooking channel that has amassed 1.5 million subscribers since its launch two months ago. (The name translates to “From My Ranch to Your Kitchen.”) As the host pats corn dough between her palms with evident satisfaction, we hear children chattering in the background; perhaps that, combined with her kind, lined face, is why she is always referred to as an abuela (grandmother) or some fond variant thereof — e.g. “tiny abuelita,” in a Vice story that notes “a distinct ASMR vibe” to her soothing videos.
Meanwhile, over on Instagram, 114,000 people have watched a video of Lan Lin — a.k.a. “Mama Lin,” the 70-something mother of food blogger Lisa Lin — wrap and fry spring rolls. The YouTube channel Pasta Grannies (431,000 subscribers) spawned a cookbook out in the US this week, “Pasta Grannies: The Secrets of Italy’s Best Home Cooks,” featuring recipes from more than 70 nonne for pici, trofie with pesto, and the like. Pasta Grannies was featured recently in The New York Times, which last year ran an obituary for Mastanamma, an Indian great-grandmother who died at 107 with more than a million subscribers to Country Foods, the YouTube channel where she documented recipes for tamarind rice, chicken curry, and whole lamb biryani.
It is true that grandmothers have always cooked, and that we have always loved to watch them. But now the grandmothers doing the cooking are not necessarily our own, and we are turning up in droves to learn their family recipes. Granny cooking has found a new frontier — the electronic range — and women who came of age before the Internet existed are being celebrated online for their culinary prowess.
"I talk about my mother to my friends a lot and they find her funny," says Lisa Lin, a former lawyer whose mother supports her career change while not always understanding it. "I thought: Why don't I record her making peanut candy and post it online? I got such a great reaction from my audience, more so than I've ever had before. It turns out a lot of people really enjoy watching my mom cook."
This is understandable. Mama Lin’s mooncakes, dumplings, and garlicky green beans look delicious, and her technique is impeccable. The only route to hand-shaping tapered silver-needle noodles so effortlessly is years and years of practice. In her De Mi Rancho a Tu Cocina videos, Ángela brings us into the garden to pick vegetables with her before cooking them in bright enamelware with “poquita sal”: Who needs exact measurements? (Or potholders, for that matter? Ouch.) A comment on a Pasta Grannies video, in which 96-year-old Pierina rolls out strudel dough until you can see the tablecloth’s pattern through it, reads: “I’m a cook for over 40 years and [I’m] feeling as green as hell. This is art.”
It is. In an age when cookbook publishers rarely pay to have recipes tested, and the reliability of those found online is a crapshoot, it is comforting to see something prepared by hands that have prepared it hundreds of times over decades. Does this recipe work? There's no question about it.
But more than that, there is a nostalgic appeal. We like to think of grandmothers as figures who exist for the purpose of nourishing and nurturing us, a notion that may never have been quite so simple in reality. Regardless, it’s awfully hard to spend all day making chicken potpies from scratch when your high-powered job keeps you late at the office. The grandma of yore is an endangered species, here on earth but for a short time more.
“Every generation has nostalgia for the generation before,” says Anastasia Miari, a UK-based journalist who with creative director Iska Lupton is working on a project called Grand Dishes, documenting the stories and recipes of grandmothers from around the world. “Our lives are so fast-paced and saturated with instant gratification. . . . Especially in cities, young people, or millennials, or snowflakes [laughs], we seem to not have time to cook, not have time to feed ourselves, not have time to take care of our mental health. We’re all suffering from burnout. The simple lives our grandparents live are now attracting us. We’re learning maybe that’s a better way to live.”
Grand Dishes will culminate in a cookbook of the same name that Miari and Lupton aim to have out for the holidays next year. They have spent time with grannies from Sicily, Cuba, Hong Kong, Eritrea, and more; this week they set out on a US road trip. First stop: New York restaurant Enoteca Maria, which has a rotating menu prepared not by trained chefs but by grandmothers from around the world, serving up dishes from their own cultures. As with most people who set out to preserve these recipes, Miari and Lupton were inspired by their own grandmothers, from Greece and Germany, respectively.
"These are the last generation of women that won't have had their lives recorded in the way we record our lives now," Miari says. "These stories and recipes might be lost forever if we're not around to take them down or inherit them."
Even for those who don’t cook, these videos have appeal. They feed our wanderlust with glimpses of cultures and countries we may never visit ourselves. At the same time, they show us how universal our relationships are. In a scene from Ángela’s rancho, she shells beans with one of her daughters. Each makes eye contact with the camera, and their expressions are suffused with love and its complex accompaniments: frustration, tolerance, pride.
There is a tendency, when we talk about older people in this society, to simplify and condescend — to reduce complicated, fully realized human beings to “cute” grandmas and grandpas. Videos of grandmothers cooking upend these notions subversively. Sure, there’s your sweet little nonna making delicious food. But she’s also racking up the views and the likes (so much for olds who don’t know their way around computers), finally being rewarded in one way or another for all those years of uncompensated labor.
Perhaps the most satisfying video of them all features 86-year-old culinary grande dame and actress Madhur Jaffrey. Although she has written many seminal Indian cookbooks, this happens to be a music video, by hip-hop artist Mr. Cardamom. The song, “Nani,” is a tribute to his maternal grandmother, played by Jaffrey. It does begin with her in the kitchen, getting chewed out by an ungrateful son. But before you know it, she’s dropping F bombs, knocking all her supplements to the floor, applying red lipstick, and fanning herself with a wad of cash as she smokes a cigarette. “I’m the best damn Nani that you ever done seen,” she snarls. Believe it. The video has more than 100,000 views.