Nothing simply appears out of nowhere. It can seem like that, however. Thus it was for me with one of this winter’s signature creations: the hot chocolate bomb. It filtered into my consciousness via one social media feed or another, a plump chocolate sphere placed in a mug, hot milk poured on top. The milk then melted the chocolate shell, which, blooming open, released its contents of cocoa mix and mini marshmallows. It was both soothing and surprising to watch, a sugary American analog to Yunnan flowering tea. Just stir and sip.
The spheres quickly multiplied, like mushrooms on a lawn. I saw cocoa bombs on chefs’ feeds. The Butcher Shop was offering them in October; by December, Chickadee was adding them to the restaurant’s “holiday essentials” menu, alongside Osetra caviar kits and white Alba truffles. Cambridge-based artisans EHChocolatier made a Christmas tree ornament version using Valrhona dark chocolate, filled with their own sipping chocolate and house-made marshmallows. The bombs were delightful, accessible, not hard to make but finicky enough that it’d be nice to have someone do it for you, using fancy ingredients and candy-making skills you might not have at the ready. Friends began posting videos of adorably decorated hot chocolate bombs they’d bought or received as gifts. The bombs were for sale on Etsy, then at Trader Joe’s, Costco, Amazon. Soon enough, like anything in 2020, the trend took on poignancy: I began to see posts from people selling them out of their homes to raise much-needed cash for the holiday season. Hot chocolate bombs are now a cottage industry nationwide.
What appears to have started it all? An approximately 13-second video posted Dec. 2, 2019, on the video-sharing platform TikTok. “Would anyone buy these?,” posted Eric Torres Garcia of Boise, Idaho, who claims to be the developer of the first cocoa bomb. Not anyone. Everyone. At the Baker’s Rack, her one-woman custom cookie and dessert company in Haverhill, Rachel F. Cohen sold more than 1,600 hot chocolate bombs this month. “Normally I keep sales open until Dec. 18, and I sold out Dec. 5,” she says. “TikTok and Instagram have changed the way people are looking at food.”
And how. Instagram has been doing so for several years, but 2020 was the year food really arrived on TikTok. In June, according to a story on the food website Kitchn, the hashtag “food” had 47 billion views. Six months later, that number has almost doubled, at 93 billion and counting. The pandemic has been good to the app, which according to the company had more than 100 million active monthly American users in August, with more than 50 million of them on TikTok daily.
Many of those users were now trapped at home, relying on their own kitchen skills. Some became more serious cooks during quarantine, fussing over sourdough loaves, perfecting homemade pasta, creating time-consuming edible projects. This labor provided focus, purpose, comfort, and routine. But others felt things were maybe serious enough. Lighthearted, low-stakes, distracting cookertainment requiring the shortest of attention spans — less than 60 seconds — felt just right.
“It’s kind of like a counterpoint to the beautiful, perfect kinds of material you might find on something like Instagram,” says Laura Miller, a professor of sociology at Brandeis University. “When you have people now forced to take a lot of meals in their own homes, and that includes people not used to cooking for themselves, there’s a lot of experimentation going on, failure going on, and attempts to relieve the boredom of eating the same thing day after day after day. I assume people are posting material about those kinds of experiments not so much to show off their culinary skills, like they might with still photos with Instagram, but to note the humor in trying out something new and different.”
It’s worth noting that the hashtag “foodfails” has 5.2 million views.
Far from sourdough, the kind of content that thrives on TikTok is often sweet and literally fluffy. For instance, this year brought us cloud bread (3 billion views). It looks like a less tousled version of cotton candy and is made with three ingredients, a popular number in TikTok recipes. Egg whites, sugar, and cornstarch are whipped together, formed into a dome shape, and baked. The examples with the most eye appeal have been visited by the food-coloring fairy, cumulus loaves that broken open reveal hues of strawberry pink, swimming pool blue, and lilac, sometimes all swirled together.
Whipped coffee (2.2 billion views), also known as dalgona coffee, first took off in South Korea. An airy plume of whisked instant coffee, sugar, and water is dolloped atop milk in a glass. It’s a terrarium! It’s a beverage! Its irresistible looks and texture make irrelevant the fact that it’s not exactly the best cup of coffee you’ll ever have.
People also made batches of teeny, tiny flapjacks, dollhouse-scaled, using squeeze bottles to dispense the batter — then put them in bowls, added butter, syrup, and maybe milk, and called them pancake cereal (1.6 billion views). It looked so cunning, it was bound to be repeated, and so the likes of doughnut cereal and croissant cereal came to be.
Some of these made TikTok’s list of top food trends, hacks, and recipes of the year. Also included: banana bread, ice cream cake, DIY hazelnut spread, how to make chocolate from scratch, bell peppers with cream cheese (it’s a keto thing), and visibly tender barbecued meat. There’s no mention of the Oreo mug cake, or frog bread (which is… bread shaped like a frog), or the White Claw slushie. But chef Gordon Ramsay is here, enjoying a renaissance, humorously critiquing other people’s cooking videos on a split screen. And one of TikTok’s rising stars and top creators is Tabitha Brown, an actress whose daughter encouraged her to join. She did, in March, and now has 4.6 million followers. She’s the anti-Ramsay, spreading love and cozy vibes along with tips on making carrot bacon, smoothie bowls, jackfruit tacos, and other vegan treats.
“The world’s Favorite Mom,” her bio reads, followed by a juicy red heart. “You need a hug?,” she asks, before offering instruction on making potato wedges. “I love you,” she says in another video, speaking quietly, soothingly, kindly. “You’re special. You’re enough. You’re worth it. The world needs you. Honey, without you the world is not complete. You play a huge role in this world. I don’t care what right now feels like, and honey I don’t care what you did in your past. You are special. And you are needed.”
There’s no recipe in that one. It has 3.4 million views. In 2020, sometimes the cooking content we needed wasn’t about food at all. TikTok was here for that.