Food entertainment has splintered off into a few discrete subsets since pioneering TV chefs like Julia Child and Martin Yan made the “stand and stir” format their bitch.
Child’s The French Chef aired its three pilot episodes in 1962, and they are primitive: When she prepares onion soup gratinee in an early episode, there are no bells and whistles, no close-ups of pornographically lit food that we associate with instructional cooking videos now. There’s only Child, her onions and the boundless charisma that was responsible for making the show such a runaway success.
“Stand and stir” shows still exist, of course, but they’re usually the province of seasoned hosts like The Barefoot Contessa’s venerable Ina Garten, who we’ve all agreed can pretty much do whatever she wants and keep us spellbound. There are also beloved cooking competition shows like Iron Chef America and Chopped that bring the adrenaline, with their high-octane relay-race dynamics and food that mostly doesn’t look very good.
And, for the social media set, there are the wildly popular overhead cooking videos that populate outlets like BuzzFeed’s Tasty and the YouTube channel So Yummy. These videos are less instructional gospel and more social media strategy, each designed with viral success as its goal. And indeed, the quick cuts and bright hues are good at catching a wandering (or scrolling) eye. Producer Rie Tange McClenny of Tasty also had the aesthetic breakthrough of starting each video with a “beauty shot” of the finished food, rather than the common strategy of beginning with a less appealing shot of the mise en place required to make the dish. Her reasoning, as explained to Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times, was simple and telling: “I like to make pretty food.”
Overhead cooking videos are reminiscent of POV porn, except (somewhat) less erotic: A pair of disembodied hands prepares food in such a way as to suggest that you, the viewer, are the owner of these hands, preparing these pulled pork sliders of your own free will. (The idea that I’d ever prepare a pulled pork slider is deeply erotic to me, natch.) Jaunty music is probably playing while this happens, and certain visual memes have become key to the genre — for example, the disembodied fingers of one hand may snap over a whole onion, and in the next shot the onion has been magically diced. Brightness abounds, too, as if to suggest that this cooking stuff doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be finger-snapping magic! It can be a party!
Food entertainment has long come under scrutiny for prizing the entertainment over the food, promoting popular personalities at the expense of educating audiences about cooking. Still, many of those personalities really were competent chefs, and viewers who loved Emeril Lagasse’s showboating or Garten’s warmth could expect to learn the basics of food preparation from them, even if the cooking wasn’t the primary draw. Overhead cooking videos now meet the same scrutiny with an additional layer of suspicion: They don’t even promote competent cooking much of the time. Some videos do show perfectly fine food being made, but viral-friendliness, not competence, is the prerequisite. As Marian Bull wrote for First We Feast, “This new generation of video is food optimized for shareability, not practicality.”
Case in point: tempting treats such as Chefclub Network’s infamous beef hand. Well, I call it the beef hand. I suppose I’d better respect the recipe’s creator by using the beef hand’s proper Christian name of “Easy, Freaky Fried Meatloaf,” which is somehow worse. Chefclub’s French content creator designed the recipe to be served as part of a “Halloween dinner,” according to Chefclub’s U.S. country manager Hannah Petertil. It’s telling that “content creator” is the job title at hand here, not “chef” or “recipe developer”: The beef hand is less food than content.
Chefclub Network isn’t the only game in town for dadaist overhead cooking entertainment. Scrumdiddlyumptious produces similar videos, as does 5-Minute Crafts. They look like normal overhead cooking videos and partake of all the same tropes, but in a dreamlike way that’s slightly off. It’s as if someone who had never eaten food before watched an overhead cooking video and thought, “That’s easy! I can do that!” Tasty tells us that cooking videos should look good and, if possible, show us how to make decent food; Chefclub and its kin tell us that cooking videos should look captivatingly strange, and to hell with the rest.
Chefclub’s staff openly admit that the on-camera presentation of some recipes bears little resemblance to best practices for actually preparing them. Petertil characterizes Chefclub’s visual signature as “fun-first,” which isn’t always applicable when taking a recipe offline. “We don’t expect you to use as much cheese as we do, but people love watching cheese on camera,” Petertil explains. “We give people what they want. Our aesthetic is for the people.”
Hard to argue with that, because I was drawn to the beef hand as soon as I saw it on my Twitter timeline. I love any recipe that employs, count ’em, two wholly inedible ingredients (in this case, latex gloves and straws). I’m always saying that more food should be mostly inedible. So I watched the above video a few times and wrote down the recipe’s ingredients and steps to the best of my ability. Overhead cooking videos are typically accompanied by a written recipe, but this recipe sat behind a paywall that I was simply not willing to cross in service to the bit. That meant I had to do some guessing with temperatures and quantities, which gave the whole project a pleasant, looming sense of why-the-hell-am-I-cooking-the-Beef-Hand despair. Still, I think my attempt honored the vision of working really hard for a really long time to produce a dish that tastes okay and looks like a violation of the Geneva Convention.
Without further ado, I present to you: Beef Hand a la Chefclub a la Rax King.
- Latex gloves (Again, I can’t overemphasize how tickled I am that latex gloves are an ingredient.)
- Straws (See note above re: latex gloves.)
- One-half pound(ish) of ground beef (enough to fill a glove)
- Salt and pepper, though the recipe does not call for any seasoning at all?!?!
- Pizza dough (I used the Sally’s Baking Addiction pizza dough recipe, which I hope fills the eponymous Sally with pride in her work.)
- Tomato sauce (I slapped mine together from some canned tomatoes and herbs I had sitting around; there’s a lot of “stuff I had sitting around” energy in my approach here.)
- Vegetable oil (for deep-frying)
- Flour, egg and bread crumbs (for deep-frying)
1) Confirm that your will is up-to-date and that your taste-tester is physically equipped to bring you to the nearest hospital if need be.
2) For Christ’s sake, season the ground beef. I watched the video four times looking for the step where the disembodied hands sprinkled some salt and pepper onto the ground beef. But I never found it.
3) Fill a latex glove with beef. In the video, the cook’s hands wrap the glove around the outside of a glass to hold it in place during the, ugh, beef-packing. This isn’t really necessary, in my expert opinion. Just stuff that beef in whatever way feels right to you. Honestly, the whole project made me wonder what I was doing with my life, but squishing ground beef into the individual fingers of a latex glove really made me wonder what I was doing with my life.
4) Wrap the beef hand around something round (the video used a tomato, I used a ramekin) and freeze until firm. The video claims this will only take one hour. It took my beef hand two.
5) Forget that your freezer has a beef hand in it, and give yourself a nasty fright when you open the door to grab some ice.
6) When your beef hand is nearly frozen (Christ), preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Unroll your pizza dough and cut two circles out of it. Mine were about 4 inches in diameter.
7) Lay one dough circle flat on your workspace, place a straw so that it forms a radial line into the circle, and lay the other dough circle on top. It should look kind of like a lollipop, one that you really don’t want to eat.
8) Crimp the edges tightly, so that no air can get out when you do the next absolutely bananas thing you’re going to do using the straw.
9) Oh, my God, this is so gross to me. Okay. Blow into the straw so that the dough pocket fills with air. So, realistically, because of coronavirus, this is a dish that you can only make for people you already love and share saliva with. (And won’t they be grateful!)
10) Remove the straw and quickly crimp over the hole where it was, so that your spit particles are trapped inside your fat little pizza dough balloon. Bake this appalling thing for what the recipe claims will be 15 minutes but was, in my experience, 25. If you feel you need support as you watch it brown and inflate in the oven, try turning to a trusted grown-up, like a teacher or a rabbi.
11) Heat a pot of enough deep-frying oil to submerge your beef hand. The video instructs its viewers to use olive oil, which I have never once used for deep-frying. Wouldn’t it reek? Wouldn’t it start to burn? Anyway, the recipe doesn’t say how hot, either, but 375 degrees seems reasonable enough.
12) Set out three shallow dishes of flour, beaten egg and bread crumbs, respectively.
13) Remove your beef hand from the freezer and carefully snip the latex glove off it. Try to forget all the food safety classes that cautioned you not to deep fry frozen meat because the water in the frozen meat can be a hot projectile hazard. Dredge the beef hand first in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs, shaking off the excess each time.
14) Carefully lower the beef hand into the hot oil and deep-fry until done. By this point, I’d been drinking for a couple hours, because how do you not? So I’m not sure exactly how long I deep-fried my beef hand — long enough for the coating to crisp up and the fattest part of the hand to stop feeling raw when I clenched it with my tongs. Meanwhile, heat up your tomato sauce.
15) Drain your beef hand on a plate covered in paper towels and send this image to everyone you know, including, for some reason, someone you’d like to sleep with:
Responses to this photo ran the gamut all the way from “I want to hit it with a hammer” to “that looks like a failed attempt at necromancy.” In Petertil’s words, “Recipes that go viral are often ones that bring a smile to someone’s face.” I can’t say that I brought a smile to anyone’s face with this picture, but I still feel that it does justice to the soul of the recipe.
16) Assembly time! At this point, you’ve been making a beef hand for what feels like a thousand years. You’ve undergone Job-like trials and dirtied every dish in your house. Eyes on the prize, baby. It’s time to collect your reward. So sit your freshly baked dough sphere on top of your deep-fried necromancy claw and pour tomato sauce over the whole disgraceful thing like the champion that you are, you beautiful son of a bitch.
17) This… doesn’t look good.
I pestered my photographer for a couple minutes to “try some more angles” and “be sure to get a good one.” He was a good sport about it for a while, but eventually, he had to tell me some difficult truths. “Rax,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be possible to ‘get a good one.’”
You know what, though? This thing is totally edible. Yes, it has a touch of that freezer-burned beef taste to it, and yes, deep-frying frozen beef is a great way to make beef unnecessarily dry. But food safety be damned! The tomato sauce was good and it’s hard to go too far wrong with something that’s been deep-fried, taste-wise. I already had most of the ingredients for this dish on, um, hand, so it’s not like I spent a fortune on a project that may be the reason I never have sex again. You know you’ve cooked yourself a winning dish when the most notable upsides are “it could taste worse” and “I didn’t spend much money on it.”
I find overhead cooking videos relaxing to watch. But the intensely visual format lends itself to Instagram-friendly dishes above all others. Cute presentation wins the day over, say, palatability. For example, to me, few foods are as wonderful as a big bowl of hot, unsexy beef stew. Tasty does offer some beef stew recipes, but in order to hew to genre conventions, they can’t resist ladling the stew into animal-shaped bread bowls, or browning a camera-ready slice of bubbling provolone on top. And Chefclub Network’s version is, fittingly, even stranger: It can’t resist the lure of the bread bowl, but Chefclub’s is made from pizza dough (with pizza dough handles) and seems ill-suited to the task of standing up to a serving of stew. Tasty and its ilk cook decent-looking food with an extra emphasis on presentation. Chefclub cooks bonkers-looking food, presented in a double-bonkers way.
I didn’t hate my beef hand as much as I was afraid I would. But it was also an excruciating food prep experience: Hours of preparation and lots of clean-up, for an underwhelming result. It’s nearly lunchtime, and I’m facing down my beef-hand leftovers with the excitement I usually reserve for a root canal.
And so, I can’t help but wonder: Who are these dishes for? Petertil describes Chefclub’s American audience as “folks looking for easy, fun recipes they can’t find elsewhere.” But if all I wanted was to eat fried beef, I could have whipped up a much less taxing plate of beef schnitzel. If I wanted to gaze upon some strange-looking food, I could have prepped myself an old Sandra Lee classic, like the playfully anti-Semitic Hanukkah cake. It would have taken a fraction of the time and clean-up, and tasted approximately as good.
I feel like I’m being frightfully old-fashioned: Remember when bad-looking, bad-tasting food was also easy to make? A housewife in the days before The French Chef could just throw some veggies in some Jell-O and call it a day! Still, I’d implore the overhead cooking video industry (Big Overhead Cooking) to slow down. Food doesn’t need to taste bad and look bad and take hours to make and use a full handle of vegetable oil plus every piece of obscure cookware in the kitchen. I’d remind those enterprising recipe developers that food can taste bad with no effort at all! I could go into the kitchen right now and dig into some stale saltines and have a bad time with less effort than it just took you to read this sentence.
And isn’t that, ultimately, what bad food is all about?