You might have seen some bizarre video of a chicken with an entire block of cheese stuffed into it, getting rolled in crushed hot Cheetos, and then baked – and still not looking like food on the other side. Or maybe it was a video of a woman pouring an entire half-gallon onto her counter, and then layering cooked spaghetti over the top of it and calling it ‘perfect’ for a dinner party. This is not really food – what spawned these videos?
The Origin of Everything Broken in Social Media
There’s a principle in AI: you need to be very careful of what you reward when the AI is ‘learning’, because if you tell it to optimize for the wrong thing, it will pursue that wrong thing to the end of the Earth. Take the AI taught to win Tetris – when the blocks were too high for it to continue putting pieces down, and it realized it was going to lose, the AI simply paused the game. It didn’t win, but it wasn’t told it couldn’t pause to avoid losing. Or, the AI taught to go towards the finish line in a racing game – some of it’s iterations figured out that going backwards was way more efficient time-wise, and it had to be told that wasn’t allowed.
What we’re seeing happen on social media is the human equivalent of rewarding the wrong thing, allowing the human player to go backwards or pause the game because the reward is still there. Essentially, nobody is actually eating these awful conglomerates of mac and cheese, beef, chicken, and hot Cheetos, or toilet bowl punch, or whatever else gross appeared on your FYP. It’s Stunt Food, and stunt food generates clicks – the reward.
I heard the term ‘stunt food’ coined by a TikToker called EarlyPete, but others (including a whole host of commentary channels) have already been reporting on this phenomena before there was a phrase to attach to it besides ‘food waste’.
Stunt food covers an entire spectrum of food and recipe content online, and not all of it is inedible. At one end, we have things that produce edible results, but could have been done in a simpler or less click-baity way: the Buzzfeed Tasty 100 layers of lasagna, duck fat potato confit, or three-day brownies recipes are all convoluted versions of real food, and don’t taste like garbage even though the process adds an additional several hours. On the other, we have things that are no longer safe for human consumption because of the process to make it: the still-attached-to-the-waterline toilet punches and waffle-iron burnt skittles. The middle covers things like chicken or ramen made with crushed Cheetos, or sorbets that fail to mention the blender needed in the recipe, stuff that’s edible, stuff you could make, but not stuff that’s inherently good.
Stunt food generates clicks. Ragebait generates clicks. Gross-looking things and exotic foods treated the wrong way generate clicks. It’s a well-known fact at this point. If you can get someone to comment that something looks disgusting, you’ve generated a comment. If you do something outrageous in the video, or it keeps getting worse, so much worse that the viewer just has to share it to show their friends how awful it is, then you’ve successfully generated some shares. Humans are naturally curious – if you can create a video that’s unpredictable, people will keep watching even if the final product is obviously going to be horrid halfway through the watch time. A similar principle of taking familiar things and making them unfamiliar and uncomfortable is commonly used in horror movies! Stunt food!
The Guy Behind It
Believe it or not, a lot of the weird, ElsaGate-y channels with bizarre and offputtingly… physical interactions with food come back to one guy: Rick Lax, who I first came to know as a ‘Facebook Magician’ via Youtuber Drew Gooden, and then later came to know as a clickbait churner via Youtuber Jarvis Johnson. He’s not difficult to find, but he doesn’t put himself in front of the content he creates either. People caught on that all of his magic tricks boiled down to math games when he was still putting his face first, stuff to get less discerning consumers to click and comment before they continued scrolling.
That works until the more critical consumers begin commenting how the math tricks work, and he moved on. The next generation of his content creation focuses almost purely on absurdity for comment generation, using a couple of different people to mask who’s in the director’s chair. One couple circulates on TikTok and Youtuber commentary channels because of just how atrocious the stunt food/food waste is, and it’s beyond just spaghetti on the counter. We’re talking shattering a toilet with charcoal as they attempt to cook a chicken on it, mixing cocktails in a different toilet, dumping nacho ingredients onto the counter by the pound… and more. It’s disturbing.
It’s so disturbing that some don’t believe the channel is purely, innocently about food. Many stunt food channels are… suggestive with the food they’re cooking – cutting strange holes into meat, rubbing down birds with more touch than they really needed to, any number of bizarre, weird, uncomfortable actions with animal products designed to unsettle viewers enough to comment.
Rick Lax’s channels are slightly different in that the primary view is on the person presenting the food, with the food as a backdrop item, and this only contributes to the weird, dark image the channel has garnered for itself; she’s the one messing with the food in a concerning way, and the way both she and the cameraman talk is often uncomfortably riddled with pauses and breaths. I don’t know that they’re trying to be weird with the food, or if they discovered that controversy about their true intentions earns them more clicks than purely abstract food creations did, but either way, they’re weirdly coy about the toilet food and other assorted possible fetish items.
It’s Only Worse In Video
Stunt food has gotten more extreme with age. In the early days of the internet, it was baconating everything, and posts about 2 A.M chili – now, it’s macaroni and cheese on everything combined with cutting and tying meat in uncomfy and >PG 13 ways. With so many participants, the internet no longer cares that the food is often literally inedible. Someone is still seeing it for the first time, and commenting in outrage or desire.
The content farms responsible for 60% of the trash are told by the algorithm that the bright, snappy red of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in the thumbnail got clicks. The bright yellow and dark brown of overly gooey mac and cheese against a grilled burger is what gets clicks. Cutting a hole into a roast gets clicks. It’s the end result of rewarding clickable content over good content, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Genuine content creators making real, edible food recipes are competing with content farms that don’t have to worry about their food being consumable, or their instructions to make said food followable, giving them one heck of an advantage. Youtuber Ann Reardon from the channel How To Cook That has detailed this slide into madness in her food hack debunking videos. Some of the hacks have actually killed and maimed people (don’t poach eggs in the microwave, and don’t heat oil in a tin can), and the content channels don’t care! It gets comments, it gets clicks, and when controversy strikes, it gets more comments and clicks, further encouraging bad behavior. Just like the AI from before, they’re being rewarded for doing the wrong thing, because the wrong thing has been incentivized.
Youtuber Jarvis Johnson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4lc3CG9_gg
Youtuber Ann Reardon (channel) : https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsP7Bpw36J666Fct5M8u-ZA