This TikToker Is Making His Way Through Great Depression-Era Cookbooks

Regardless of how well-curated your TikTok algorithm is, there don’t seem to be a lot of feel-good stories on the app these days. In the span of a few short years, it’s seemingly gone from a quirky video-sharing platform to a social menace, synonymous with harassment, misinformation, and abuse. Not to mention the accusations that TikTok is largely a tool of the Chinese surveillance apparatus.

But scroll long enough, beyond the public freak-out videos and in-fighting, and fall down enough rabbit holes and you might luckily stumble upon the videos of B. Dylan Hollis, where he attempts to cook through vintage cookbooks — even tackling something as unappealing sounding as depression-era “pork cake.”

In that particular video, which was uploaded in August 2020 and has now been viewed over a million times, a young man named B. Dylan Hollis quickly and animatedly runs through the recipe in a series of quick edits. For the curious, a pork cake is made with dates, molasses, nutmeg, and, of course, pork. Then Hollis takes a bite and says enthusiastically to the camera, “it tastes like a question mark. A good question mark!”

Since that first baking video, Hollis has transformed himself from just another TikTok user into a well-known face across multiple social media platforms. His journey into the bizarre and confounding recipes of America’s past have led him to noxious-sounding concoctions such as tuna salad Jell-O, a water pie from 1929, and potato doughnuts. All of which he’s made — and taste tested — with enthusiasm.

“It fell into my lap. I have no experience as a baker,” he told Eater. “I hadn’t baked until TikTok; it was just happenstance, boredom. And luck, I suppose.”

Baker or not, his account has grown to over 7 million followers on the app. He also conceded that he has probably become a better baker since he started his video series.

If you’ve never come across one of Hollis’s videos before, you’ll note the sheer volume of information he packs into each one, condensing the prep, cooking, and tasting of each recipe into the span of a minute or two. But it’s not just the editing that’s overwhelming. Hollis’s delivery is also fairly unique. Alternating between droll quips and cartoonish overacting only to break character when the recipe goes wrong (or right), it makes all of his videos feel like a Marx Brothers film on 2x speed.

“I’m a bit of an old-fashioned person,” he said. “I look highly to the radio of the 1930s, the 1940s. You know, that idea of no dead air, constantly speaking, these things. I haven’t a clue why what I’m doing is working. I’m just having a great deal of fun.”

But his videos aren’t just fun — they’re a genuinely fascinating work of experiential food history, like his video from earlier this year where he made a “ration cake” recipe from the ’40s. It’s lard, boiled raisins, and molasses. In the video, Hollis said it looked like barbecue sauce and smelled like death. It also came out rock-hard and made him vomit.

Earlier in 2021, he made a 7UP Jell-O salad, which, if you’re curious and have a high tolerance for stomach-churning descriptions, seems to mostly consist of mayo and 7UP soda. “It tastes like aggressively sweet fruit salad put into lime gelato,” he yells angrily at the end, admitting that it tastes pretty good as long as you don’t think too much about what’s in it.

Hollis said that part of his fascination with weird American food history is because he’s not American. He was born and raised in Bermuda and said he wanted to move to the polar opposite of Bermuda for college. So he chose Wyoming. “The middle of nowhere, culture shock. And it was a good decision, because I’ve loved it,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place. It took a bit of adapting to, but it was fantastic.”

Hollis came to the U.S. to study music. He’s a jazz musician. And earlier videos on his TikTok show him experimenting with music content. He said that during the pandemic he started messing around with TikTok and one day pulled out an old cookbook he had laying around and picked the weirdest thing in it to try and bake (it was the pork cake). But the project is driven by his outsider’s fascination with culinary traditions a lot of Americans take for granted.

“There are some everyday American foods that blow me away,” he said. “Just this past Thanksgiving, I was introduced to a green bean casserole. A very bizarre creation, especially when my friend brought out the soup.”

Now he’s reached a level of notoriety where TikTok users are sending him cookbooks full of recipes to try. He said a lot of his fans really want him to do recipes involving boiled beef tongue, which is something he just won’t do. He’s also very conscious about not wading into a recipe that would feel culturally appropriative for him to try.

“I am an amateur and I don’t want vitriol directed at me if I do these things incorrectly,” he said. “I don’t want to upset people. I don’t want to do it incorrectly. And I think there might be a cultural disservice to those types of things.”

Hollis’s insistence that he not make people angry is also something that makes his videos a bit of a rarity within the current viral food video world. The internet is currently awash in food content that seems specifically produced to make users angry. Whether it’s magicians on Facebook power drilling hot dogs, top-down cooking tutorials that don’t make any sense, or even something more playfully frustrating like the viral “is it cake” meme, which eventually launched a Netflix show, it feels as if the internet as a whole, has decided that making people angry with food is better than people enjoying it.

And TikTok, in particular, has begun to play an especially interesting role in the way food content spreads across the web. So much so that last year, the app started experimenting with using ghost kitchens to actually sell some of the more viral food trends that were surfacing on the app.

According to Abbie Richards, a popular TikTok researcher, occasionally good, normal recipes become trends on the platform — like the baked feta pasta recipe that blew up last year. Sometimes food content goes viral because it’s aesthetically pleasing or filmed in an aspirational way. But a lot of the time the food that’s circulating around the app is trending because it’s awful.

“This is my personal favorite category,” she said. “Sometimes we get food videos which are definitely intentionally bad. See: boiled and mashed Pringles. And sometimes it’s absolutely impossible to tell if the original poster is sincere.” Then she linked to this confounding heart-shaped “pancake” full of fried eggs.

Richards said that the key to a long-running popular food account on TikTok that isn’t trafficking in hate-shares, whether intentionally or not, is a persona. She said TikTok has a lot of incentives that train creators over time to be more quick and to the point than a YouTuber, which is part of the casual appeal. This is true in Hollis’s case, as well. You can binge dozens of his videos in a sitting and realize that barely a few minutes have gone by.

“I think a good TikTok personality has to grab people’s attention right away,” she said. “Whereas aesthetic has been the defining factor of Instagram recipe success for years, TikTok success is more dependent on personality.”

The clever trick with Hollis’s videos is that he’s essentially doing bad food videos, but not producing them for hate shares. Like in a video from earlier this year where he makes an “impossible pie” from 1969, he can barely get through the recipe without laughing, but then his face lights up when he realizes it actually tastes pretty good. What he’s doing is retro on several layers — he’s cooking recipes from the past, and he’s hosting them in his self-described old-fashioned way, but he’s also bringing back the simple joy of the internet taste test, which has gone out of fashion over the last decade as algorithms have pushed food content into formats that can be easily produced by the disembodied hands of faceless creators at an unimaginable scale.

And the fact that Hollis is doing this with old forgotten recipes can make for some unusual content going really viral on TikTok. For instance, his top video is a recipe for “peanut butter bread” from the Great Depression. It’s been viewed 32 million times. It’s not only a funny video — it contains an unimaginable amount of baking soda — but Hollis breaks down at the end, almost emotional at how good it tastes. “This is why I bake,” he says to the camera.

The viewers agree, with the top commenter writing, “‘This is why I bake’ is so genuine that I felt it. I hope you never finish baking.”

It’s safe to say that a bunch of people bonding over 100-year-old recipes is not what typically comes to mind when you imagine TikTok food content. But, also, Hollis’s current online popularity isn’t solely thanks to TikTok. He’s also attracted a sizable fandom on the sometimes forgotten, but immensely powerful corner of the internet known as Tumblr. In fact, he’s so popular that, in April, he entered into the site’s top-20 list of web celebrities, according to Cates Holderness, head of editorial at Tumblr. Holderness told Eater the spike was likely because Hollis did a live video where he finally acknowledged his growing fandom on Tumblr.

“It was really funny to see people freaking out in an excited way, like, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy that we love has acknowledged us and thanked us in this really sweet and sincere way’,” she said. “He’s aware that the Tumblr audience is there, but he’s very nervous to interact with it.”

Hollis’s videos are regularly downloaded from TikTok and re-uploaded on Tumblr, where they have long, very viral second lives, which is actually common for popular TikTok, in general. But, according to Holderness, the thing that really ignited Hollis’s fandom on the platform was a text post from 2021 written by a user named thestuffedalligator. It was shared 25,000 times and reads:

The main thing I get from Dylan Hollis cooking old recipes is this:

Recipes from the 1910s and the Great Depression are great, and I suspect it’s because they were made by someone with limited resources. But they found a way to make something good, maybe even something fantastic with those limited resources, and they wanted to write it down and share with their friends so that they could also make something out of saltines and potatoes. Recipes from the 1910s and the Great Depression are written down and shared in love.

The recipes you should fear come from the 1950s and 1960s, which I’m pretty sure are written down and shared as a form of McCarthyism.

“The history side of Tumblr is a very large community,” Holderness said. “So it’s kind of not surprising that a lot of the recipes that he makes, the older recipes, from the ’20s, from the Great Depression, tend to be very popular. The recipes that are either extremely good or extremely terrible, in general, get the most traction.”

For what it’s worth, Hollis agreed with thestuffedalligator’s post, saying the Great Depression recipes are his favorite and the ones from the ’60s are his least favorite; though he doesn’t think that McCarthyism is to blame for why recipes from that era are so inedible. Instead, he thinks it was because bringing Jell-O to a potluck was a way to signify that you had enough money to own a refrigerator, and gelatin was marketed to women as a way to stay slim.

“This craze was marketing-based,” he said. “The ladies of the 1960s were very aware of their figure. Knox gelatin — gelatin itself having no calories — used that as a marketing beacon to promote these things.”

Hollis also agrees with his fans that he can’t decide whether his videos are better when he enjoys the recipe or hates it. In fact, he tries very hard not to think about why his videos do well or don’t, saying he’s “repulsed” by the more cynical food creators who save their recipe reveals for a second video to juice engagement.

“I don’t feel as if I’m hacking the algorithm,” he said. “It’s just that you can’t taste something or see the end product until it’s baked. And, naturally, that comes at the end.”

As for what comes next for Hollis, he said he isn’t sure, but he is moving back to Bermuda soon, now that he’s graduated. He was clear, though, that he has no plans to join a hype house. He had originally come to America to become a jazz musician and is returning home a popular internet cooking personality, which may not have been the American Dream at the time the pork cake recipe was invented, but may be part of it now.

“The experience itself has been incredible. If it were all to go away now, it would be brilliant,” he said. “Can you tell that it’s difficult for me to describe? It’s a combination of fulfillment and finding — not finding oneself, as that’s a bit too sappy — but just translating into life, and the future, and goals. I want to write a bloody cookbook from these experiences. That’s about it, a desire to keep going and see where it takes one.”