June 16, 2021

rubbedindetroit

Qualified food specialists

Gross Viral Food Videos Like Spaghetti-Os Pie Are Connected to This Guy

15 min read

Sometimes a meteorite will reach a velocity fast enough to traverse the vacuum of space, piercing Earth’s atmosphere and giving us a small glimpse of the unfathomably large and chaotic universe just beyond our own world. Similarly but in a virtual world, viral videos of white women making extremely questionable food continue to escape the confines of Facebook and end up on our Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram feeds.

These videos all tend to have a similar aesthetic. A beautiful woman in her 30s stands at a counter or a sink or a stove doing something unholy with eggs or a waffle maker or McDonalds hamburgers or, sometimes, a power drill. The videos typically jump from Facebook to TikTok before appearing without warning on Twitter and instantly becoming trending topics. “I’m proposing a ban on white women making TikTok videos of them cooking until we figure out what the hell is going on,” user @papermarkis wrote recently.

Some of these videos are just bizarre recipes from professional chefs, like Molly Yeh’s recent ”popcorn salad” Food Network clip. They weren’t necessarily designed to go viral, and the intention certainly wasn’t to evoke mockery or disgust. (It’s also worth pointing out that Yeh is biracial.) Other videos that get lumped into this subgenre come from a corner of TikTok where extremely bad home cooks share utterly misguided culinary tips, like the woman who rinsed cooked ground beef under a sink faucet to make it less greasy. But more often than not, these videos are coming from a handful of the same Facebook pages. Also, if you’re getting the sense that more of them are popping up every day, that’s not just in your head. Craziest of all, they’re all basically connected to one magician named Rick Lax.

In January, a photographer from Minnesota named Janelle Flom posted a three-minute video titled “EASIEST DINNER HACK EVER!!” It shows Flom dumping multiple cans of Spaghetti-O’s into a piecrust. “Make sure the chunks are all spread equally,” she says to the camera as she mushes the Spaghetti-O’s around.

She then covers buttered slices of bread in garlic powder and flattens them with her forearms. She dumps skim milk and more garlic powder onto the piecrust with the Spaghetti-O’s. Finally she bakes the pie, removes it from the oven, and tells the camera with a straight face that this is her “best one yet.”

The video went viral, prompting a Vice writer to ask, “Why Is My Feed Full of Gross Cooking ‘Hacks’?” and inspiring The Atlantic to explore “The Absurd Logic of Internet Recipe Hacks.” Both pieces make good points about the commodification of online food content and the viral catnip of process videos: There is something innately compelling about watching someone execute a recipe, no matter how deranged it is. And this absurd “pie” wasn’t a one-off for Flom. Her account is full of pranks and gross food. A few weeks before the Spaghetti-O pie, she posted a video about melting down candy canes and serving Chinese food on top of them.

But what was left out of the Spaghetti-O pie discourse is that Flom is the sister of Justin Flom, a magician who has appeared on TV programs like James Cordon’s Late Late Show. And Justin Flom, Janelle, and dozens more are part of a viral Facebook content network run by another magician named Rick Lax.

Janelle Flom told Eater she met Lax 11 years ago, through her brother Justin. Flom said she also works regularly with a country singer named Adley Stump. “She’s a good friend of ours. We enjoy filming together and creating new fun videos when we connect,” Flom said.

When asked how she comes up with her video content, Flom said that no one in Lax’s group is directly coordinating with one another, beyond featuring one another in their videos and having their content shared through Lax’s pages. According to Flom, the reason her recipe videos keep going viral is because they’re less polished and more relatable than what you see from professional cooking channels.

“Our recipes are definitely a little unconventional,” Flom said. “We love simple recipes that anyone can recreate if they want. [We’re] mostly just having fun with creating new recipes, as well as finding inspiration from other recipes we find. Sometimes TV or gourmet chefs seem out of reach or [their recipes are] hard to recreate for the average person with average cooking skills. We enjoy bringing some comic relief to them as well.”

It is, at this point, statistically impossible to not half-recognize magician Rick Lax. He is essentially the face of Facebook’s Watch program. Launched in the U.S. in 2017, Watch was meant to be Facebook’s Netflix or YouTube competitor. It hired the former news anchor Campbell Brown as head of news partnerships and convinced outlets like Vox, BuzzFeed, and Fox News to create Facebook-exclusive shows. Watch shows still live on a separate tab called Watch, but in the years since, it has sort of blended back in with the rest of the video content on the app. The only Watch show to really break out has been Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk. But Lax has continued to dominate the Newsfeed, even if you didn’t notice.

Lax is a professional magician from Detroit who has worked for David Copperfield, written several books about Las Vegas, and in 2014 spearheaded a reality competition show about magicians for SyFy called Wizard Wars. Justin Flom appeared regularly on the show.

Around 2015, Lax started taking his street magic to Facebook, posting cellphone videos that began going extremely viral. Six years later, it is functionally impossible to get a full sense of the scale of Lax’s media operation on the platform. His verified page has 14 million followers. He also has 1.4 million followers on a page called Rick Lax Has Fun, a half million followers on a Watch page called Rick Lax’s Favorite Videos, and 12,000 followers on a page called Making Magic, which launched in 2019 and featured Justin Flom in its first episode.

Lax told Eater that when the pandemic hit, there was suddenly no way to perform in front of live audiences, so he started bringing his friends into his Facebook network. “I said, ‘Let’s make videos together,’” he said. “It’s both friendship and business.”

The network extends from his friends’ pages to those friends’ friends’ pages. Search the phrase “Rick Lax Productions” and you’ll be greeted with the source code to pure Facebook virality. Lax is so popular on Facebook that a few years ago, Redditors were reporting one of his pages for harassment so it would be suggested less by Facebook’s algorithm.

The other important piece of Lax’s content network is Adley Stump, the country music singer from Oklahoma who competed on season two of The Voice. Stump has a Facebook Watch show called The Adley Show, which has 1.2 million followers. In 2018, Stump told CM Chat Live, a country music news site, that Facebook let Lax pick creators to give Watch shows to and Stump was one of them. Lax said he didn’t remember the specifics of how Stump was brought onto Facebook Watch. Eater has reached out to Facebook for comment.

“I’d been doing vlogging and connecting with influencers much bigger than myself, never asking for much,” she said. “Rick Lax is a big name on Facebook and they have given him the opportunity to pick three original content creators to give shows to. It’s a testament to keeping your head down and focusing on the long game paying off, because I am by far the smallest creator in that group.”

Stump appears in a lot of the videos Lax shares on his page. In fact, she’s the other woman in the melted candy cane and Chinese food video that Janelle Flom, of Spaghetti-O pie fame, shared last year, which was also promoted on Lax’s main Facebook page. Between Lax and Stump’s pages, there is an entire constellation of accounts churning out completely bizarre prank videos, street magic, weird inspirational content, and, of course, videos of beautiful women making awful food.

“I’m not a foodie, I’m not an expert,” Lax told Eater. “Calling [the recipes] ‘gross,’ I would object to that.”

Lax and the women behind the recipe videos aren’t the first to figure out that people on the internet will watch you debase yourself with food. In fact, it was Korean users who first put a name to this kind of thing — mukbang, or “eating show.” Mukbang videos range from harmless and wholesome to intentionally outrageous and grotesque, like the YouTuber who ate a live octopus on camera last year. Mukbang has also long carried with it a connotation of being related to a fetish. Many of the most popular mukbang influencers are all thin, beautiful women who eat large quantities of, oftentimes, very messy food. One could argue that Rick Lax and this endless rabbit hole of gross food women have used Facebook’s algorithms to create a uniquely American mukbang.

In February, shortly after the Spaghetti-O pie video ripped through the internet, a new video surfaced on Twitter, this time shared by a now-suspended user named @PettiBetti. The video, retweeted 30,000 times, features a woman dumping cheese and ground beef and other various types of taco fixings onto a counter. She precedes to mash it all up into a paste with her hands, and then uses an ice cream scoop to put them in a hardened taco shell that’s been bent to look like an ice cream cone.

The woman in the video is a musician named Taylor Watson. She has her own page and also appears in a lot of the videos on Stump’s page, like this one of Watson greasing up a hot dog before using a power drill to jam it inside a pickle.

Asked about the inspiration for the tabletop nachos, Lax said, “The nachos came from the street food videos.”

Though Lax’s network of creators make content on their own, they also brainstorm ideas together. He said he’d noticed that videos of food stalls and street food vendors were doing well on Facebook, and he figured the reason may have been the visual impact of seeing lots of food spread out in front of a camera. He said, “Whenever we see a video trend doing well on Facebook I try and ask, ‘what is our version of this popular trend?’”

A few weeks after the counter nachos, an upload of a TikTok video went viral on Twitter. In the clip, a woman puts raw spaghetti inside clumps of ground beef. Then she covers the clumps of meat and uncooked noodles with Nerds, a pebbly candy, and bakes it. The video was shared on Twitter by a user named @bjbjonez and retweeted thousands of times. But the video originally came from a TikTok account called @gettishow, which is run by a hula hoop instructor named Getti Kehayova, a friend of Lax’s. The Getti Show Facebook page says it’s a “page by Rick Lax,” and he also shared her Nerds spaghetti burger video on his own account.

Kehayova told Eater that her videos are all spur-of-the-moment things meant to be fun and entertaining. She said she used Nerds in her spaghetti burger video because she didn’t have any sugar. The entire gag was based on a dinner she had with some friends years ago. “It’s nothing that people should do,” she said. “We’re entertainers. We’re just trying to put smiles on your faces.”

She said she’s affiliated with Lax and he helps share her videos, but there’s no formal coordination. She makes videos, and if he likes them he shares them. Not everyone Lax promotes knows one another, she said, stressing the informal nature of the whole thing. Most of them, like her, are entertainers who had a ton of downtime during the pandemic.

“I grew up in the circus and I traveled the world with my family of acrobats,” Kehayova said. “So this is like the next best thing.”

Kehayova said she knows that some people get angry about her videos — Italian users were pretty mad about the spaghetti burger — but for her it’s about making her viewers happy. “It’s all positive,” she said. “It’s about making people go ‘what the eff?’”

And finally, most recently, there was the toilet ice cream punch. The video was shared by a user named @curlyixing and has been retweeted more than 30,000 times since it was first shared on Thursday. The video features a woman filling up a toilet with ice, ice cream, and gummy worms. Then she dumps more candies, juice, and soda in the toilet tank and attempts to flush it all. The toilet backs up and then the clip ends with her ladling the concoction out into plastic cups. The original video was posted to a page called the Anna Show. The punchline at the end of the video is that the toilet ice cream soda slurry is then served to unsuspecting guests as a prank.

Many users on Twitter incorrectly assumed that the counter nachos woman and the toilet punch woman were one in the same. However, the woman who posted the toilet slurry is named Anna Rothfuss. According to the About section, her Facebook page is run by “Rick Lax Productions.” Rothfuss, who occasionally wears wigs in her videos, is the same woman who went viral for cooking a vertical rigatoni, blending and then freezing a Big Mac into a kind of pate, and making bacon and eggs in a waffle maker. Rothfuss’s page has a test video that Lax posted when it was first set up.

Lax is extremely adamant that the videos going viral outside Facebook aren’t his videos — they’re stolen. He’s especially angry at Ellen DeGeneres for posting other creators’ reaction videos to his own videos without linking back to his page.

“On the one hand it’s flattering, I guess, or it’s nice to know that no matter what the social media platform it goes on, it gets seen,” he said. “But also that’s really frustrating.”

He said he suspects his videos are downloaded and reuploaded to platforms like Twitter so often because they don’t look like produced, scripted content. (Which is also probably part of their initial appeal on Facebook.) “I think this happens to us more than other chefs, let’s say, because our content feels home produced,” he said. “I think people are comfortable stealing.”

These pages are not only going more viral outside Facebook but also multiplying at rapid speeds inside Facebook. Janelle Flom’s page was created in 2019, as was the Anna Show, while Taylor Watson’s was set up in October 2020. Many of these pages link to and share content from and interact with other similar pages, like the Alli and Viv page, which was also created last year and recently posted a truly horrifying video of a woman covering a chicken in hand soap, cooking it in butter, and then basting it with root beer. There are so many of these pages and they’re all sharing one another’s content.

Viewed within the context of Lax’s main Facebook page, these videos sort of make sense. Videos that do well on Facebook tend to have some kind of payoff. Which plays off why we watch cooking videos to begin with. There’s a recipe that’s easy to follow, and you know that at the end you’ll see whatever’s been cooked. Prank videos work the same way. The prank is established, and then you wait to see what happens when it’s finally triggered. Lax and his collaborators have combined a prank video and a cooking video into something that people really can’t look away from, the culinary equivalent of a zit extraction.

Lax said that this is really the key to his network’s success. It’s not the fact that he has a huge network that can share the videos between pages, but it’s actually just because they’re making content that specifically optimizes for watch time, both on Facebook and off. “We’re working so hard to design content that has a long watch time and what I’ve found is that when you do that, the content tends to perform well across different platforms which is something we’re after,” he said. “Our speciality is creating videos that people engage with and right now the thing that people engage with is a high watch time.”

Even with the most outrageously unhinged food video — like this one, titled NEW WAY TO MAKE CORN DOGS! — you’re going to stick around to see what the ultimate result is. The corn dog creation, which came from a woman named Penny Wiggins (the Penny Show), was shared to the Anna Show page. It involves dumping a can of corn into a piecrust, covering it in cheese and taco seasoning, wrapping that around a hot dog, and then sticking the whole thing in a waffle maker.

As you scroll through Lax’s pages, though, common formats or tropes begin to appear: Women, almost always white, almost all of them identifying as young mothers, typically wearing expensive athleisure, cooking weirdly sexualized recipes in huge suburban homes or doing silly pranks in Targets or department stores.

On Sunday, Lax shared two different videos about cooking something in a waffle maker, one from Watson and one from Janelle Flom. Lax’s collaborators are also huge fans of the dramatic sign reveal video. And there is an endless amount of household prank content. Most importantly, almost all of the videos produced by Lax or the influencers working with him come with some variation of the same disclaimer: “Thanks so much for watching this video! I do hope you enjoy it. Please note that this page features scripted dramas, PARODY HACKS, parody and satire. The events that take place in this particular short-film video are for entertainment purposes only. Thanks,”

For instance, the original toilet ice cream soda video had this written in its caption: “Please note that this page features scripted dramas, parody and satire. The events that take place in this particular short-film video are for entertainment purposes only. Similarities to actual people or actual events are coincidences. Thanks!” These disclaimers are conveniently left out by the TikTok users and Twitter accounts that go viral sharing them.

Satire or not, the main refrain when content from Lax’s collaborators goes viral is based on some joke about how white women don’t know how to cook. It’s an undeniable part of the appeal of hate-sharing these videos. And it’s something Lax said he’s aware of.

“We’ve worked with a lot of diverse creators,” he said. He said that if people were actually viewing his content on Facebook, they wouldn’t just be seeing white women cooking outrageous things. “Unfortunately, people can’t see the diversity if they’re not engaging in all the diverse content we’re putting out.”

But whether he and his creators are doing it on purpose or not, the videos Lax is sharing across his absolutely massive pages all present a very specific middle-class, suburban portrait of the world, where beautiful, young newlyweds play sexy pranks and do nice things for older people. Where construction workers, who are played by people of color, defend white women from street harassment. They’re the kind of videos that do well with Facebook’s overwhelmingly conservative user base.

Throughout his interview with Eater, Lax maintained that most of the recipes being created within his network are legitimately meant to be practical. He repeatedly objected to descriptors like “gross” or “awful.” “We are creating good videos,” he said, before clarifying, “When I say ‘good videos,’ I mean videos that perform well on social media.”

When pressed and asked directly if he would eat, say, the counter nachos, he said it might be fun for a big party. When asked in a follow-up if he would eat the Nerds hamburger spaghetti, he conceded that he and his team do occasionally publish some outrageous stuff: “I’ll say, sometimes, we do things for fun.”

Lax and his team aren’t done “having fun” yet, either. Last week, he posted a new video of a woman making food directly onto a countertop. This time it was spaghetti instead of nachos. Not interested in spaghetti? You’re in luck: On Sunday he shared a video in which a woman makes mac ’n’ cheese with her bare hands on the same countertop, and it’s, despite Lax’s objection to the word, just as gross.

Update on Tuesday, May 11 at 6:08 P.M.: Rick Lax has contacted Eater after press time with the following clarification: I did not ‘give’ a Watch Page to Adley or to anyone, ever. I did partner with Adley on The Adley Show, which I’ve always owned and operated. The page was formerly a ‘Show Page,’ and has been converted to a ‘Video Page.’ The page is, and has always been, a partnership between Adley and me. Facebook never told me to ‘give Watch shows’ to anyone, ever, and I never have. Also, I do remember the specifics of how Adley was brought into my network — I reached out to her.”

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