If the pandemic had never happened, Ali Z. might never have joined TikTok.
But by the time the short, dark January days arrived, she was getting restless. Nearly a year into quarantine, her go-to hobbies—cooking, baking, and playing video games—felt lonely. In particular, she missed cooking for friends and family. “It’s not quite as fun if you’re just doing it on your own,” Ali told me in a recent phone call.
In the midst of this reflection, Ali realized her favorite video games involved aspects of cooking. Her favorite, Stardew Valley, includes 74 recipes and even its own in-game cooking show, The Queen of Sauce. On a whim, Ali scoured TikTok in search of accounts that replicated the game’s creative menus in real ingredients. To her surprise, nothing turned up—so Ali decided to become the Queen herself, using the platform to find community online.
As @thaqueenofsauce, Ali’s first post featured a tried-and-true classic: her family’s recipe for chocolate chip cookies. She spent about a week planning, filming, and editing the video in iMovie, gradually tweaking it until it felt complete. The clip featured what would become hallmarks of her style: Quick close-ups that explain each recipe’s steps, overlays of the game’s colorful pixel art, and a laid-back narration. “Sick of finding your chocolate chip cookies in the trash?” she asked, pairing the audio with a game clip of her Stardew Valley avatar rattling a trash can (a strategy for knocking loose the occasional item). “This recipe can help.”
“Within a day, it got like, 80,000 views,” Ali says. “It took off, which I was totally not expecting.” Since then, Ali’s channel has continued to attract fans, particularly from within TikTok’s active cozy gaming space. When we first spoke last May, @thaqueenofsauce had roughly 30,000 followers. Now, that number has swelled to more than 55,000. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” she says. “Any time you’re in an internet space, you expect that you’ll get negative comments streaming in sometimes, or little things that people don’t like. But I’ve gotten almost none of that, which I think is a testament to the Stardew Valley community itself.”
The way Ali’s channel struck a chord with viewers echoes Stardew Valley’s meteoric rise. First released in February 2016, the game sold 500,000 copies within its first two weeks, quickly climbing to over a million within the next fortnight. It was a surprise hit from first-time video game developer Eric Barone, who’d spent nearly five years working obsessively on every aspect of the game. The result was an immersive, quirky, and occasionally dark world simulating rural life. Since Stardew’s release, continuous, content-rich updates—including a multiplayer option and massive new unlockable environments—have continued to reward even the most obsessive players.
Fortunately, Ali’s easygoing approach to her channel doesn’t resemble Barone’s infamously grueling 12-hour workdays, cushioning her from the possible downsides of virality. During the week after her first video went viral, Ali felt a new sense of pressure. “Once you have an established group of people following you, it kind of changes the stakes,” she says. But the second video was well received, and so was the third. “Now I’m just having fun with it.”
Ali’s TikTok joins a rich legacy of culinary cosplay. Professional cookbook author Chelsea Monroe-Cassel has built her career around recreating fictional recipes, publishing cookbooks based on Game of Thrones, World of Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls, The Lord of the Rings, and numerous other fandoms (even including Stardew Valley). This month, Simon & Schuster will publish bestselling cookbook author Laurel Randolph’s Unofficial Simpsons Cookbook, featuring 70 recipes inspired by the show. And in some cases, authors even release official versions of their imagined cuisine—such as author Brian Jacques’ The Redwall Cookbook, featuring recipes for delicacies such as the Shrimp ’n Hotroot Soup or Great Hall Gooseberry Fool his cast of anthropomorphic otters, mice, and badgers whip up.