Home Cooking

Food-prep videos encode fantasies of the good life

An older south Indian man wordlessly washes a fish the size of his torso. The camera stays close to his hands, following them as they grope around inside the cuts he has made in the flesh. Water is poured over, repeatedly, until it runs clear. He pulls out the entrails. The action unfolds on a rough stone slab just under waist level. We hear running water, birds chirping, low grunts and the metal sound of slicing. As he scrapes around with a knife, the fish rocks back and forth; in the corner of the frame its eyeballs pinball around in their huge vacant sockets.

This video typifies a rising genre on Facebook and YouTube: clips of people cooking and eating enormous quantities of food in rural settings in the global south. The earliest of the clips originated in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu in late 2016; since then cooks from all over India and other locations have been recorded cooking in forest clearings or by open fields. Most of the cooks are old men, as on the Grandpa Kitchen channel. Sometimes they are old women. Occasionally, young women. In all cases, there is a sense that this is a traditional, almost ritual activity. The end of the video always shows the food being eaten with gusto, completing the act of cooking.

Village Food Factory videos are unfrantic, going on and on with action that is oddly transfixing, a mashup of slow food and slow television

Village Food Factory, the most famous of the channels devoted to these videos, has over 230 million views; other similar channels include Grandpa’s Kitchen, Natural Life, My Natural My Lifestyle, and Myna Street Food. Many of the videos contain the words “village food factory” either in the title or in the description. This may in part be for search and algorithm optimization, but the reference to “factories” also invokes the typically grand scale of production onscreen — 100 chickens being cooked, or a whole goat, or 500 eggs. But why are the people are cooking so much, in this manner, out by the fields? What is this factory? What does it really produce? Who are the consumers? Who are the workers?

Like any genre, village food factory has conventions: the videos are made up of long takes with minimal edits between them, the cooking process unspooling almost in real time. In one recurring cut, a pair of hands full of spices trembles for three seconds over a pot before they are dropped in, enhancing that sense of duration. Sound is diegetic, with very little speech: As an entire goat is curried, a chicken screeches for over a minute in the background. All the tools are basic, aluminum pots and pans, steel ladles and spatulas, plastic baskets and drums of water. No gas burners: the food is cooked over wood fires. Unlike the Tastemade or BuzzFeed Tasty videos that pop up on my timeline — all quick cuts, upbeat soundtracks, and money shots of oozing cheese — the Village Food Factory videos are unfrantic, going on and on, sometimes for 17 minutes or longer of action that is oddly transfixing, a mashup of slow food and slow television.

With their low-budget feel, rural location and languorous pacing, these videos evoke a certain sense of authenticity. In this context, the word factory might seem incongruous. But it hints at the fact that these settings are actually saturated with machines, and the videos themselves are entirely dependent on one of these, which makes all the activity on display doubly productive: the camera.

Like most food videos, the Village Food Factory videos are sites upon which viewers can project their imaginations of the “good life.” Usually, this involves a negative projection: One reading of Village Food Factory would place it within a tradition of images of a racial, cultural other made for white people in the global north. While this is a necessary reading — as a quick glance at the Orientalizing YouTube comments makes clear — it is complicated by facts about these videos’ consumption. Per Google Trends, “village food factory” is most searched for in India (in particular southern India) and the UAE, where Indians make up a larger share of the population than any other ethnic group. For these viewers, something other than simple Orientalism is at work.

A more productive approach to these videos may run through urbanity and access to food and land. While India’s population is largely rural, internet usage is concentrated in the cities. The main consumers of these videos are urban Indians. This is indicative of a larger dichotomy: The village “is no longer a village in itself; it is a counterpoint to the city,” cultural theorist Ashis Nandy writes in An Ambiguous Journey to the City. “Beyond the temptations and glitter of the city lies the utopia of an idyllic, integrated, defragmented self, not tyrannized by the demands of an atomized individualism.” That is to say, we enjoy the “village food factory” because our experience of food — of life — is urban, atomized, indoors, hyperconsumptive: in a word, alienated.

If the Village Food Factory clips depict authentic village life as a balm for this urban alienation, they do so not only at the level of setting but also formally. One might think the content in the frame would be central in structuring a sense of their “authenticity” for audiences — the rural location, the relative absence of high-technology. Or one might expect some “authentic” regional food to be depicted. But many videos show grandpa cooking hamburgers; in one he makes a 10-foot chocolate cake.

Instead, the air of authenticity stems largely from the way the visual form mediates the action. This is not virtual tourism to the village, à la Anthony Bourdain, whose television show depicts distant locales in a familiar manner. Rather these videos provide us a virtual tourism to a different aesthetic, an alternative video surface.

This is not virtual tourism to the village. Rather these videos provide us a virtual tourism to a different aesthetic, an alternative video surface

A comparison with another popular genre, South Korean mukbang videos, in which young people consume huge amounts of food on livestreams for hours, helps illustrate this. South Korea is extremely urbanized and has the highest internet penetration in the world. In mukbang videos, which have been popular since the early 2010s, performers speak incessantly to the camera; they often slurp loudly and hold up the food for the audience to see. Sometimes they respond to audience directions. This foregrounds the nature of their transaction with the camera: They are performing for it and through it for us. Eating is a deeply social activity in Korean culture, and meals taken together are very important. Mukbang has thus often been described as a means for young Koreans living alone in the city to experience that sociality and overcome loneliness and the “atomized individualism” Nandy describes.

The performers in the Village Food Factory videos seem more ambivalent about the camera. They never speak to it and rarely regard it. But they don’t pretend it isn’t there, as actors might. Instead there is an uneasy relation with the camera in which it is acknowledged through half glances and the angling of the body. Rather than sublimating an atmosphere of individual consumption as the mukbang videos do — with performers looking the camera in its eye and working for that productive machine — the village food factory provides respite from it. The effect of the camera agnosticism is that the video seems not to be targeted to the viewer. In an age when targeted marketing is pervasive and the targets ever more individualized, this can feel like a relief.

The alternative video surface offered by the Village Food Factory is not only a matter of how the performers look (or don’t look) at the camera. The videos are full of experimentation with camera angles, with depth of field, with shaky movement into and out of the pot. This movement is always handheld, giving the impression of an embodied camera. The apparent lack of calculation in the images pulls me in. They become sensual: As grandpa’s hands rubbing marinade on meat make a series of squelching sounds; as he uses his thumb, wet with marinade, to scoop a little salt out of its container; or as he lightly brushes a stray grain of rice off his beard after a big mouthful, the “authenticity” takes the form of a fleshy intimacy.

In Hito Steyerl’s “In Defense of the Poor Image,” she turns to the classic third-cinema tract “For an Imperfect Cinema” to claim the revolutionary potential of low-resolution, pirated, ripped images. It is tempting to make a similar move here with respect to the Village Food Factory. But these videos’ fleshy intimacy is not residual but intentional, a marketing strategy.

A video on Online Consultant, a channel “dedicated to clarify users doubts on social media and internet of things,” shows Arumugam, the old man familiar from the Village Food Factory, and his son Gopi on a stage in a wood panelled room. They are making a presentation at a college. Gopi does most of the talking. He speaks about the average length of YouTube food videos, what kind of thumbnail image gets the most clicks, how much money he makes, and so on. When he states his subscriber statistics (3,000 new subscribers per day on average), the crowd claps enthusiastically.

The underproduced “rural” surface of the videos has been carefully designed. “If you have noticed, I haven’t made any professional cuts or scored it with music,” Gopi says. “If I had, you wouldn’t watch it. You get the feeling that something was filmed live, that’s why I still have nearly 1.2 million supporters.” As spontaneous as the finished product may seem, they require long-term planning: In another interview, he talks about scouting locations and securing permissions weeks in advance of a shoot.

During the talk, Gopi tells the audience to visit his other YouTube channel, Food Galata. Its top video is “Sweet Potato prepared by beauty full girls,” whose thumbnail shows two women posing with the vegetables held suggestively up to their open mouths. The video rehearses a number of coded tropes of heterosexual desire from Indian cinema. One woman is dressed traditionally, the other in jeans and a T-shirt. Both smile coquettishly. The casually dressed woman pops a bottle of champagne, giggling as it overflows, and proceeds to cook the sweet potato in it. The Cambodian channel “Natural Life,” one of the most popular village food factories, is similar. Here, two serious-faced women in forest settings cook various foods — pigs’ ears, gourds, fish, and so on. These channels share many of the conventions of Village Food Factory, but the quantities of food are more manageable. The “factory” is not a matter of the quantity of production, but in the way the women’s bodies are depicted.

The consumption of authenticity is inflected here in a different way; a different orientation for our appetites is offered. In urban heterosexist desire, the beautiful village girl who cooks is a fantasy of female availability — in the kitchen as well as in the bedroom (or, as here, in the clearing in the forest). But between the old men’s huge amounts of meat and the young women’s low-cut tops, between the village and the factory, the food is the central term. The village food factory is so affecting and such a viable site for desire precisely because it keeps hold of food’s fleshiness. Even after watching Gopi spill the beans, I still watch the videos, am still drawn in by them. The images are relatable at a deeply sensorial level — squelching of meat, screeching of chickens, the eating of the food at the end of the video, a shaky camera that could be your own point of view.

“Please ask more questions, I am feeling very happy,” Gopi says, smiling toward the end of the presentation at the college. “It’s been a long time being alone, just with my laptop, camera, and my father, just working with videos like that. Now it feels happy to see so many people around.” Apparently, despite his success, and the bucolic atmosphere he has crafted, the young content creator suffers from the same loneliness, alienation, and “atomized individualism” that his videos provide me relief from.

The images are relatable at a deeply sensorial level — squelching of meat, screeching of chickens, a shaky camera that could be your own point of view

Instead of thinking of the Village Food Factory alongside other kinds of food videos, we might see it instead as part of an idiosyncratic history of images of factories. Harun Farocki’s “Workers Leaving the Factory,” which cuts together iconic film clips of workers leaving factories, lays out just such a history. “Whenever possible film has moved hastily away from factories,” says Farocki’s affectless narrator toward the end of the video. “Factories have not attracted film, rather they have repelled it.”

Part of capitalism’s magic in an earlier era was in how the factory, the site of production, could be suppressed in relation to the market, where Adam Smith located capitalism’s spirit of democracy and freedom. This is why Marx called the factory the “hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face, ‘No admittance except on business.’” The factory had to remain off-limits to the camera because it was the site where surplus value was generated and capitalism reproduced itself as exploitation.

Maybe we can see the Village Food Factory videos as a coda to Farocki’s project. Except now, in its post-Fordist moment, the factory no longer has any outside; it has been globalized, imbricated with the market, and it’s no longer possible for the workers to leave. Between the cooking, the camera, and the circulation of the images of food, the new economic realities of the internet age emerge starkly. Rather than the industrial factory that Marx wrote about, this is a so-called social factory, in which anything can be consumed and consumption itself is made productive.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of PICTURES OF FOOD. Also from this week, Linda Besner on food as metaphor, and Anya Metzer on why the hunger for food photos is insatiable.

Mila Samdub studied creative writing at a small college in upstate New York. He has interests like trees, food, borderlands, and typography. He lives in New Delhi, the city of his adolescence, where he now works everyday as a curator. He can be found on Instagram at @delhimodernism.