Inside a perfectly lit room, a pair of well-manicured hands measures out some milk and pours it into a pan. They turn on a gas burner, which clicks until the fire ignites with a whoosh. Butter is added to the mixture, then some cream cheese, and the hands whisk the ingredients together, the whisk sometimes clinking against the sides of the pan.
The best way to procrastinate is with a YouTube video. Their longer format makes them more engaging than a quick scroll through social media but still less of a commitment than Netflix. There are millions of videos on the site, and something exists to satisfy every curiosity or interest. As most of us already know, it’s easy to lose hours of our time to an endless rabbit hole of useless content. After the pandemic started and most of my schooling moved online, YouTube switched from being a method of procrastination to a distraction from online classes. The background video served as a nice respite from long classes of staring at zoned-out faces on my screen. During this time, I would watch a lot of cooking ASMR, which are silent except for the soft noises of fruit cutting and batter mixing.
The world inside these videos is perfect and sterile. Ingredients are mostly shown pre-measured, and the person behind them almost always uses an unrealistic amount of bowls and utensils to finish their dish as if they don’t have to wash them all when it’s over. When I bake at home, the counter is usually covered with flour and discarded measuring cups. The cleanup afterward takes at least 20 minutes. But the people in these videos don’t have that problem. Still, there is something so appealing about cooking videos besides their clean aesthetics. While my life is disorderly and chaotic, the videos of faceless people baking cakes are predictable and serene.
Their creations are soft — squishy sponge cakes, melty mousses and whipped cream. I’ve often been asked why I watch these videos even though I am allergic to almost everything that they make, but I find it hard to explain that it isn’t just about the food. The sounds of frosting being piped and eggs being whisked feel calming without any distracting music in the background. There is a semblance of perfect calm — in these worlds, uncluttered minds have nothing to worry about besides the meringue they are whipping up at that moment. It’s easy to listen to the sound of flour being folded into a mixture of milk and eggs and feel that sense of calm for a second myself as if moving through life was as easy as turning a spatula.
The silent background noise these videos provided grew more helpful as my freshman year at the University of Michigan progressed. The campus that I had arrived on could be eerily desolate at times, and, especially during the winter semester, there was a sense of unsettling silence over the entire town. I remember walking through the Diag on a Wednesday afternoon in February, marveling at the fact that almost no one else was there. On a deserted campus, the lack of noise was worse than the abundance of it. It reminded me of everything I had lost and might never regain, like a sense of “normalcy” or a year and a half’s worth of lost time. There seemed to be a never-ending moment of muteness — I’m not sure if it can ever return to the way it once was.
I’ve always been someone that has appreciated silence and even sought it out. I prefer working at night when the noises around me are at a minimum. But when the silence on campus seemed suffocating, I would turn to cooking videos — something that I expect already to be silent. Even the slight punctuation of sounds are predictable and therefore somewhat grounding. These videos were the good types of quiet: anticipated and calm, not anxious or depressing.
This quiet is also especially good at chasing away noise too, though. When classes sometimes became long and boring, I would pull up a video in the other tab and let the whir of an electric mixer redirect my attention for a few seconds, then focus again on the class in front of me. In a strange way, the silence with soft noises sprinkled throughout provided an excellent background tune for getting through a Zoom lecture.
As strange as it may seem, these clean, well-lit worlds inside my screen helped me get through the year. When I got back home, I finally tried making one of the recipes: a vegan baked cheesecake. I weighed all my ingredients and put them into little bowls before I started working. I cleared my counter, opened the curtains and turned on the lights. The recipes of the cooking videos that I watched had always felt inaccessible to me because of their aesthetics and the semblance of calm, but I wanted to fabricate that feeling for myself. I folded the flour into the wet ingredients, turning my spatula the way I had watched the others do it in countless videos. For a second, I entered that tranquil place despite my lack of marble countertops and pastel measuring spoons. When the cake came out of the oven, I was surprised that it tasted good, too.
MiC Columnist Safura Syed can be contacted at email@example.com