The Instagram posts first began appearing in December, 2018. They were all photos of the same dish: Crispy caramelized chickpeas in a turmeric-stained curry. All of the dishes had been garnished identically, with a tangle of fresh mint just barely concealing a mound of creamy yogurt. All of them were labelled #thestew.
A few days earlier, the food writer Alison Roman had posted the recipe on The New York Times website. And, as with many of her recipes, it quickly took on a life of its own on the internet. On Instagram, thousands of people raved about having made #thestew. One woman said it helped her transition to a healthier diet. Another claimed #thestew had helped her through depression. Headlines described it as “the stew that broke the internet.”
However, #thestew is hardly the first recipe to achieve widespread popularity – cookbooks have existed with that sole aim for decades. But with social media and the rise of online food communities, the speed and urgency with which a recipe can spread has rapidly increased. Now, a recipe can spread across entire social networks within days, and create the impression that everyone you know is making this dish, and so should you.
Among the past few years’ most viral recipes: the “wrinkled cookie” (Sarah Kieffer), #thecookie (another one of Ms. Roman’s creations) and blow-dryer roast chicken (Helen Rosner). And food media, eager to chase eyeballs and find a formula for viral success, have taken notice.
Ms. Roman, widely considered the queen of the viral dish, says she’s not following any “formula.” Still, she acknowledges that there are a few commonalities behind her most successful recipes.
“They’re easy, they’re accessible and they look nice,” she said.
After the previous decade, which saw the popularity of fancy, tweezer-fussy food (see: molecular gastronomy and at-home sous vide machines), simple, approachable, home-cooked food is suddenly cool again. And for a generation that grew up watching the spotless kitchens and glossed perfection of Food Network, Ms. Roman and her peers – with their mismatched dishware and casually thrown-together dishes – are a breath of fresh air. And it’s changing the way all of us eat.
“It’s a confluence of a lot of factors,” said Priya Krishna, who also writes for The New York Times. Platforms such as Bon Appétit, for which both Ms. Krishna and Ms. Roman write, and its outrageously popular YouTube channel, are turning home cooking “into this cultural moment,” she said.
After a video of Ms. Krishna’s recipe for “saag feta” was posted to the channel earlier this year, her phone began lighting up with dozens of notifications. Videos posted to the channel regularly receive millions of views, with followers waiting with anticipation for new videos. “The audience treat recipes almost like album drops,” she said.
“I was getting tagged in, like, 50 posts a day,” she said. She began screenshotting the photos, and broadcasting them back to her followers – a tactic commonly used by outlets including The New York Times.
“Someone once told me that going viral is just sort of creating a [fear of missing out] moment. If you’re posting 10 things in a row of people making the same recipe, other people will be like, ‘Oh my God, we’re all missing out on making this recipe,’” she said. “So you can take the initial popularity of a recipe and engineer it to go much further.”
Other online publications, such as Buzzfeed, have found other ways to engineer online success. In a 2017 TedTalk, Buzzfeed publisher Dao Nguyen described how, by framing a recipe on its Tasty website as “the best brownies you’ll ever eat,” and “challenging” its audience to make the recipe with friends, they were able to attract over 70-million views.
Given the career boost a viral recipe can give to an aspiring writer, it’s no coincidence that others have tried to copy Ms. Roman’s “easy, accessible and pretty” style.
In a New York Times column earlier this year, food writer Samin Nosrat admitted to being jealous of the viral attention other writers had received, and tried to create an internet-famous recipe of her own.
“I know you can’t make magic on demand,” Ms. Nosrat wrote, “but there do seem to be a few cardinal rules.” Still, Ms. Nosrat found the formula limiting. Her own cooking style (“ugly, but good”) was irreconcilable with what might be the most important condition of all for online success: that the dish be photogenic.
For Ms. Krishna, her issue is with the question of what makes a recipe “accessible," especially given that those working in food media are predominantly white.
“I was told by a magazine editor that basically, Indian recipes would never go viral,” she said. The only reason her “saag feta” was so popular, she said, is because the dish it’s based on, saag paneer, is a common takeout staple.
She also questioned whose recipes get the biggest platforms, and who gets to be the face of these recipes.
Indeed, the creator behind one of the most viral recipes of the past few years is a relatively unknown, 52-year-old cookbook author who was raised in India and now lives in Fort Worth, Tex. Urvashi Pitre’s recipe for Instant Pot butter chicken has been viewed on her website over 1.5-million times. Yet, you’re unlikely to see Ms. Pitre’s photo featured in food magazines or on television.
“Aspirationally, people are looking for younger women who are white to position those recipes," she said. "That’s not who I am.”
Ms. Pitre, too, said that there’s no such thing as a formula for viral. Aside from food writing, she also works as a data scientist. “I charge tens of thousands of dollars to clients to tell them whether something will be successful,” she said. “But I cannot tell you whether a recipe is going to go viral.”
To Ms. Roman, “the second you try to do it in a way that’s not coming from an authentic place, people see the difference,” she said. In fact, she bristles at the word “viral” altogether.
“To me, saying they’re going viral makes it sound like it’s something that’s only happening on the internet,” she said.
“To me, it’s happening in people’s homes. It’s happening in their kitchens.”
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