By Daisy Alioto
Sometimes people stopped Brooke Johnson on the street to tell her they’d seen her videos. It happened more when she was home in Orlando– not so much in New York, where approaching someone on the street, even to compliment them, was viewed with extreme suspicion.
Brooke understood this suspicion. Half of her workday was spent in her office and the other half commuting to restaurants, bars and food carts in all five boroughs. Then there was the train ride home to Greenpoint or a trip to the nail salon or Sephora, all of which were exhausting.
None of her managers ever said anything about her personal appearance. That would have been inappropriate. The contouring and acrylics were things that Brooke did for herself, to put another layer of distance between her real life and the 10 million people that liked Cache Cow’s food channel.
Cache Cow began as a personal finance newsletter written by husband and wife business partners who were banned from securities trading by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority after refusing to cooperate with a money-laundering investigation. Brooke learned all of this from the company’s Wikipedia page, which she skimmed on the way to her job interview two years ago. By that time, Cache Cow had ballooned into a digital media empire.
The Cache Cow food channel wasn’t about cooking. It was about pursuing the next food experience. Yelping and eating and documenting and sharing and liking and commenting. Only one person could cook the food, but 10 million people could experience it vicariously through Brooke. It was Brooke who sampled rosé-flavored whipped cream and Lucky Charms marshmallow bars as big as her face. She dove into soba bowls sprinkled with gold leaf and pizza soup with stuffed crust croutons and washed it down with carbonated chocolate milk. Every food fad eventually made its way across her perfectly lined lips.
When Brooke was six, her parents decided to upgrade from the kidney-shaped pool previous homeowners had installed in the 70s. The new pool would have powerful jets and a slide and saltwater that didn’t turn her blond hair green. Brooke’s mother kept talking about Alhambra tile, referring to a magazine page she ripped out of Architectural Digest and stuck to the fridge. Six-year-old Brooke thought there was a guy named Al Umbra who designed mosaics.
The completed pool was grand. Brooke’s parents didn’t think twice about keeping the company’s sign up in their yard for a few weeks after the men packed up their tools. Three of their neighbors signed contracts with the same installer– who then disappeared. The neighborhood had been scammed and Brooke’s family was the bait. All it took was one perfect pool for a bunch of hard-working Floridians to offer up down payments that would never be made good. The magazine page was still on the fridge.
Brooke’s parents were ashamed when they realized what had happened. They talked about putting the house on the market, but decided against it– they were in too much debt. The pool was a whiff of failure that clung to everything. They could never get the pH right and eventually switched to chlorine.
Brooke felt like the dummy pool for her Cache Cow viewers. The food was never that good or worth what it would normally cost. When she got home from work, she was rarely hungry. She made herself simple meals like egg noodles with butter and boxed mashed potatoes. Her roommates used to comment on her weird food habits, but, fortunately, they stopped.
Sometimes she did three shoots in one day. On those days, she was allowed to expense one Uber, and while she would have liked to take it home she inevitably called a car between shoots two and three in order to fix her makeup and check for stains on her tight, but not too tight, t-shirt.
Blessedly, she didn’t have to talk in the videos. Text appeared on the screen to tell viewers what she was eating and where. 10% of the proceeds from this tata-shaped strawberry milkshake bowl go to breast cancer research! Chef Rachel Lee was inspired to offer the dish after her mother was diagnosed in 2017…
Brooke cupped the milkshake bowl and slurped. She tried not to look too suggestive. There were always a few sexual comments that slipped through Facebook’s filter. “Wearing blue eyeshadow again like a good little f00d wh0re mmmm,” wrote Robert from Omaha. The worst video Brooke ever starred in showcased a hotdog inspired by Harlem’s chopped cheese. Chopped hotdog meat was mixed with pieces of pickles, onions, and cubes of cheddar cheese and topped with ketchup, mustard, and mayo. The bun was as long as her forearm.
When she saw the hotdog, Brooke went to the bathroom and gagged. She texted her producer Matt, “I have a bad feeling about this.” Classic New York dishes with a ‘twist’ always brought out the trolls, and this was especially ungodly.
“I’m sorry, we’re already here,” he texted her back.
She rubbed water on her wrists and rushed through the shoot. Matt didn’t realize until they got back to the Cache Cow office that the camera angle was too high. She was looking up in a porny way that would surely not be lost on Robert from Omaha. “I wish you would wrap your lips around me like that.”
Women in eating disorder recovery emailed Brooke to say that her videos helped them eat again. Women who were dieting said that her videos alleviated cravings. Sometimes Brooke felt so exposed she wanted to be more alone than alone. She locked the door of her bedroom, even if she was the only one home, and turned off all of the lights in her room. But even that wasn’t enough. So she sat in the bottom of her closet between pairs of ankle boots, draped in dry cleaning bags, breathing in the musk of her unwashed winter coat and trying to think of nothing. Unlike Matt, she didn’t care about food and hadn’t sought this job out. He had a tiny tattoo on his wrist that said memory is hunger.
When Brooke was 12, her school took a field trip to the Mount Dora Catacombs. In the 1960s, 25 wealthy Florida families financed the largest privately-owned bomb shelter in America. Even after abandonment, the subterranean space still buzzed with the nuclear anxiety of people determined that money would guarantee their survival. A famous novel about the apocalypse was set in Mount Dora. The novel came before the catacombs. That was the power of suggestion, Brooke thought.
In South Korea, videos of people eating were called mukbang. Enterprising video bloggers made millions eating vast quantities of seafood, lulling their fans into a pleasant trance with the sound of their lips smacking and the soft crack of crab legs. Brooke’s best friend briefly dated a guy named Joon who called Brooke “BJ,” which was short for broadcast jockey in Korea. “Those are his actual initials!” her best friend said.
According to Joon, the target audience for mukbang videos was lonely men eating alone in Seoul high rises. “They want to eat with somebody else through the computer,” he said. Brooke liked Joon. She wondered whether they would have dated if her best friend hadn’t met him first.
One day she ran into Joon in Union Square. “Hello BJ! Still alone in the computer?” She walked him to the door of his architecture firm, chatting about a hotel he was designing. After they parted, Brooke went through the salad bar at Whole Foods, filling up her container with rice and chunks of sweet potato. She had to be at a shoot soon. She sat in the park and called her parents.
“Hello sweetie,” her mom said. “We’re just having breakfast here. Your dad and I are watching one of your videos.” There was a shuffling noise as her mom handed over the phone to her dad. “We’re watching you right now, Brooky!”
Daisy Alioto is the audience development manager at New York Review of Books. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Longreads, Paris Review and The Cut and her poetry has been published by Unbroken Journal and Triangle House Review. She is also a journalist with bylines at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The New Republic.