To Grandmother’s TikTok We Go

Older influencers who share laundry hacks and old family recipes are helping Gen Z get through the holidays.

An illustration of a TikTok grandma.
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic

Nothing about Barbara Costello’s favorite Christmas recipe is all that fancy. The overnight breakfast casserole she makes every year doesn’t call for much more than eggs, milk, sausage, cheese, and bread thrown into a baking dish—a recipe she clipped from a local newspaper nearly 50 years ago. But in the years since Costello first cooked it, that humble casserole has become a hallmark of her growing family’s Christmas celebrations: When her four children were young, Costello waited until they’d fallen asleep on Christmas Eve to assemble the dish and place it in the fridge. She’d wake up Christmas morning and immediately preheat the oven to 350 degrees. By the time her children were ready to open their presents, the house would be filled with the scent of their hearty breakfast.

Now her eight grandchildren have come to love the dish too—and so have many more people who’ve never sat under Costello’s tree or in her kitchen. A video of Costello making the casserole was one of the first she posted to her TikTok account in early 2020, after her daughter persuaded her to join the app. Nearly three years, 3 million @BrunchWithBabs followers on TikTok, and one holiday cookbook later, the breakfast casserole is one of several dishes that Costello’s followers say they’ve incorporated into their own family traditions. Costello, whose TikTok profile cheekily identifies her as “everyone’s grandmother,” guides her audience in the art of entertaining, as well as the less glamorous work of keeping house even when no one else will see it. And judging by some of the comments on her videos, she has come to play an inadvertently big role in some of her followers’ lives.

TikTok is best known as the chaotic domain of Gen Z, but Costello is part of a constellation of, yes, #grandfluencers. Through profiles most typically run by their children or grandchildren, these TikTokers are tapping into some of the qualities that make grandmas so special. Some accounts, such as Nana’s Kitchen and Grandma’s Garden, focus primarily on showcasing recipes, while others share household hacks and dispense life advice. Like the platform as a whole, “Grandma TikTok” has gained significant traction since the start of the pandemic as an emotional balm to endless doomscrolling. That makes a grim kind of sense: Many young users were isolated from their elder loved ones, and some lost them altogether.

But right around now, during the holidays, the TikTok grandmas are taking on a significance that extends beyond the practical value of any one video suggesting that kids use an ironing board to create extra counter space while baking Christmas cookies. All of the women I spoke with about running these grandfluencer accounts said that their videos were getting increased engagement this December. “There’s really been a very strong sense of community that I have noticed, especially this holiday season,” Costello told me. During a time of year that so intensely emphasizes familial connection—and makes the lack of it feel particularly painful and hard to ignore—the grandmas of TikTok want to give you a hug and a plate of food too.

For all of the familiar parasocial dynamics of the influencer era, the grandfluencers are rare in their cultivation of intergenerational relationships: Especially on TikTok, young people are mostly talking to other young people. Commenting “mom” or “dad” on celebrities’ posts is part of Millennial and Gen-Z internet speak, but it rarely conveys the feeling of an earnest familial tie. The viewer responses on Grandma TikTok are different. Take Nana’s Kitchen, an account that primarily features closely cropped shots of the 86-year-old Iraqi Turkish woman’s hands as she prepares a meal—sort of like an artisanal Tasty video. The comments on Nana’s posts, such as this dedication to her “supportive army of grandchildren learning how to cook together,” are filled with something that is decidedly different from the meme-speak that dominates many other corners of the internet:

Can I become one of your grandchildren, I don’t have grandparents

ALL HAIL GRANDMA

my grandma passed away 20 years ago, she taught me a lot. this account brings me such comfort thats she’s still looking out for me

Nana’s Kitchen was the idea of Dina Ibrahim, one of Nana’s eight grandchildren, who lives in Calgary, in Canada’s Alberta province. Like several of the young people running their family matriarch’s account, Ibrahim initially began recording videos of her grandmother as something of a family cookbook before sharing them on TikTok late last year. Through Nana’s Kitchen, Ibrahim shares footage of her grandmother preparing Middle Eastern dishes beyond the select few that are likely familiar to most North American viewers, such as chupa, a traditional meal made from sheep innards, and kalaneh, a labor-intensive bread that can be stuffed with scallions and other fillings. During Ramadan, followers even get treated to footage from the family’s iftars.

The desire for a familial culinary record was also the impetus behind Pamela Cooke’s desire to make videos of her mother, who’s known to followers simply as “Mamaw.” The Ohio-based pair shares all sorts of recipes, including explicitly holiday-oriented ones such as peanut-butter buckeyes and Thanksgiving stuffing. The two generally plan videos around the food Mamaw’s already going to be making, especially for Sunday dinners or for the personalized meals she prepares for the children and grandchildren on their birthdays. When it comes time to record, Cooke handles the phone camera and Mamaw sticks to what she does best. “I still don’t know how to go on there,” Mamaw said of TikTok. “Pam has to show me everything.”

Just like Nana’s Kitchen’s audience, many of Cooke’s followers comment on how much Mamaw reminds them of their own grandmothers or express gratitude for her serving as a proxy. They share the occasions for which they’re planning to make Mamaw’s recipes (or have already) and ask for her personal take on holiday staples such as pumpkin pie, pralines, and fried chicken. The requests made of Mamaw tend to be respectful in tone, to such a degree that reading through the comments has become an unexpected bonding exercise for Cooke and her mother. “We sit here; we tear up; we cry,” Cooke told me. Heading into the holidays, the account tends to also get higher engagement rates, she said.

To the extent that women are stereotypically seen as stewards of the kitchen, this corner of Grandma TikTok can feel like a natural extension of the lengthy family stories that proliferated on recipe blogs in the aughts and early 2010s. And just as recipe blogging was difficult to monetize, the grandfluencer economy, too, is somewhat opaque and stratified. Costello’s almost 3 million TikTok followers make her something of an anomaly, someone who is approached by publishers about writing a cookbook and by brands about posting sponsored videos. Other accounts, such as Nana’s Kitchen and Pam’s Life, aren’t yet influential in the way that we’ve come to associate with #sponcon—which is perhaps why so many people seem to find it easier to view them as authentic.

Grandma TikTok manages to cover all sorts of ways that grandmothers interact with the young people in their lives. For TikTok users who are less interested in the domestic sphere, a handful of accounts have a more sardonic edge. Take Excuse My Grandma, a TikTok account with more than 300,000 followers that features 26-year-old Kim Murstein, who moved in with her grandmother, Gail, toward the start of the pandemic. On TikTok, viewers clamor for Grandma Gail’s acerbic dating commentary (“Don’t think of it as He ghosted you. You’re just so out of his league you left him speechless!”) and tune in to help Grandma Gail help pick out Murstein’s date outfits.

Even though Excuse My Grandma isn’t as inclined to share recipes or household tips as some other grandfluencers, the account has still seen a rise in viewership around the holidays, Murstein told me. On Excuse My Grandma, seasonal videos look more like a compilation of things Grandma Gail said during their family’s Thanksgiving celebrations or videos of the duo exchanging gifts with each other. Vicariously experiencing a family gathering with pleasant chaos is, after all, a rare treat. Murstein, a former television producer, is savvy enough to know that this kind of fare also tends to be amplified by the mysterious force that is TikTok’s proprietary algorithm: “With any content, when you put out something that is timely and less evergreen, it tends to do well,” she said.

For better or worse, these accounts can turn a TikTok user’s personal algorithm into a hyper-curated feed of traditional grandma experiences. Of course, no social-media account can ever replace a real family member, no matter how much a grandfluencer swears she’s looking out for you. But during the holidays, the laundry hacks and old family recipes that are the hallmark of Grandma TikTok feel different: With some combination of wit and warmth, these accounts can also help assuage the pangs of nostalgia and loss that so many people feel in what is supposed to be a happy time.

If anything, the feelings inspired by Grandma TikTok seem to reveal just how distinct the stereotypical grandchild-grandparent relationship can be. And around the holidays, it’s even clearer that the specific traditions, life hacks, and general wisdom often gleaned from grandparents can be hard to find from the other people in our lives. “The No. 1 comment and DM slide that I get are people saying, ‘This reminds me so much of the relationship I had with my grandma,’” Murstein said.  “Like, ‘Thank you for bringing back that nostalgia.’ And a lot of people also say, ‘I never had that grandmother figure in my life. And now Grandma Gail can kind of be that for me.’”