If the pandemic had never happened, Ali Z. might never have joined TikTok.
But by the time the short, dark January days arrived, she was getting restless. Nearly a year into quarantine, her go-to hobbies—cooking, baking, and playing video games—felt lonely. In particular, she missed cooking for friends and family. “It's not quite as fun if you're just doing it on your own,” Ali told me in a recent phone call.
In the midst of this reflection, Ali realized her favorite video games involved aspects of cooking. Her favorite, Stardew Valley, includes 74 recipes and even its own in-game cooking show, The Queen of Sauce. On a whim, Ali scoured TikTok in search of accounts that replicated the game’s creative menus in real ingredients. To her surprise, nothing turned up—so Ali decided to become the Queen herself, using the platform to find community online.
As @thaqueenofsauce, Ali’s first post featured a tried-and-true classic: her family’s recipe for chocolate chip cookies. She spent about a week planning, filming, and editing the video in iMovie, gradually tweaking it until it felt complete. The clip featured what would become hallmarks of her style: Quick close-ups that explain each recipe’s steps, overlays of the game’s colorful pixel art, and a laid-back narration. “Sick of finding your chocolate chip cookies in the trash?” she asked, pairing the audio with a game clip of her Stardew Valley avatar rattling a trash can (a strategy for knocking loose the occasional item). “This recipe can help.”
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“Within a day, it got like, 80,000 views,” Ali says. “It took off, which I was totally not expecting.” Since then, Ali’s channel has continued to attract fans, particularly from within TikTok’s active cozy gaming space. When we first spoke last May, @thaqueenofsauce had roughly 30,000 followers. Now, that number has swelled to more than 55,000. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” she says. “Any time you're in an internet space, you expect that you'll get negative comments streaming in sometimes, or little things that people don't like. But I've gotten almost none of that, which I think is a testament to the Stardew Valley community itself.”
The way Ali’s channel struck a chord with viewers echoes Stardew Valley’s meteoric rise. First released in February 2016, the game sold 500,000 copies within its first two weeks, quickly climbing to over a million within the next fortnight. It was a surprise hit from first-time video game developer Eric Barone, who’d spent nearly five years working obsessively on every aspect of the game. The result was an immersive, quirky, and occasionally dark world simulating rural life. Since Stardew’s release, continuous, content-rich updates—including a multiplayer option and massive new unlockable environments—have continued to reward even the most obsessive players.
Fortunately, Ali’s easygoing approach to her channel doesn’t resemble Barone’s infamously grueling 12-hour workdays, cushioning her from the possible downsides of virality. During the week after her first video went viral, Ali felt a new sense of pressure. “Once you have an established group of people following you, it kind of changes the stakes,” she says. But the second video was well received, and so was the third. “Now I’m just having fun with it.”
Ali’s TikTok joins a rich legacy of culinary cosplay. Professional cookbook author Chelsea Monroe-Cassel has built her career around recreating fictional recipes, publishing cookbooks based on Game of Thrones, World of Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls, The Lord of the Rings, and numerous other fandoms (even including Stardew Valley). This month, Simon & Schuster will publish bestselling cookbook author Laurel Randolph’s Unofficial Simpsons Cookbook, featuring 70 recipes inspired by the show. And in some cases, authors even release official versions of their imagined cuisine—such as author Brian Jacques’ The Redwall Cookbook, featuring recipes for delicacies such as the Shrimp ’n Hotroot Soup or Great Hall Gooseberry Fool his cast of anthropomorphic otters, mice, and badgers whip up.
Like other creators who re-create fictional recipes, Ali strives to balance faithfulness to Stardew’s in-game ingredients and pixel art with accessibility. A recent recipe for the game’s Salmon Dinner substituted polenta for amaranth after she struggled to find the grain at her usual grocery store, farmer’s market, and co-op. “I, no joke, went to three different places,” Ali says. “I was like, well, if I can't find it, anyone trying to re-create this or look for inspiration probably won't be able to find it either.”
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Though Stardew includes plenty of familiar, real-world elements—like tending pumpkins or baiting crab pots—it also has a vivid streak of fantasy. Cast a fishing line and you might draw up a Lava Eel or a purple Super Cucumber. Go to sleep for the night and you might wake up to find a purple meteor in your yard or a polka-dot Void Egg in your coop. You can buy hats from Stardew’s resident Hat Mouse, befriend a sewer-dwelling shadow person named Krobus, and race to the bottom of the Skull Mine to meet the mysterious Mr. Qi.
The game’s wacky sensibility informs its recipes too. Ali’s channel hadn’t been up for long before she started receiving requests for the Strange Bun, whose in-game ingredients consist of wheat flour, Void Mayonnaise (made from Void Eggs, of course), and a periwinkle (a type of edible sea snail). “I was like, OK, how am I supposed to put this together into something that people would actually eat?” Ali says.
To celebrate reaching 10,000 followers, Ali donned a witch’s hat and sat down at her kitchen table to make the Strange Buns anyway. She started by making the dough for sweet milk rolls, then swapped the periwinkles for honey garlic shrimp and “imbued mayonnaise with powers from the void” (brilliant blue food coloring). For future milestones, she plans to tackle other dread-inspiring recipes, such as Carp Surprise (“It’s bland and oily,” says the in-game recipe, and the surprise is that it's made from four carp) and Seafoam Pudding, an odd dish composed of squid ink, flounder, and fictional Midnight Carp.
In the meantime, Stardew Valley offers plenty of other recipes to explore. Ali’s TikTok loosely follows the seasons, with spring salads and radish toasts followed by tri-colored ice cream and strawberry rhubarb pie. In between, she cooked her way through a series of breakfast recipes, ranging from basic fried eggs to cheesy hash browns. “The pancake recipe is so good and was, I'm not kidding, the best pancakes I've made,” Ali says, with a fluffy texture reminiscent of diner fare. Now that pandemic restrictions have lifted, she’s finally been able to make them for her family.
Occasionally, viewers tag Ali in pictures of their own Stardew-inspired creations, or comment that they’ve made her recipes for family and friends. One person even re-created Ali’s version of Pink Cake—a bundt cake flavored with fresh watermelon—and decorated it with strawberries cut into precise, tiny hearts. The little moments of community and connection are exactly what prompted Ali to post on TikTok in the first place. “I've been really happy about that,” she says.
Like Ali, I’ve missed sharing meals with family and friends over the past year. My husband is immunocompromised, so we’ve had to quarantine strictly even as restrictions relax. Figuring out ways to keep our cooking from becoming monotonous is a constant challenge. While working on this article, I realized that I had the ingredients for Ali’s pancake recipe in my pantry—and as dinner approached, I felt excited about cooking for the first time in weeks.
As promised, the pancakes cooked up plush and fluffy, with a crisp brown crust and a sweet, fruity tang, thanks to splashes of apple cider vinegar and vanilla extract. Despite a year and a half of near-total isolation, as I forked another bite, I felt a sense of whimsy and connection—exactly the qualities that keep me coming back to Stardew Valley.
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