How Mukbang Saved Me From a Pandemic

I’d basically run out of things to mock. That’s how it all started. I’d already made fun of the pandemic itself, twice over. I’d picked on my husband and all his weird quirks I’ve discovered since he’s been working from home. I took on a mediocre show I bingewatched. I even raked a squirrel over the coals.

When writers want to write, first they must experience something. This pandemic has found me desperately lacking in experiences. Every day melts into the next. I feel a faint depressive fog always trying to cloud my brain. My thoughts and actions have become almost mechanical.

Social media is the crutch upon which I lean these day. And potato products. Let us not forget that glorious carbohydrate, the humble spud. Facebook was where I first discovered mukbang videos. Endless scrolling of the Watch feed eventually dropped me down a ramen rabbit hole that I’ve yet to escape.

At first, my thought was to watch a few, do some research, and write a scathing post about how dumb it all is. I’ve since done the research, in between watching more than a few dozen videos, but I’ve yet to find a way to hate it.

Mukbang started in South Korea as live broadcasts for people who didn’t want to eat alone. That part I don’t understand because, to me, the best eating is the alone eating. There is no feeling better than being elbow deep in a bag of Lay’s watching a Bravo marathon of some sort. Apparently, though, other cultures like people and tend to gather for meals.

My husband discovered my secret fetish last week when a storm blew through and took our power with it. The house was eerily quiet, no hum of fans and air conditioners blowing away the southern summer heat. No TV, no whizbang noises from the refrigerator kicking on. Just us, together but separately watching our phones.

Husband: What is that noise?

Me: What noise?

Husband: Is that slurping?

Me:

Husband: It sounds like someone is eating. Are you watching someone eat?

Me:

Husband: I’m worried this pandemic has changed you.

I was, in fact, watching someone slurp up ramen noodles. Her name is Hamzy. At least, I think that’s her name and not the name of some obscure Korean snack food. I’ve tried to research her, but haven’t been able to much more information besides her short bio asking people to subscribe to her channel if they like her videos. She has become my favorite mukbang… artist. Is that the right word?

There are different styles of mukbang videos. Some people talk, others don’t. There are those who focus solely on one type of food. Seafood, particularly shellfish, is a popular choice for some reason. I’ve seen a few mukbangers who don’t show their faces, only their gaping maws as they slurp and crunch their way through piles of food.

Hamzy doesn’t talk, but shows her face to her viewers, as well as her whisper thin frame that defies logic considering how much she eats. Sometimes she’s picking up prepared food from a South Korean convenience store or a restaurant. Sometimes she’s preparing a home cook meal. But always we watch her eat heaps of food at the coffee table in her living room. Her tiny black poodle is always close by waiting for a treat to be thrown their way.

I tried to figure out why I like watching these videos by reading about why others do. I’m almost never eating while Hamzy is, so the original attraction of not wanting to eat alone is out. There was a lot of mention of the pleasures people seek from the ASMR (autonomous sensory median response) aspect of the videos, the slurping, biting, crunching, etc.

HunniBee, another producer of mukbang videos takes a different approach than Hamzy. She typically eats only sweets, cakes and candies, in Seussian shapes and colors. They are generally grouped by color and sometimes are in the shape of regular household objects like glue bottles and hairbrushes. ASMR is a big part of her videos, which usually open with her whispering about what objects she’s displaying before she eats them. The open generally includes her scratching or tapping her talon like fingernails on some of those objects.

I can’t say I have misphonia, a strong negative reaction to hearing certain sounds, especially hearing people chewing. I don’t like some of these sounds, though. The slurping makes me wince. The squeaky chew made while consuming intestines can bring on nausea. And I simply can’t watch anyone eat raw meat, no matter how adorable their little dog is. So, I think that scratches the ASMR attraction off my list of why I’ve been drawn to mukbang.

Some people have noted that watching these videos helps them when they are dieting. They can vicariously experience a big meal while nibbling away at rice cakes and sipping on La Croix. I even saw that it prompted a person on chemotherapy to have their appetite come back to life.

Others noted food allergies being their reason for watching. A person with a shellfish allergy, for example, can experience joy again from a food they’re no longer able to eat. From a darker angle, I’ve read how others feel it glamorizes eating disorders, such as the binge eating component of bulimia.

None of those reasons ring true for me. The buttons on my pants will tell you with great certainty that I am not dieting. I’m not yet on chemo, but I would be curious to see what my experience is watching mukbang the next time I am.

I do have a shellfish allergy, as well as a few others, but I find myself uncomfortable when shrimp and crab are being consumed. I can almost feel the hives forming under my skin. As for glamorizing eating disorders, I’ve never had one, but I can imagine the sights and sounds could trigger unhealthy behaviors for some.

There is a certain train wreck element for me. It’s sometimes so horrible, but I can’t seem to look away. The newness of it all certainly drew me in. Oh look, something different than these four walls! It’s somehow become my silly distraction from the fear and anxiety that surrounds us every day.

But really, I’m starting to think it’s just the humanity of it all, the one great human equalizer. We all eat and we probably all look like Hamzy when we’re half starved and sitting in front of the tube. We all dribble a little kimchi, ketchup, or gravy on our chins as we’re inhaling a delicious meal. Underneath it all, humans are strikingly similar.

I don’t know anything about Hamzy or HunniBee other than what they enjoy eating. And I, too, love to drink from my bowl of ramen. A spoon will only slow things down. Ravaged from hunger I will also just drop my coat on the first place possible so I can fill my gob.

You can’t tell me your dog doesn’t sit nearby hoping a bite of dinner isn’t dropped or, perhaps, thrown by some kind soul. Who among us doesn’t let out that slow moan when the first bite of cake is particularly decadent? That satisfaction, the love from a good meal, we all know that feeling.

This morning, while sipping my coffee, I watched Hamzy eat octopus and ramen. I sipped, she slurped. Listening to the slightly gummy chew made my stomach churn a bit, but the crunch of the kimchi made up for it.

I noticed my husband peeking from behind me. “She’s eating octopus,” I offered him a look.

He shook his head. “I don’t care.” Out the back door he went to water his plants.

For some maybe not so odd reason, I do care. It’s so weird. I don’t really understand it, but I’m there.