There are foods that just shouldn't be messed with, and Temple University senior Kalen Allen has found viral success skewering those wildly addictive recipe videos that have your invaded your social media feeds.
Allen, 21, has scored with "Kalen Reacts," a series of videos lampooning the oddly altered classic dishes popularized by Buzzfeed's Tasty videos and websites like Delish and Pinterest. Think corn bread with corn kernels and onions in it, or potato salad cake lined with hot dogs, and you'll have an idea of the Frankenfoods that enrage him.
The videos feature Allen watching a recipe video while giving his disgusted reaction in real time. The charm is in Allen's commentary, such as how white people have "gentrified" beloved soul food dishes. A sweet potato pie recipe elicits, "Shredded cheese? Oh, no, White Jesus." In another, he says, "Don't y'all know there are more seasonings than salt and pepper?"
Allen, who's majoring in theater and film, also has several how-to videos, with recipes for foods such as peach cobbler and corn bread. "That's what I've grown up on — especially potato salad and corn bread," Allen said. "I've seen that at many cookouts and many dinners. Some stuff just needs to be left alone."
His YouTube channel had almost 200,000 views at the time of this writing — impressive, considering he started just a few weeks ago. He now has more than 30,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 12,000 on his personal Facebook page (his "Kalen Reacts" fan page has nearly 5,000 likes).
Allen's videos have attracted the attention of celebrities, including funnyman Seth Rogen, who gave him a shout-out on Twitter for the corn bread video. Temple Owl Jesse Williams and Stranger Things' David Harbour have also responded to Allen's reactions.
On Thursday, he received an invitation from Ellen DeGeneres to appear on her show. That's essentially the holy grail for viral stars.
"Having celebrities react to the videos and show me they think they're funny solidified for me that this is something I need to do," Allen said. "Clearly I'm good at this, and now I have a network."
A native of Kansas City, Kan., Allen said he was raised with real-deal soul food after his mother, Aloise, was diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor on her liver. That prompted his grandmother Edna Mae Moten, a Louisiana native, to take over cooking duty in the Allen household as Aloise recovered. Soul food was always on the menu.
"We weren't a family that did it where you just go and grab something out of the pantry and make something," Allen said. "We had full meals every single day."
Those meals were often complete with smothered fried chicken, yams, collard greens, and, of course, corn bread, which he said should be enjoyed with honey butter or jam. He regularly watched his grandmother at work and developed an affinity for food and cooking. An obsession with Food Network shows like Unwrapped and Food Network Challenge further fostered his interest in the culinary arts, and, eventually, he taught himself to cook.
Allen briefly wanted to pursue work as a pastry chef but later decided he wanted to be a performer. "I like the performance part of cooking — like the people on the show, creating food and revealing it," he said. "I just want to create art and present it."
His viral fame wasn't exactly planned, Allen said. The videos just happened on a whim after he decided to upload a reaction to several corn bread recipes to Facebook and Twitter last month. He had made similar videos for friends but never did anything with them. Social media, however, turned his lark into a bona fide internet phenomenon with the upload of "Kalen Reacts: Tasty Cornbread Reaction Video" (35,000 YouTube views and counting).
"When I went to sleep, the corn bread video was at about 20 likes. When I woke up, it was at 500 likes," Allen said. "Then it just never stopped."
In 24 hours, it had 30,000 likes.
Allen continued uploading reaction videos. Other foods have included mac and cheese and chicken. One that broke the mold featured Allen's reaction to cockroaches, which he said he did as a kind of "focus group" to determine what viewers wanted to see.
He says what draws people to his videos is his disgust with over-the-top takes on soul food classics that people have an emotional connection to. In his words, we're all thinking it anyway.
Websites seem to want to mess with classic foods, Allen said, because of the content mill that is the internet. With social media now a focal point of many people's lives, sites like Tasty and Pinterest have spots to fill with content. If they want to focus on food, the only way to keep doing it, he said, is to create their own takes, no matter how strange. "They go to the classic things and put a twist on it to make it more modern, and it's not a classic thing anymore," Allen said.
He plans to expand the scope of his YouTube channel to include some of his other interests, such as performing. The goal, he said, is to show a range so viewers can see he is "multitalented and can do anything."
"I will always do the reaction videos because, to me, I believe in not fixing something that isn't broken," he said. "That will stay the same."
What won't stay the same is Allen's status as a Temple student. He is scheduled to graduate in May but hasn't yet decided what he'll be doing. But whatever it is, it won't be in Philadelphia.
He's submitted applications to the Juilliard School, Yale, and New York University. However, with his newfound viral fame, Allen said he might move to Los Angeles and "chase the dream."
"Now that I have some kind of fame under my belt," he said, "maybe I can ride the tide and make these dreams come true."