For Amber Estenson Schwarzrock (aka @thatmidwesternmom), creating "salads" made of convenience foods like canned fruit, mayonnaise and Cool Whip for her TikTok followers is a way of showing love for her Midwestern upbringing.
"I had always meant to write a blog or a book about the quirky food we eat here, our mannerisms and our small town Midwestern culture," she told me. "However, I work full-time and raise three kids, so TikTok just seemed like a better medium for me."
Schwarzrock, a classically trained opera singer, says she's lived all over the U.S. and abroad in her lifetime, but recently moved back to Minnesota. Her current home: Frazee, Minnesota, home of the world's largest turkey.
Schwarzrock says she never intended her TikTok to be a "cooking channel," but as she's shared recipes she knows by heart from growing up in the Midwest, she's grown her account to nearly 200,000 followers who love watching her make vegetable-free "salads" like Raspberry Pretzel Salad and Snicker Salad.
"Everything made on my channel are just recipes that I know by heart because we would make them for any family gathering or Minnesota potluck," she explained. "Most of my salads, especially the desert salads, contain pineapple and mandarin oranges from a can. For us Northerners, that was extremely exotic in the '60s. Canned fruits that weren't readily available as fresh produce were a huge treat."
More than 3 million people have watched Schwarzrock's most viral video, a demo on how to make Snicker Salad, a mixture of vanilla pudding mix, Cool Whip, apples, buttermilk and Snickers bars.
"Oh, hi there, and welcome to Minnesota salads that aren't really salads," Schwarzrock sings at the start of the video. "In Minnesota, Snickers and apples can make a salad: I never said it was healthy."
Curious about the viral salad, I gave Snicker Salad a try in my own kitchen. It came together fast, with the lengthiest part of the preparation being chopping eight apples into small cubes. Once I'd mastered my fruit- chopping and cut up a few Snickers bars, I mixed everything together and was left with a mixture that resembled potato salad but, obviously, couldn't have tasted more different.
The sugary, vanilla-flavored mixture wasn't my cup of tea, and my kids, who like all of the salad's ingredients separately, were a bit freaked out at seeing them combined in a mixing bowl. (We live in the South — what can I say?)
"This would be better if you made the pudding and Cool Whip into a dip and served the apples on the side," my son suggested.
"It looks weirder than it tastes," said my daughter.
Schwarzrock says she gets that a lot.
"The general consensus has been, 'OMG, I can't believe you eat that … Can I have some?'" she said. "I really love to poke fun at everything Midwestern and Minnesotan like hot dishes, appetizers, our quirky mannerisms and our silly Midwestern sayings."
In fact, Schwarzrock hopes her TikTok channel will branch out to covering additional parts of Midwestern culture, like small town festivals. Her first goal: Turkey Days, the small festival her own town holds every year.
Still, she's pacing herself.
"One salad at a time," she said. "All I have posted is very seriously considered our 'fancy food.' Is it something we eat every night for dinner? Absolutely not. It's for special occasions."