Welcome to Noticed, Vox’s cultural trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.
What is it: Glorious pasta salads. But these are not your random aunt’s mayo-filled macaroni creations you remember from childhood barbeques. These are aesthetically pleasing bowls with interesting noodle shapes (heard of anellini?) and creative ingredients (halloumi, anyone?). They use fresh produce and Instagram-friendly oil brands, and they sometimes even require cooking rather than just haphazardly chopping items and throwing them together. The dressings? They are homemade.
Where is it: The feeds of food influencers on Instagram and TikTok. On the latter platform, the hashtag #pastasaladsummer now has over 31 million views. Some of the prominent purveyors include food influencers @GrossyPelosi, @babytamago, and @cafehailee. Of course, there’s also an Alison Roman pasta salad, and the trend has even made its way to Good Morning America.
Why you’re seeing it everywhere: Nostalgia mixed with aesthetics. It’s a classic summer gathering dish that can be remade into a colorful wonder with fresh ingredients and pantry staples. “Pasta salad’s the kind of perfect mix of a rebranding of a nostalgic thing,” content creator and cookbook author Dan Pelosi, also known as Grossy Pelosi, says.
Last year, TikToker Katie Zukhovich, a.k.a. the aforementioned @babytamago, was looking for a recipe to bring to a barbecue at her Italian American boyfriend’s house. She was always turned off by the idea of pasta salad drenched in bottled Italian dressings. “It kind of just seemed like a mishmash of vegetables, just like everything but the kitchen sink sort of thing,” she says. But then she had an idea: What if she loaded it up with stuff she loved (tomatoes, roasted red peppers, soppressata, mini mozzarella balls, arugula) and dressed it in a simple vinaigrette? She hashtagged a video of its creation with #pastasaladsummer on TikTok, adding ABBA’s “Chiquitita” as a soundtrack. It currently has 2.1 million views on the platform.
This year, she doubled down on pasta salad, anointing herself the “Pasta Salad Queen” with a dose of self-deprecation and kicking things off in April with a green version where orecchiette is nestled in with asparagus, marinated artichokes, olives, and more good green stuff including a pesto-type dressing. She has also made versions with ravioli, with fried capers, and with grilled peaches. And people are loving it. “I didn’t know there was such a cult following for pasta salad, to be honest,” Zukhovich says. “Because every time I post a video, I’ve never seen anything like it. People are like, ‘oh my god pasta salad pasta salad.’” Her pasta salads are even worth suffering for. Case in point, one person commented on the one featuring peaches, marinated tomatoes, and burrata: “As a member of the lactose sensitive community, I made this and am still recovering 4 days later but I would 10/10 do it again.”
So why has pasta salad taken off? “It’s a really easy vehicle to be creative with, so I feel like that’s why creators and chefs like to make different versions of it,” Hailee Catalano, a.k.a. @cafehailee, tells me. “You really can put anything in it, honestly.” Catalano’s most recent involves circular pasta known as anellini with chickpeas, sun-dried tomatoes, and feta, among other goodies. She likes the idea that the pasta’s hole could cradle the chickpea when you eat it.
Most versions are not that hard to make — you chop, you whisk, maybe you do a bit of grilling or marinating — and they look nice, which, as Catalano adds, is good for internet engagement as well. There’s a satisfaction to watching all the disparate parts of the pasta salad come together in shortform video, ultimately resulting in a vibrant medley — no stop in the oven needed. Plus, pasta salad is just a good summer food. It tastes great cold right out of the fridge or even lukewarm after sitting out on a picnic table. It can be made ahead of time. In fact, Pelosi argues that “four days later is when your pasta salad peaks.”
There is without a doubt a lot of innovation happening in the pasta salad space, but another reason that both Catalano and Zukhovich cite for its popularity is one that often drives online impulses: childhood memories — either good or bad.
Pelosi, the author of the upcoming cookbook Let’s Eat, understands that deeply. Unlike the other creators I spoke to, Pelosi grew up with positive associations with pasta salad. In July 2020 he posted his family recipe, which, in his words, has “all the elements of an Italian sandwich” mixed up with tri-color rotini. Since then, he’s witnessed the virality of the dish grow. “I’m sort of like, get off my lawn, bitch, stop making pasta salad, but I mean the more pasta salad the better,” he says.
Pelosi doesn’t scorn some of the classic elements of pasta salad the way he finds some others do. He’s fine with mayo, which Zukhovich has banned from her pasta salads, along with penne, which is a no-go as per her rules of Pasta Salad Summer. (To be clear: Pelosi praised Zukhovich’s pasta salads in our conversation. They just land on different sides of the mayo debate.) Pelosi also embraces a “pasta-heavy” pasta salad which he feels he has seen going by the wayside. “I think now people are doing things like adding lettuce or a lot of vegetables and sort of shifting the ratio to be like less pasta,” he says. Pelosi, meanwhile, recently revealed a “honey sesame” pasta salad, an ode to a New England chain Joe’s American Bar and Grill, a staple of his adolescence.
Browse #pastasaladsummer and you’ll find all kinds of variations on the theme, many of them gourmet or “healthy,” but some of them old-fashioned and creamy. There are subsets of pasta salad as well, including a host of chicken caesar recipes and a mini-trend involving elote pasta salad. What’s evident is that people are going to continue to make pasta salad. Zukhovich is brainstorming one with couscous or orzo, while Pelosi has new combinations coming in his book. “There’s no end in sight for me and pasta salad,” he says.