B. Dylan Hollis is going places, usually in a classic car. Photo: Lauren Jones

During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bermudian B. Dylan Hollis was attending university in Wyoming and wondering how to quell the boredom of quarantine. When Hollis picked up an old recipe book and started making funny and relatable videos of his baking adventures (and misadventures), he quickly rose to fame with millions of followers. Now Hollis is traveling the country to promote “Baking Yestear,”  a stunner of a baking recipe book featuring long-lost recipes from the turn of the 20th century through the 1980s. We caught up with the openly gay Hollis at a recent book event in Portland, Oregon, to talk about his book and finding love and acceptance on social media. 

News is Out:  I have been following you on TikTok since the pandemic. And I remember just feeling so light when I saw your work. It was such a welcome respite and I’m sure it was that way for many people who also watched and followed you. You brought a lot of joy. What inspired you to start this really endearing series?

B. Dylan Hollis: When it comes to the endearing nature of it, I never expected it to become endearing. I never set out to do it, but when it came to starting it in general, it was Lady Luck. You know, we were all bored during the pandemic. Many people started new things. They learned how to knit, crochet, started new hobbies and tinkering around with whatnot. And we also gravitated toward the internet. So, I started my TikTok because I was bored out of my mind. Everyone was talking about it. I was getting a bit up there in age, you know, 26. 

NIO: Oh gosh, yeah. Ancient!

BDH: (laughs) I wanted to keep in touch with the teeny boppers. So that was going on, but at the same time, I had always been a collector of old things – old cars, old books, records – and within the old books, was an old cookbook, “1915 Five Roses Flower Cookbook.” So while I was uploading all very strange videos that had nothing to do with baking, I knew that the internet loved very interesting, wild, wacky things. 

NIO: You know, you’ve got to have a gimmick, like they say in “Gypsy” right?

BDH: That’s right. Clickbait and things. So, I said, okay, maybe I can find something to make a video on in this cookbook. And I was flipping through it, and I came across a pork cake recipe and I said, there’s no way. There’s no way this is an actual recipe. And yeah, I said, I have to show people that this is a legitimate recipe in print. I want to try and make it because there’s no way. This person was out of their mind writing this down. And that was how we got to the very first TikTok video of me baking.

I didn’t think much of it after I uploaded it, but the response was immediate and swift. And like, people were enthralled with the process. So I said, OK, just thinking in terms of views, this might be something else. So, I would go out then within that next week – this was August of 2020. And I would collect old books and suddenly I found myself gaining an interest. I said, this is actually really cool to see the differences between the decades. And video after video, I began falling in love with baking. I liked the ability to be able to bring my humor if you want to call it that. I’m no comedian.

NIO: I would beg to differ.

BDH: But I liked it, people liked it, it felt fulfilling in more ways than I could really imagine with just a phone in a kitchen. And of course, the ability to insert LGBT+ humor in there also made me feel very welcome. So, that’s the genesis of it.

The infamous Pork Cake recipe.

NIO: You have a background as a jazz pianist, right? 

BDH: Yes. 

NIO: I have a musical theater degree but am not working in musical theater. And here you are, a jazz pianist baking really old recipes on TikTok!

I know you talked about collecting things. What draws you to this Americana kind of thing with cars, food, etc? Mid Century mostly, right?

BDH: Yes. And its absurdity. It’s the three W’s. It’s what I call what I live by – the wild, the wacky and the wonderful. Mid-century America eschews all that which I was familiar with. I wasn’t born yet, but in Britain and Bermuda where it’s manners and fairly restrained, cobblestone streets, afternoon tea. Whereas in America, this sort of foolishly optimistic vision toward the future made cars have tail fins the size of two-story buildings. Everything was dashed in chrome. Neon lights, the food was loud, it was camp…

NIO: Lots of Jello. 

BDH: Yes! 

NIO: Oh man.

BDH: So to me, it was incredible in that it seemed like a carnival atmosphere, but it was real life. And there was something very romantic about that to me. Even though I’m sure that’s just a retrospective-like sort of feeling. I’m sure it wasn’t that glamorous back in the day. 

NIO: Oh, it was, it totally was. Doctors would smoke while they were delivering babies. I’m not even kidding. America!

You’ve baked so many interesting dishes, how did you narrow down this list for “Baking Yesteryear?”

BDH: There are multiple fronts on this. I knew that people would want to see the fan favorites. So whether or not they were fav favorites of mine when I made it, if they became fan favorites on my TikTok, I knew they would want to see that. And it just so happens I was so privileged in that a lot of those favorites were also my favorites. And I think that speaks to the power of the recipe itself. So that was one point, one column.

The next column was, again, my three W’s. That sort of acted as a criterion. If a recipe was on the wacky front, things that were maybe non-standard. Say for example, the “Wacky Cake,” it is free of butter, it is free of eggs. It has a wacky nature in that you just mix it in the pan. 

NIO: That was a depression-era recipe?

Dylan: Yeah, exactly. Something from very little. Then you have the wild things, which are again, the absurd. Tomato soup cake. Tomato soup finding its way into a cake, that just makes you wonder the mental constitution of that. And then if a recipe was just truly wonderful in nature, like the “Peanut Butter Bread” – really not too out there, but the fact that so little mixed together with utter simplicity and utter frivolity… I believe that’s a word…

NIO: It is.

BDH: …was able to create something that really still takes me aback because it shouldn’t work. So, that’s how I narrowed it down. And then I wanted to insert some things from my island as well, a few Bermuda recipes. The “Hot Cross Buns” or the “Kiskadee Fantasy,” which was a recipe I learned from my father. And then I wanted to have that same criterion that had nothing to do with TikTok. So I knew I didn’t want all the recipes in the book to be TikTok recipes, because to what degree would that add value to the book? Plus that’s a lot of videos to make. So yeah, that was my idea for “Baking Yesteryear” but that was only purely the recipes. I knew I wanted to wax poetic about all manners of things.

NIO: Well, I would hope so. That’s what we expect from you is poetic waxing.

Dylan makes Peanut Butter Bread, a recipe from 1932.

You’ve been really open about your sexuality on TikTok. You’ve got your rainbow flag on there, you make a little quippy joke about it. From reading about you, I know that that candidness hasn’t always been there. Has being in the public eye and having so many people support you helped you come to a different place with embracing your identity?

BDH: Immeasurably so. It was at the point where I can almost call it the primary validating sort of factor in how I feel about myself. I didn’t come out until 2019, late in 2019.

NIO: So really just before you started doing this.

Dylan: Yeah, I was 24. And that was purely because – I won’t say that Bermuda is repressed, but it is. It’s very old fashioned and it’s bigoted and I grew up making jokes against the very identity that I identify as. And I didn’t have any sort of outlet. I was in a family of all men. We’re all men, you know. You know, two older brothers of an old-school father – gray hair fisherman. I didn’t share much of the interests of my brothers. Coming to America, I made the wise decision to go to Wyoming, which on that front didn’t help either. So, I sort of shot myself in the foot twice and we’re only given two feet.

So, the internet, TikTok, that was another door, that was an extra foot. A transplant, if you want to call it that. So the first time I sort of hinted at my identity and the response in the comments from people who I assumed were like me and my age being like, “I knew it, he’s even cooler now,” or things like that. Things that are like…

NIO: “Slay girly pop!”

BDH: [laughs] Things that are just cliché comments. All of a sudden, that changed how I looked at myself in the mirror. Bit by bit after TikTok, I stopped…I would have a drawer just for clothes that I would take home to Bermuda. I would have certain glasses or frames or I would have a different hairstyle.

NIO: It’s a costume. 

BDH: Yeah. And that went away very quickly in TikTok, to the point where I almost wish I came out when I was on TikTok, only because then I could say that that was the formative moment. But to me, I owe so much to TikTok, simply because I feel visible and I underestimated the power of that. I underestimated the power of recognition and of that feedback from other people who identify the same as me. So in that sense, there’s something to be said about TikTok. We make fun of it, but its power to match you to people like yourselves is grand.

NIO: And in turn, you were able to open the doors for other people.

BDH: Yeah.

NIO: I’m sure you’ve gotten emails and messages from people that were felt more comfortable after seeing you.

Dylan: Yes, I was in LaGuardia on my way back to the United States, and this young man must have been eight years old. He came up to me and was shaking like a wet dog. And he says, “You know, I just want to say thank you. I love your videos and you helped me come out to my parents.” And in that moment, you can’t process things like that, you have to just say thank you.

But you know, you sit down and you say, “I didn’t really do much at all.” But again, you underestimate recognition and visibility and affirmation, and in many ways, something so simple shouldn’t have to come through TikTok, but currently, that is how it is, I suppose.

NIO: So, I’m working on a larger piece that I’m talking to all sorts of folks in the food industry about queering the recipe. Is there a particular recipe that has a really special place in your heart?

BDH: When it comes to like…?

NIO: Just because it’s coming from you, it’s queered. Like, what is the recipe that just makes you happy and makes you joyous?

BDH: It changes, but currently for the past year, it has been the Kiskadee Fantasy, which was the same. It’s a dessert from Bermuda and it’s one that I got from my father. I had the pleasure of speaking on it in the Wall Street Journal. On many fronts; one, it’s fantastic, it’s simple, all of those three W’s; it was given to me by my father. But then in a way that I’ve taken it, I’ve adapted it. Coming from the testosterone-filled Hollis family, coming from the repressed Bermuda. The fact that it tastes good and it’s from the past, for me to imbue it in a cookbook in 2023 with this new identity of mine. Not new, it’s always been around, but in this modern setting, it’s almost like a replacement. It’s like a rebirth. And it’s all the good things about the past that I’ve been able to come through in, in a modern taste. Do you know what I’m trying to say?

NIO: You queered it.

BDH: That’s good. That’s a great way to think about it. I love that. Truly.

NIO: I think we bring so much of ourselves to the art that we create and you’re bringing all of yourself to this, which means part of you is queering it up.

Dylan: I’ll take it.

NIO: Alright, final question for you. What advice would you give to people who perhaps have been inspired by what you do and want to start baking but find it a little bit daunting?

BDH: There are sort of two things. One, bake with someone else alongside. My formative memories of that where I started baking with my father. Again, Kiskadee Fantasy or cooking with my grandmother. That really is like training wheels, gets you excited. And the other way is, we’re served a lot of things on the internet to do with all that which is fancy and looks good. It’s a glamorous macaron that needs to be perfect. Throw that out the window. Eschew that. Baking needn’t be elitist in the slightest. That’s why I think there’s power in boxed cake mix. People will say that’s not baking. Well, it is. You’re getting in there, you’re getting your hands dirty, and you’re learning a lot of the basics, which some professionals will tell you you’re not.

So yeah, start small and the importance is in the fun of the process. Sounds cliche, but it is. Like for macarons, I tell people, they don’t need to look good. That doesn’t ruin it at all. If you get rid of that construct, then you can have fun. And then, before you know it, you have something you’ve created and I can bet you it will taste good. It doesn’t need to look good to taste good. So that’s what I would say. Just have fun. Don’t be afraid of mistakes; they have no reflection on your ability.

Heaven knows people watch me bake on TikTok. I once made the biggest mistake for a soured raisin pie in my amateur hour. I had yet to learn that sour milk wasn’t literally soured milk, so there’s still me putting the [sour milk] in like a fool, but I kept it up. Of course, that’s part of the process.

NIO: I’ve watched you have episodes where you’re like, “Oh, I forgot to put something in that.”

BDH: Yeah. And that’s part of the game. And even on television… I had the pleasure of being in QVC Studios the other day. Everyone is messing up and if they do things perfectly, they’re lying to you.

“Baking Yesteryear” is published by Penguin Random House and available wherever you buy books.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.