The happiest place on the internet, for a time, was a private Facebook group run by a 63-year-old Canadian grandma named Ruth who shared Instant Pot recipes with tens of thousands and began many of her posts with the words “Good morning, O Best Beloveds.” Rootitoot Instant Pot Recipes & Help is the technical title for Ruth McCusker’s online space, which she named after a childhood term of endearment from her father, but McCusker always referred to it as her “Secret Garden.” The 92,000 Facebook users who joined the group since McCusker launched it in 2018 weren’t her followers, as she saw it—they were her “flowers.” One of her most popular recipes—a tart, bright yellow lemon curd that is as good directly off the spoon as it is on cheesecake or in yogurt, both of which can also be made in the Instant Pot—was, in Rootitoot parlance, “edible sunshine.”
McCusker herself, meanwhile, was pure digital sunshine, which is why the unexpected news of her death earlier this month felt so unfairly dark and cold. She emanated so much light, after all, and was so distinguished by warmth, that to have existed even briefly in her blessed garden was to have come away with a rosy-cheeked glow. I know this, because I did myself.
A couple of years ago, for my birthday, I asked for and received an Instant Pot, that clunky, beloved pressure cooker and neo-hearth that promises to efficiently hard-boil eggs, turn milk into yogurt, and transform all my shamefully freezer-burned chicken from a glittering stalagmite in the depths of my freezer to a respectable dinner with little forethought (no thawing!) required. It was a mighty but imposing appliance, in other words, and upon opening it I sought guidance on Facebook.
One of the groups I joined, Instant Pot® Community, boasted millions of users—many of them weirdly surly given the subject matter, like when people get in mall parking lot fistfights on Christmas Eve—and a truly timeline-destroying volume of confusing, conflicting posts. I muted it within hours and began to think less of my physical Instant Pot for its mere association with such a dud online presence. Luckily, however, I also made my way to a brand-new group called Rootitoot, a place that would become one of the most cherished, cheerful corners of my internet life.
Rootitoot was, somehow, both extremely of the moment and almost unthinkably out of the loop. Around the time the group began, 300,000 Instant Pots were being sold in 36 hours on Amazon Prime Day alone, and websites like Serious Eats and Food52 had started publishing more and more recipes for the device. But so had junky SEO sites and Pinterest mills; the result was a lot of garbage instruction for an intimidating kitchen tool. Amid all this, McCusker distinguished her Facebook page by taking both the “Recipes” and the “& Help” parts of its title equally seriously, carving out not only a safe space for learning, but a worthwhile one.
She didn’t just publish simple, clear instructions for making baby back ribs and Starbucks-style egg bites, although she did that too. She made tutorials about how the Pot worked; about how to avoid, as she always put it, “the dreaded burn notice”; about how to tinker with basic recipes to adapt them to one’s liking. She virtually patted the heads and rubbed the shoulders of scared folks who had obtained Instant Pots but were afraid to so much as open the box; by the end of the week, these types had typically graduated to discussing the finer points of the best brand of cheesecake pan (Fat Daddio’s) or the best way to rid the Pot’s sealing loop of pulled pork smell (by leaving it out in the sun). She piped up in her page’s comments at all hours, available for recipe troubleshooting or for just shooting the shit.
Her garden grew, and began germinating its own living history. One particularly dedicated regular told outsized near-daily stories of feeding her husband (a farmer who had signed a big contract with Campbell’s Soup) and his entire seven-man work crew with the help of a large arsenal of variously sized Instant Pots, including multiple of the big-mama eight-quarters. (In my mind’s eye, this user is a combination of the Pioneer Woman and that SNL “My Hungry Guys” sketch.) One time, a different woman asked for help adapting a Rootitoot stew recipe: She wanted to know how she should adjust the timing if working with squirrel meat rather than beef. McCusker played along, drafting a recipe in which she referred to the meat of a “cute squirrel” throughout. She was half kidding, but the woman was serious. The dish was prepared and a legend was born. Rootitoot commenters love to rehash this story as an example of McCusker’s broad appeal and earnest engagement, and they also love to point out that they were laughing so hard IRL at the memory that they might pee their pants. In a time where “wholesome content” has become its own sort of posturing meme, Rootitoot comes by its intrinsic goodness honestly.
For as influential as Rootitoot is, though, what always differentiated McCusker most was that she was no influencer. Besides her books, she didn’t hawk merch. She didn’t seek engagement on Twitter. There were no YouTube tutorials with her face on them, or Alison Roman–style hashtagged viral recipes and Instagram story Q&As. I have thousands of friends on Facebook and exactly zero of them follow Rootitoot, which practically seems like it would be an algorithmic impossibility. But I love it that way: It has the effect of making this group feel like my important little secret, like all the ones I once got to have on the increasingly distant internet of my youth, the one that enabled me to indulge in weird enthusiasms (DMB, hockey) with like-minded users without my friends and coworkers getting notifications about my dorky activity. Being able to leave earnest comments undetected—on Rootitoot, for me, these included remarks like “corn season is my favorite!” and “there’s nothing like Traverse City cherries!!!” and “omg, you can probably hear my stomach rumbling through the screen!”—is vital and restorative. It is self-care.
When users begged McCusker to post a photo, as they routinely did, she always demurred. She wasn’t trying to be cryptic, she was just private. It wasn’t until last Sunday, when McCusker’s son signed on to her account to share the news that Ruth had been sick and had died peacefully—“Hello Ruth’s O Best Beloveds” is how he started the post—that I first saw what she looked like. In the picture, she is carrying flowers, and her face is as beautiful and serene as a garden.
Almost exactly two years ago, McCusker left a comment on someone else’s blog thanking them for explaining some new Facebook functionality that allowed group owners to “pin” multiple posts. “I just started my first Group,” McCusker wrote then, “and I’m a babe in the woods here. This was well written and easily understood. (As a writer of recipes, I truly appreciate clarity in instructions.)” Several months later, in June 2018, McCusker buried some information about her group’s growth at the end of her recipe for beef stew. “Hope you enjoy this family favourite of mine,” she wrote. “And thank you all so much for joining me on Rootitoot. All TEN THOUSAND of you.”
The group is now nine times that big, a success story that was also a logistical headache. When McCusker self-published her first cookbook, “she was overwhelmed with orders,” selling 6,000 books in less than six months, according to a company she hired to help streamline the process. Shipping the cookbooks from Canada, with the help of her son, meant that the packages often got held up in customs, a situation that was out of McCusker’s hands but that she still had to address, over and over and with signature cheer, every time a worried customer inquired about the delay.
Those sorts of noob posts—Where’s my book? Where am I?—came to fill the Facebook group lately, and upon learning of Ruth’s death I’ve tried not to dwell too long on the glum reality that the final year of her life involved so much tedious, repetitive customer service, or that she faced the same problem that so many others have on social media: The bigger you get, the more demanding your followers. As Rootitoot grew, and as McCusker grew increasingly sick, she came to rely heavily on a committed cadre of moderators to tend to her garden. And in true Rootitoot fashion, she had an elegant, loving shorthand for their labor: “pulling weeds.”
To look at the bright side, though, is to look at Rootitoot itself, which has been flooded with tributes and stories and lore all week long. Just about everyone agrees that they feel like they knew her. Many remember a time when she helped them salvage a botched taco pie or responded to a gloopy, blurry picture of macaroni and cheese with a sincere, “that looks absolutely perfect.” Countless prayers are with McCusker’s family, who have done a beautiful job of indulging their loved one’s strange, sprawling network of friends and followers—of tending to all of her sad “flowers”—while managing their own very real grief.
And as for those flowers, they—we!—have been in full bittersweet bloom, opening ourselves up in search of any small Rootitootian ray of sunlight. I have to imagine that, for many people who haven’t spent as much time online as I have, this is an unfamiliar experience, this odd process of loving and losing a virtual stranger. As they’re undoubtedly learning, it feels, and is, as beautiful and heartbreaking as any other loss. One user posted a picture of her dining room table with a place all laid out for Ruth in absentia. Another vowed to cook every single recipe in the Rootitoot cookbooks, Julie & Julia style.
“My kitchen is dark tonight,” someone wrote, “and all the Pots put away.”
Another user uploaded a photo of an Instant Pot that she had turned into a little shrine by printing out the photo of McCusker holding the flowers, laminating it, and affixing it to the side of her appliance. (Commenters agreed that Instant Pot Corporate should release a similar memorial product.) And then here I am, doing my own version of all of this, writing this post to memorialize a great lady the second-best way I know how. And I’ll save the best way to celebrate for this weekend: with some Rootitoot beef stew, some Rootitoot cheesecake, and a toast to someone I never knew and will never forget.