Brunch With Babs Told Us About How She Became TikTok's Favorite Grandma - Exclusive Interview

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​​Barbara Costello is a bit of an enigma. While most people start wanting a slower pace of life in their 70s, Costello is feeling reenergized in a new career path she never could have imagined. The Brunch with Babs star was a teacher who retired a few years ago and was settling into being a grandmother. However, her daughter had other plans and thought her mom's recipes and advice would be perfect for social media — she was correct.

The 73-year-old and her daughter started posting content during the pandemic, and Babs quickly became the sweet and caring force so many needed. With her cooking hacks and sage advice about how to stay positive during difficult times, she provided a comforting outlet. Today, the Chicago native currently has a total of over five million followers on TikTok and Instagram, frequently making appearances on series like "The Drew Barrymore Show" and "Access Hollywood."

Babs told us in an exclusive interview why she thinks so many people have gravitated toward her content and where she learned to cook so well. She also revealed how it feels to be highlighted by TikTok in honor of Women's History Month, family traditions that make her holidays special, spring-cleaning tips, and her relatable favorite fast food meal.

Why she thinks her food content resonates with so many people

What does it feel like to have TikTok choose you as one of the women they want to spotlight for International Women's Day?

I am so honored and I'm also humbled. I never expected that, so it came as a total surprise. It makes you more aware of how you influence people and of how people are responding to you. I always say, I hope they're getting something good out of this, that women are being uplifted, that they're being shown that no matter what age you are, you have a role to play in some way. So I'm very honored that I've been chosen as [one of the] 20 women on TikTok to have played somewhat of an important role.

Your cooking videos are full of great advice, like how to reuse bacon grease and recipes like Irish lasagna. Where did you learn to cook well?

I was raised in an Italian-Lebanese family, and cooking was very sacrosanct. It was kind of religious. Always being around food and people, my mom, my grandmother, my aunts — it was always a very bustling atmosphere in the kitchen. I love to eat. I love food. I love all the different types of food and foods from different cultures. Having that background, growing up like that, and then four children of my own and soon to have nine grandkids.

Speaking of your Italian-Lebanese background, does that influence the type of meals you create?

When my kids were growing up, we had a lot of pasta because pasta is quick and it's easy. You make your sauce, but some of the sauces don't take that long. Now, though, it's fun to try lots of different foods, and it depends on the day of the week. What's going to be quick? If I have more time on the weekends, then that's different. But certainly, I love Italian food and I love Middle Eastern food.

You've been dubbed the internet's favorite grandmother and amassed more than three million followers on TikTok and [over two million on] Instagram. Why do you think your videos resonate with so many people?

People have told me there's a sense of authenticity. I'm real. I don't have an online persona. What you see is who I am, and people have responded to that. They pick that up. I have friends who have known me for 60 years, and now they know I'm on Instagram and TikTok, and they know me as Barb. They're like, "You actually are the same. That's why everybody loves you. You're who we know." It's not like you put on a different face.

I also read that you started uploading content during the pandemic with your daughter, which was a time that people definitely need to feel connected.

Exactly. During that period when it was a lot of uncertainty, people were home, they weren't working and all this, and here was this normal lady who became a mother, grandmother figure for them, who made them feel a little more secure, like, "Here's somebody. Life's going to go on. It's going to be okay." Even though they were disconnected from their own families, here was this family lady filling in the gap at that moment.

Her advice for Easter and spring cleaning

From the content you post on your TikTok account, it's clear you're really close with your family and enjoy celebrating together. With Easter coming up, are there any tips or pieces of wisdom you could offer to our readers?

Every Easter, I make my grandmother's Easter bread. It's actually in the cookbook "Celebrate with Babs." There are certain traditional foods that we have every year that [are part of] establishing those traditions, because I think it's important for a family to feel like, "That's how we do it. This is what we have for Easter." Our traditional Easter meal is lamb. I also make ham because we have some Irish people. And my mother — rest her soul — I have her lamb cake mold, so I'll make a carrot cake in that. She used to make a pound cake in that.

With Easter too, you plan ahead. Maybe in the week before Easter, you're going to be making some of these dishes or preparing them so that your Easter bread is already made. My grandmother used to make a doll out of this Easter bread for her 22 grandkids. Everybody got an Easter bread doll for Easter from Grandma. Now, I'm not figuring out how to make the dolls; I make wreaths. Each one of my grandkids gets these wreaths. 

You can't wait till three days before Easter to do this. You got to plan ahead. Plan on making some foods that maybe you're going to serve traditionally for that holiday every year, and then you establish your own family traditions.

What types of food do you think makes the perfect Easter meal?

[With] my Middle Eastern side and also my Italian side, we always had lamb for Easter. I make very simple Lebanese rice — rice and chicken broth and pignoli nuts. That's traditionally what we have. I have a wonderful spring salad in the cookbook that a friend of mine gave me. It's strawberries and ramen noodles, and it's wonderful.

Easter to us is more the Middle Eastern slant on the meal. When my grandparents were alive and my mom and father were here, we would always have pasta as well, because we never had a holiday without pasta being after the appetizers. The second course would be pasta, then the lamb and the potatoes and the rice and all that business. But pasta somewhere.

You feature a lot of hacks on social media, from how to easily core strawberries to how to tell how fresh eggs are. Do you have any spring cleaning techniques that would be helpful for home cooks?

During this time of year, when you've been cooking all winter, [it's important] to clean your exhaust fan over your stove. Some people forget to do that. White vinegar and baking soda can clean anything. Soak [the vents and screens] in hot water, add some white vinegar, baking soda, and then get in there with white vinegar on your cloth or your spray bottle and get the grease cleaned off of your vent, of your hood, and then reassemble everything. It's something you don't do very often, but you need to do it, and spring would be a perfect time.

The most meaninful recipe from her cookbook

Congratulations on the popularity of your cookbook, "Celebrate with Babs." Do any of the recipes have a special meaning for you?

My kids, every Christmas morning, would wake up to the overnight breakfast casserole baking in the oven. [They'd be] coming down, opening gifts, and then we'd all gather around the overnight breakfast casserole. I clipped that recipe out of a newspaper, I want to say, over 50 years ago. We have been making that, and now my own kids make it. On Christmas morning, even my sons, they'll be like, "Mom ..." They've got the recipe, but they'll call me to go, "Is it okay if I put in ..." [They're] changing up whatever, but that's become traditionally our signature dish for our family.

What is in the breakfast casserole?

The overnight breakfast is so simple, oh my goodness. You could use challah bread or brioche or a nice hardy bread. You would cube maybe eight slices of bread, and then you would sauté. There's breakfast sausage; you can use Italian sausage; you can even put in ham or bacon. It's a perfect sausage kind of dish. Then it's eggs, it's milk, it's dry mustard, it's cheese, so you have almost all your food groups. It's so easy because you assemble it the night before, pour it into a 9-by-13 prepared casserole [dish], and then refrigerate it. The next morning, uncover in the oven for 45 minutes, and you have breakfast for a crowd.

Every recipe in the book "Celebrate with Babs" is from family or friends. There's a story behind every recipe. That's why I think my cookbook is so different than a typical cookbook — it's every holiday that my family celebrates, starting with New Year's Day and ending with Christmas, and there's an opening story about the traditions and memories that I associate with that holiday. Every individual recipe has a story, and the back of the book actually is loaded with family pictures.

What is your favorite meal to make from your cookbook on a busy night?

There are a lot of easy ones, like marinated lamb chops. How simple is that? You go ahead, get your lamb chop, get them marinated in the morning, and grill them before dinner, or broil them — whatever you're going to do. 

I also have a 20-minute marinara sauce — my mother's was 20 minutes. This one I actually simmer for about an hour, but [it's] so simple to throw together, and it's delicious.

There's a fabulous chili recipe in the Halloween chapter. There's even — oh my gosh, we call it cornbread pudding, but it's usually actually you use Jiffy mix and add a few ingredients to that, some butter, some milk, and you've got this fabulous cornbread.

There's a ton. Any of these overnight casserole things ... We used to have sometimes breakfast for dinner when my husband was traveling. The kids thought it was great, breakfast for dinner. There's a wonderful pancake recipe. Actually, even though we focus on holidays, there are a lot of simple recipes in there as well.

Whom she would like to have cook her dinner, and her go-to fast food order

Who is the one chef you'd want to cook you dinner?

I would love anybody to come and cook me dinner. If you cook me dinner, I'm going to eat it, I'm going to love it, and I'm going to give you lots of kudos. Somebody will say, "What do you think of this?" [when] serving something. I'm like, "Somebody made this. I think it tastes pretty darn good." So I'm not picky.

What's one ingredient you could never live without?

Olive oil. Use really good olive oil and avocado oil, coconut oil. Those are my three favorites. Middle Eastern, Italian — we love our olive oil.

What is your go-to fast food order and at which restaurant?

My family's done a hot dog place in Chicago. We serve[d] hot dogs and Italian beefs. I'm going to say my favorite one was The Italian Cousins, but that was our restaurant and it closed 100 years ago. 

When I go back to Chicago, I would say Portillo's. They're like the hot dog king of the city. [With a] Chicago hot dog, you got to have the poppy seed bun. You have to have the Vienna hot dog with the fries, right with the hot dog wrapped in paper. I bet I would've went to heaven when I tasted it.

Is there anything else that I didn't think of that you'd want to add or any other projects you have coming up that you'd want to talk about?

The cookbook is arranged by holidays, starting with New Year's and ending with Christmas. We have a lovely Easter chapter, and then the next holiday I have in that book is Mother's Day. Some of my favorite meals in there are the brunch recipes. The beauty about brunch is that so many of those dishes you make ahead of time. That's what people are looking for — the ease of cooking and that you can prep, you can assemble, get things done ahead of time so you can enjoy the day.

Barbara Costello's cookbook, "Celebrate with Babs," is available on Amazon. Follow @brunchwithbabs on TikTok and Instagram, and check out the #WomenofTikTok: Women Who Will.

This interview has been edited for clarity.