A retiree’s group for cheese toast lovers is an earnest glimpse of Weird Facebook
Scott Kominkiewicz suddenly had a lot of time on his hands. After retiring from a career as a copywriter and high school English teacher, the 60-year-old found a new mission: to perfect the best technique for making cheese toast. Yes, that is simply cheese on toast.
In January, Kominkiewicz started a small Facebook group called "Cheese Toast Love," then added personal friends and online acquaintances from local New Jersey food groups. A few days later, Kominkiewicz went to his elderly father's house to fix his broken television remote ("That is like, the highest panic level," he said), and a few hours later, the group was flooded with thousands of new members, each posting their own cheese toasts. Now, it was Kominkiewicz's turn to panic. What had become of his high-lactose haven?
"I think I got a problem," Kominkiewicz told his daughter, who posted a video of his reaction (he didn't know he was being recorded). "I wonder if there's like, a cheese toast bot out there. Is someone trying to pull my leg? I mean, how do you go from 250 to 2,000 in a few hours?"
His daughter fessed up. She had posted about his cheese toast group in popular Facebook meme group called "Please show to Jim ! ! HA ! ! HA ! !." In the group, which has more than 390,000 members, people post screenshots of older folks using the internet in endearing ways, or misusing social media and embarrassing themselves (i.e. posting queries like "why is my stool soft" to Facebook's status update bar because they thought it was Google's search box.)
Image Credits: Scott Kominkiewicz
"He said he saw two groups for [cheese toast] already, but they had less than 70 members a piece," his daughter wrote. "My dad’s group has reached over 100 members and he is very excited he now has 'the largest cheese toast group on Facebook.'"
Thanks to his daughter's post, Kominkiewicz's group "Cheese Toast Love" has grown to more than 16,000 members, who #ToastAndPost their cheesy creations from across the world. He and his wife have hosted meetups in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, where they have raffled off toaster ovens, emceed trivia contests about the group's short history and served up their own custom cheese toast recipes, like the Polish Reuben and Pennsylvania Apple Butter.
"I was consulting with a fellow who's the admin of NJ Food, another large foodie Facebook group I've been a member of for over 10 years, and he was giving me tips for trying to figure out what the hell's going on," Kominkiewicz told TechCrunch over the phone. "He saw that people were from around the world, not only the U.S., but England, Australia and South Africa, so he posited the theory that there was a South African celebrity who had found my group."
Now that Kominkiewicz can trust that these 16,000 people really just want to talk about cheese toast, he is focused on cultivating a positive community. The primary rule of the group is to be nice -- all cheese toasts are worth celebrating, whether they're made with Kraft singles, gourmet brie or even vegan cheese on gluten-free bread -- but an unofficial, secondary rule is that pizza is not cheese toast.
"I love pizza. I'm having pizza for dinner tonight," Kominkiewicz told TechCrunch. "The reason is not because I'm anti-pizza, it's because there's so many places online for pizza and pizza worship. So if we allow that, it would just be overwhelming."
Kominkiewicz first encountered the concept of cheese toast when he was a high school English teacher, and he assigned his freshman class the story "The Birds" by Daphne Du Maurier. In the story, a family lives in a small, seaside town which is being plagued with increasingly awful bird attacks -- to keep her family calm, the mother cooks some cheese toast to share.
"Trying to be an analytical reader, I'm thinking, the bird attacks would scare the hell out of me, so this cheese toast must be pretty good," he said.
Kominkiewicz believes a good cheese toast starts out with a spread, like butter, mayo or bacon grease. Then, you add your cheese and some toppings, like vegetables or meat. He thinks tomatoes are an ideal topping, since the color really pops in photographs. But the simplicity of cheese on bread -- no bells and whistles -- has been a boon for some community members, who have found it an easy snack to feed their children, or an accessible, inexpensive meal to make when cooking feels exhausting.
A veteran of Facebook's food group scene, Kominkiewicz finds certain communities to be too caustic to enjoy. In reference to a group about cheesesteaks, he said, "You can put up a picture of the Virgin Mary and they'll say she's ugly! They are just brutal!" So in his cheese toast group, he wants to keep things as wholesome as possible.
From 'Weird Facebook' to cheese toast
"Cheese Toast Love" is part of a long lineage of "Weird Facebook" groups, which have long reveled in absurdism. Now, users are gravitating toward the earnestness of Kominkiewicz's group.
In the mid-2010s, "Weird Facebook" was a beacon of nonsensical community-building, particularly among a subset of left-leaning college students, but the popularity of these groups has died down significantly. At their peak, Weird Facebook groups facilitated the collaborative creation of a musical about Jeb Bush, among other things.
"Weird Facebook was a reaction to how normal the internet was, and Zuckerberg's idea that Facebook groups were going to be this thing where like, people from your gym are going to get together," longtime Weird Facebook denizen Ryan Cusick told TechCrunch. "Instead, we were using them to tag in just the weirdest nightmare shit imaginable."
Cusick was involved in Jeffbook, a subset of Weird Facebook that honored the hundreds of strange groups that a forty-something-year-old man named Jeff Conner created. Cusick says these were mostly tag groups -- Facebook groups with absurd names ("sounds fake but ok" was a common one, which has seeped into general internet vernacular). The point of these groups isn't necessarily to post in them, but rather, to tag these groups in comments so that you could communicate specific ideas in blue hyperlink text. So, if someone posted something that felt braggy or exaggerated, you could tag "sounds fake but ok."
If Weird Facebook was a response to the normalcy of the internet, then the popularity of a group like "Cheese Toast Love" is like a sign that now, the internet might feel too absurd.
"In a world where memes and people's general attitudes are getting more detached, and surreal, and impersonal, and cold, it's very nice to have a group where it's just kindness, and warmth, and food," said Chase Howell, a moderator for several groups on Lemgthbook, a subset of Weird Facebook where you are not allowed to use the letter "n" -- the joke is that "m" is superior to "n," because it is longer (or, "lomger"). "It's a fuzzy meme we needed," Howell told TechCrunch. A few weeks ago, she attended a cheese toast meetup in Philadelphia, where Kominkiewicz gave her a free t-shirt, because she stayed at the meetup the longest out of a few dozen people.
"I was just having a really good time," Howell said.
Now that Kominkiewicz has inadvertently created a sincere, cheesy respite from the overly ironic internet, he's just trying to see how far he can stretch the group while staying authentic to its wholesome mission. He is selling merchandise of Toastie, the mascot of the group, on Etsy. Strangely enough, even cheese toast was impacted by the Silicon Valley Bank crash, since Etsy had to delay seller payouts while figuring out another banking solution ("Get your tentacles off of my cheese toast!" he said about SVB.)
He is also trying to grow a following on TikTok, but he's not that serious about chasing clout -- after all, he's retired with a pension from teaching. He just wants to have fun spreading the cheese toast love, offering a respite from other food groups on Facebook where standards are high, and tension is even higher.
"People are killing themselves with anxiety trying to make a cake!" Kominkiewicz said. "You don't have that with cheese toast!"