On October 26, 2013, Andy Huot, a mechanical engineer in Louisville, Kentucky, posted his first photo to Instagram. It was a slightly blurry shot of his hand holding a cheese curl. The caption read “Sasquatch.”
In the following hours and days, he posted more shots of him holding cheese curls.1 All were similarly blurry, all featured the curl in his hand or on a countertop background, and all had short captions. “Hammerhead Shark,” “Hair Dryer,” and “Crucifix,” for example.
By December, the backgrounds had become more consistent. The curls were now being held in front of plain-painted walls. And the captions were getting more complex. “The Execution-Style Killing of a Man for Being Different” featured a tall red (Flamin’ Hot flavor) curl that looked like a man holding a gun facing a shorter orange (Cheddar Jalapeño flavor) curl that looked like a man kneeling.
A few weeks later, Huot’s hand was no longer in the photos. He now held the curls in tweezers. By the end of January, the shots had a professional-looking curtain backdrop and no device holding them. The curls seemed suspended in the air, the patterns of cheese dust in corn crevices well-lit and sharp, with increasingly complex captions urging viewers to look closely and see the “Olympic Relay Torch, Used to Carry the Flame Originating in Olympia, Greece” and the “Australian Cowboy, Jamie Manning, Breaks the World Record by Riding this Mechanical Bull for 2 Minutes, 4.49 Seconds.”
By February, someone at the Huffington Post noticed and posted about the account. Yahoo News followed. Soon, Huot was a featured user on Instagram, and his follower count grew, adding 75 fans an hour at first, until he had just under 30,000 people waiting for his next picture of a snack food.
Huot was famous, but not famous in the traditional sense. He was Internet famous.2 It’s the type of fame that comes quickly and without money — just vocal and outsized admiration for the mundane made fascinating by more effort than most people would be willing to put in. One of his 30,000 followers commented on a picture: “THIS ACCOUNT IS LIFE.”
From grain to fame
In Huot’s photos, the curls don’t look like the snacks they are. They’re entirely separated from human hands or devices. They look like found objects that, for whatever reason, look like something else. And when the concept of eating them is removed, that’s exactly what they are.
There are many factors that determine the shape and coloring of a cheese curl. To make the snacks, cornmeal is rubbed between two metal plates until it pops under friction heat. The resulting puff is then fried and thrown into a drum, where it’s tumbled and sprayed with oil and cheesy dust. This process makes each bite different, both in shape and in the pattern of dust on its surface.
Huot isn’t the first person to notice that sometimes these patterns look like something else. But another seemingly random series of events led to him becoming the authority on the topic. And it started with him doing something almost as unhealthy as eating Cheetos.
“Normally, going to the gym kills my appetite,” he says. But after work one Friday, “I skipped the gym to work on a project and I got hungry. I had some Cheetos because my fiancée bought some; they were 10 for $10 at Kroger. They were Kroger brand. I started finding shapes. A number seven was the first one I saw.”
This being 2013, he did what anyone would do. “I started taking pictures to show people at parties. I had 30 to 40 pictures on my phone,” he says. After seeing these photos, Huot’s brother encouraged him to start the Instagram account. And his ever-increasing number of followers drove him to make the presentation more complex.
“Once all these people started seeing my pictures, I thought, ‘Man, my fingernails are really dirty,’” Huot says.
Huot uses his iPhone to take the photos, but he does it in a makeshift studio in a sunny room in his house. He’s built a stand to hold a plate of Plexiglas perpendicular to the floor, three feet below, where a rumpled gray sheet serves as the background. He has different methods for getting the phone’s camera to focus on the small crags in the curls.
And the process of finding and identifying Instagram-worthy curls is almost as industrial as the process of making them.
Pope taking a selfie
Huot spends about two hours a week on his account. He buys a 16-ounce bag of cheese curls and sorts through them. About a third get thrown out. Another third have interesting shapes or textures or dust patterns, and these go into his triage, a hardware case meant for holding screws and nails, but in Huot’s kitchen divided into categories like “Cheddar jalapeño anthropomorphic” and “Flamin’ hot animals.”
“I take pictures, even though I don’t know what it is yet,” he says. “Usually I have somewhat of an idea. I look at the pictures. Sometimes you see it on the Cheeto but you won’t see it on the photo; other times you see it in the photo and don’t see it on the Cheeto.”
The way the light hits the curl in a photo can help determine what it is, too. After taking some photos, Huot has found what looks like the Pope taking a selfie, a man leaning against a door to hear a conversation on the other side, and Pinocchio wearing a hoodie. He’s on the lookout for anything that can fit into a Cheetos version of the Evolution of Man graphic, with a curl representing the various links in the transition from monkey to human.
Throughout the week, when he has time to kill, Huot will look at his photos and start writing captions in a notepad app. He workshops the captions carefully and treats them like titles, presenting Each Word Capitalized. The joy of Huot’s account is the challenge each caption presents to see more than that — it’s part random sighting and part power of suggestion. And it’s all entertainment. Anyone can find a Cheeto that looks like a seahorse, but who would think to say “The Uncurled Prehensile Tail of this West Australian Seahorse is a Sign of Confidence in his Swimming Ability”?
“Without the caption it’s just a Cheeto,” says Huot.
I ask him if there’s an art to it.
“It’s a different kind of art,” he says. “Art and poetry with the caption.”
By day, Huot designs machines that make airplane parts. His co-workers know about his account, and so do many of his friends. He often shows them pictures and asks for feedback on his ideas.
“People who know about it respect I’m different and don’t really care. They find it neat and interesting,” he says.
But the level of effort Huot puts into the account — the effort that makes it worth following and that keeps new fans coming in — isn’t always apparent.
“Not a lot of people know about the case of Cheetos,” he says, referring to the triage.
And not a lot of people know about the exhaustion that can come from running a popular social media account. So often, accounts like Huot’s vanish and no one notices. That’s the problem of being in a feed. Popularity relies on prolificacy, and being prolific means improving.
“Some days I don’t want to do it anymore,” Huot says. “I’m sick of Cheetos. I’m tired of looking at them. The best way to find them is while you’re eating them. If you’re just sitting there trying to find them, you get tunnel vision. If I’m not eating them, I’m really not finding them.”
“I’ve got so many pictures right now. It’s like an artist or musician who dies, they put out a few albums after they’re dead. I’ve got so many pictures, I could probably go for three or four months.”
Huot doesn’t revel in his Internet fame, but he does think about doing something else.
“I look at it as a momentum. I’ve built this momentum and this energy. I want to figure out how to use that momentum and transfer it to something else. Take that following and use it some other way,” he says.
But the followers are still there. And before shifting that momentum, Huot’s thinking about serving them.
“I was thinking of writing to Frito-Lay and asking them for free Cheetos. A lot of people leave comments and they say ‘This makes me hungry.’ It’s got to be good for them,” he says.
Photo by the author.
This was not an official Cheeto, but a store-brand snack. For the purposes of this piece, cheese curls are a snack most similar to Cheetos. Though all are cheese-flavored extruded grain products, Cheetos and cheese curls are distinct from cheese puffs (and balls) in that they are typically crunchier, smaller in diameter, and more inconsistently shaped. At times, Huot prefers photographing off-brand cheese curls. He suspects that the quality control is lower and the shapes more varied. ↩
In fact, Huot’s name isn’t attached to his Instagram account. A search of “Andy Huot” and the account name “Cheese Curls of Instagram” brings up nothing on Google (as of May 24, 2014). Without quotes, it brings up no results related to the account or to Huot. ↩
Gabe Bullard is the program and news director of public radio station WFPL. The rest of the time, he edits Toothpick Swords, a cocktail blog. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.