Food influencing has morphed from flat-lay latte shots into something extreme: the relentless promotion of “must-try” items that offer little in the way of taste or soul. Influencers travel in packs, battling it out for primo Instagram Explore placement: health-conscious content creators who contort desserts into no-bake, gluten-free, sugar-free monstrosities; oddly sinister Disney adults who rate novelty doughnut sandwiches; maximalist “bucket listers” who create stress-inducing milkshake bucket lists and never actually eat the gut-busting food they post. To today’s food Instagrammers, food is a prop—much of it haphazardly stitched together in a Frankenstein-esque array of sushi burritos and peanut butter cheeseburgers. And it’s terrible. It’s all terrible.
Fortunately, there are exceptions. There are a few good guys and gals still out there who use social media to share their love of food without inspiring some kind of manic scavenger hunt. These people eat every bite of the food they photograph, earnestly sharing their favorites and making a genuine effort to connect with local businesses. Perhaps the most sincere members of this community are the curdfluencers, a small but passionate group of social media personalities who dedicate their feeds to the humble cheese curd.
Made from freshly pasteurized milk, curds are the young bits of cheese that form midway through the cheesemaking process. Think of curds as the precursor to cheese which, instead of being formed into blocks and aged, are eaten straight away. They’re a hallmark of the Wisconsin food scene and are found throughout the greater Midwest, both raw and deep-fried: a simple, gooey snack that’s loved by tourists and politicians alike.
Now, a select group of micro-influencers hope to share their love of curds with a national audience. Take Tara Rushmer, who posts curd at @curdqueen. As of this month, Rushmer has just shy of 3,300 followers and her very own hashtag: #curdqueenmademedoit.
“The curdfluencer lifestyle was drawn to me,” Rushmer, a self-described “born and breaded” Wisconsinite, tells me. “My dad grew up on a dairy farm, and when people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say a cheese curd maker at JD’s, a local fast food restaurant in my hometown of Appleton.” Now Rushmer devotes her Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok accounts to sharing her favorite curds.
Rushmer, who works in graphic design and social media marketing full-time, launched the Curd Queen Instagram account in 2016—but things really picked up when, bored in quarantine, she sought the unparalleled pleasure of a fresh curd. “Once in quarantine I really started investing time into my account and it blew up overnight, gaining thousands of followers in about six months,” she says. Now Rushmer collaborates with a variety of cheese brands including Wisconsin Cheese’s Cheeselandia and the fast food chain Culver’s; the latter named Rushmer its “number one superfan.” “But I also love working with and supporting the local restaurants and cheese shops right here in Madison and throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest as well,” Rushmer says.
Samantha Buschman (@wisconsincheeseplease), based in Milwaukee, also leaned into curdfluencing at the onset of the pandemic. “I was unemployed during the start of the pandemic but still wanted to help local restaurants by eating out once a week,” she tells me over email. “The first week, I did curbside pickup for fried cheese curds and decided to make a rating video on YouTube. Why? I have no idea. Boredom, probably.”
Now, every week Buschman’s YouTube channel observes Cheese Curd Friday. Buschman posts a curd rating video to Instagram and her YouTube channel, the latter of which has a small but dedicated group of 33 subscribers. “I ask for curd recommendations on Facebook and Instagram and keep an ongoing list in my phone,” she says. “I’ve been to so many new places and have tried a lot of different curds because of it.”
While Rushmer’s feed is largely composed of brand partnerships (“Check out this incredible cheese lovers’ date night gift box and see below how to enter to WIN one of your very own!,” reads one caption), Buschman’s feed centers on local businesses. Over the holidays, Buschman orchestrated a “12 Days of Cheesemas” promotion during which she worked with 12 Milwaukee curd carriers and gave away gift cards to her followers. “It’s awesome to me that people are willing to give even though times aren’t necessarily easy,” she says. “I try to make a point to stay local and show my followers all of the different places around the city that deserve their business.”
Her goal for 2021 is to collaborate with comedian and Wisconsin native Charlie Berens, known for creating Manitowoc Minute, a minute-long comedy news show that oozes Midwestern charm. “I think he’s extremely talented and smart and getting him involved somehow would be a huge win,” she says. And while Buschman and Rushmer would both love to grow their audiences, neither is particularly concerned with the pastel aesthetics and mega-followings of the broader food Instagram scene. Instead, they’re focused on micro-goals like collaborations and personal exploration. “I’ve grown a following of over 1,200 in about five months and would like to keep increasing as the year progresses,” Buschman says—but she also adds that her biggest goal is to visit restaurants outside of Milwaukee to “hopefully get a wider scope of people involved in the cheese love.” Rushmer agrees. “With or without Instagram, my deep love of cheese curds was there,” she tells me over email. “The free curds and other perks are just an added bonus.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to say curdfluencing is an entirely innocent operation. Everyone loves free shit. If I wasn’t wrapped up in this faux fur straitjacket of journalistic ethics, I’d probably be pursuing some kind of Ice Cream Princess title on social media, too. But the existence of the micro-influencer—a very normal person with a few thousand followers, centering their feed around a traditionally un-photogenic dish—gives me hope about food in the social media landscape. Food is delicious, and sharing it with other equally enthusiastic people is wonderful. But food, like life, is not always photogenic or well-lit. Sometimes it makes you farty, and sometimes it’s served on an unappealing paper plate. And sometimes it’s just for you, a greasy delight to be eaten in private without the benefit of a ring light. Where modern food influencing is about promoting oneself under the guise of promoting ridiculously trendy foods (“My lifestyle allows me to travel waste money on these purely aesthetic food items, aren’t you jealous?”), curdfluencing is about pure enjoyment. And that’s about as Midwestern as it gets.