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When life takes away your tech company cafeteria, make totwaffles
Ada Powers/Twitter

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When Tech Cafeterias Close, the Internet Gets Weird With Food

From “social distance baking” to online conferences about engineering and food, tech workers adapt to the new normal

The coronavirus outbreak and work-from-home order has forced tens of thousands of tech employees off the generous teats of their masters and into their own homes to fend for themselves. The luxe — and free — cafeterias of ultra-wealthy Bay Area companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Square, Twitter, Uber, and others stand empty and dark, their hungry employees now safe at home for the foreseeable future.

One might be tempted to mock, but hey: Adulting is hard enough without a pandemic. Techies aren’t the only ones suddenly trapped in their homes obsessing over meal plans. But they’re now experiencing the cafeteria-free world the rest of folks dwell in and gamely face the apocalypse we’re all simmering in, without their three free, always-certain, chef-prepared meals a day.

Or not facing it, as the case may be. Facebook was swift to pull its presence from conferences and by the first week of March had banned international travel and started restricting employees to work from home. The company sent home an estimated 45,000 employees on March 6, making its staff the first wave of remote workers to fumble through feeding themselves.

And they all ordered delivery. At the same time.

“Today in unexpected mass work from home problems,” product manager for Facebook’s Oculus Browser Jacob Rossi tweeted. “Facebook’s VPN IP got banned from DoorDash because so many people were trying to order food from home while connected to the corporate network.”

Yes, some people joked, “FB employees have lost the ability to make lunch for themselves.” And they probably aren’t wrong. (In some respects, it was a shining moment for DoorDash’s security system, which apparently detected the onslaught as a denial-of-service attack and shut it down swiftly.) Indeed, data nerds are charting the current DoorDash, GrubHub, Uber Eats, and Postmates explosion. It’s especially happening in San Francisco, according to a Thinknum data piece tracking delivery app use.

One arc of the trend is certainly ordering out. The other half is cooking like no one’s watching, with a heavy dash of stir-crazy to make it entertainingly weird and cringey. More so, people are figuring out how to make those missing connections happen over food and drink — even though we’re all forced to be apart.

Techies yanked from their employer’s campuses and quarantined at home doesn’t always make for a pretty recipe, as it combines a whole lot of people who are very experienced with tech and the internet yet inexperienced at cooking — and still, somehow, performative in their foodiness.

Take, for example, an extremely popular Twitter thread on “totwaffles.”

“Totwaffles are special in that they are among the elite order of foods which sound almost, but not quite, like a colloquial anatomical vulgarism,” explained totwaffle connoisseur Ada Powers. “This alone may be nourishment in dark times.”

The treat involves defrosting (but not cooking) a bag of tater tots, mashing them into a waffle iron (“you are about to give your iron a higher purpose”), and cooking them until you feel like they’re done. Powers then recommends topping totwaffles with a dubious concoction called “SYRUPCHUP” which is a warmed combination of maple syrup and ketchup.

Totwaffles, a meme as food if ever there was one, isn’t the only thing uniting tech-savvy food adventurers in isolation. Last week, invitations for virtual Friday happy hours went out to and from for techies everywhere, mixing workers from Google, DocuSign, Wirecutter, and other companies. One engineer told Eater SF via email that the topic of food came up in a FaceTime happy hour, and people said they were “making a point of ordering dinners from local restaurants that are now doing delivery to help support them,” as well as using home cooking “as a mental health-promoting activity.”

Virtual happy hours are one thing, but how about “social distancing bakes”? That’s the plan from former Kickstarter, Y Combinator, and Creative Commons worker Fred Benenson. His first Social Distancing Bake, on March 13, featured delicious-looking sourdough focaccia; his second bake on March 15 teased us with some very sexy loaves; and Benenson’s entry for March 18 was Social Distancing Bake #3: MOAR FOCACCIA.

And yes, there’s sourdough involved, which seems to be this crisis’s number one baking trend. Suddenly, everyone has a starter, and Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are flooded with photos of loaves of varying levels of success.

Other tech workers are just trying to help colleagues not cook horrible things. Google Project Zero security researcher Maddie Stone reached out on Twitter to share recipes for those of us who don’t cook so good, “in case you’re already getting tired of Trader Joe’s frozen meals.” Stone’s tempting (and easy-looking) offerings included bacon beef chili from PaleOMG, chicken enchilada soup from The Defined Dish, and Instant Pot chicken tikka masala, among others.

Like other sectors, tech conferences have been canceled or postponed across the globe. A number of smaller hacking and security conferences have moved their conferences online, where people can virtually attend the scheduled trainings and talks — which brings us to PancakesCon 2020: Quarantine. The conference didn’t necessarily involve pancakes, but was rather formatted with the first half of each talk focused on infosec, and the second half on something you can do while stuck in the house — many of which ended up spotlighting cooking topics.

In Sunday’s two-track @PancakesCon, around 1,500 people from hacking and security communities around the world learned the art of pickling from the PancakesCon talk “PowerShell and Pickling.” Other talks discussed making homemade White Russians (and network threat hunting) and social engineering plus a seminar on honey, with the final talk closing the festivities with “Working in Austere Windows Environments and Turning Simple Ingredients into Delicious Curries.”

While some Bay Area tech workers are certainly struggling to subsist off GrubHub and pasta, hunting and gathering all alone in the wilds of their kitchens, others are stepping in to remind us that we’re not actually alone and are sharing some pretty great recipes in the process. At the end of it all, we can always look back on this scary and very weird chapter in history as the crisis that gave birth to totwaffles.