The Allure of Charcuterie
By: Macy Pope
Photos: Macy Pope
“I open up Pinterest for the thirtieth time this week, scrolling through the endless feed of aesthetically pleasing posts that make me embarrassed of my college lifestyle.”
I open up Pinterest for the thirtieth time this week, scrolling through the endless feed of aesthetically pleasing posts that make me embarrassed of my college lifestyle. I knew that some friends of mine were coming over later for a Mario Kart tournament, and I was stumped as to what to have set out for when our competitive spirit turns into aching hunger. Then, I remember, my quarantine obsession appeared on my home page– the effortlessly beautiful charcuterie board.
The artistic presentation of snacks was so organized and compact, it was the perfect thing for feeding a bunch of my college friends. Then, that’s when I decided to combine my knowledge from Pinterest and Tik Tok to create an easy charcuterie board that helped bring my friends together around some decent food.
This social media phenomena has taken my Tik Tok “for you” page by storm, entering in a new era of contemporary hospitality, reminding us that pretty food is what brings people together. From the dawn of time, humans have formed communities around sharing food with one another. First, we bartered and traded for different staples, energy to get us through the days. Then, we had holidays and parties where food, sustenance seemed to be at the center of celebration. Over time, food became a status symbol; if you were fat from food, you were rich. Food is one of the main reasons we celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas (at least for me and my family it is). Food is fueling, fun, fancy, filling, flavorful, feral, fundamental. In more recent years, human beings have outdone themselves with the pinnacle of the eating experience– the cheese plate, or, as the founding French fathers call it, charcuterie. The charcuterie board encompasses the essential part of friendship and community, in that it gathers people around a plate to share in a well-rounded meal together. According to the absolutely fascinating blog Eat Cured Meats, charcuterie was created as part of French cuisine. It is not only meant to be a simple appetizer, but a journey of textures and tastes, a flavor-journey if you will. There are two different kinds of charcuterie– the French classic and the modern. French charcuterie must include cured meats, one of which is preferably pork, accompanied by rich cheeses, soft bread, and sweet fruits to balance out all the intense flavors. I think that the dry meat blog would argue that dry curing is the most important part of this style, but I am a pescetarian, and thus require a more creative approach to honoring this tradition (Wine is also considered a staple pairing with a board, but, alas, I am underage). The modern charcuterie is a bit different, but the new unique take on this classic hors d’oeuvres is what has propelled cheese plates back into hospitality popularity. Modern boards not only allow people to experiment with the types of food you include, but also how you display them. I would argue that presentation is honestly more important than included foodstuffs. A plate full of brie, salty crackers, and grapes? Sign me up. But a board that has small pieces of gouda and strawberries cut and assembled to recreate Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Consider my interest piqued.
Now, I may only be twenty years old, but my heart and soul are that of a fifty five year old mother named Kris who loves to have get-togethers with her book club friends and read Better Homes & Gardens magazine. Therefore, I wanted to put this middle-aged mom passion of mine to the test and create the perfect charcuterie board using ingredients from my local artisanal market, aka, Trader Joe’s. While I was originally determined to create a few different alternative boards in addition to their more traditional, classic counterpart, I decided to focus all of my energy (and wallet) towards a board that encompassed it all, that brought the best of the boards together. My roommates were elated to hear I would be making food for them, and they assured me that they would indulge in my creation (though neither volunteered to help me grocery shop or offer monetary compensation). Nevertheless, I headed to the store to find some ingredients for my board.
Using the general guidance of one of my favorite TikTok creators, @kayeatsscharcuterie, I began to figure out my shopping list. As a pescetarian, I knew that I didn’t want to include any cured meats like a traditional board. Not only would this be a waste of money for me, since I wouldn’t eat it, but I wanted to focus on something easier for me to assemble. Therefore, I decided to stick to cheese, fruit, and vegetables, aka my comfort zone. But then came the time to decide what to actually put on it. Kay emphasizes the fruit, carbohydrates, and the meats and cheeses; what’s even more important, though, is making sure that the board looks organized and presents options to the eater.
Let’s break down the essentials of a good, balanced charcuterie board, according to @kayeatsscharcuterie, shall we?
- 1. Dry, cured meats. (I did not end up following this step, but it was my board and my money, and I can do what I want! Plus, not all of her board assemblies include salami or prosciutto.)
- 2. A soft cheese, a hard/sharp cheese, and/or a cheese-based spread.
- 3. A variety of crackers or breads.
- 4. Citrus fruits or berries.
- 5. Pickled or fresh cocktail vegetables. Think baby cucumbers and green olives.
- 6. A sweet item. Chocolate, fatty nuts, or even dried fruit could fall in this category.
- 7. Finally, garnish liberally. The more color and pizazz, the better.
Using my new outline for my essentials, I ran to TJ’s (Trader Joe’s) with the one objective of not spending $50. The trip to the grocery store was, as always, very fun and very distracting, but my quest didn’t stop there. The next objective was to come home and begin assembling. The materials acquired, though bland looking at first, would create a great treat for my roommates and I.
Persian cucumbers, fontina cheese, chocolate covered pretzels, candied orange slices, spinach dip, peanut butter cups, olives, apples, baguette bread, baby carrots, hummus, cheese crisps, and much more littered the table. It was oddly satisfying, the unlimited possibilities simply staring me in the face. I channeled Kay and began to brainstorm.
My materials were a combination of things that I already had at home, as well as ingredients from the store. All together, my shopping from Trader Joe’s cost me around $30. The tray was another thing that I had to figure out, as my roommates and I don’t own a beautiful serving tray or wooden slab. So, I improvised. Enter a baking tray and napkins.
Immediately, the oven goes on at 350 degrees, ready to brown the edges and crisp up my French baguette. I laid out my rather sad collection of tupperware and dishware, wanting to add some variety to the baking tray. I started assembling the board by putting the things in smaller containers on the tray first, so that I could position everything around those key items. As I was positioning some of the food, I took notes from the Kay’s boards and the perfect Pinterest pins, as well as my own artistic vision to situate everything so that all the main ingredients were the stars of the show. If the crackers can go with Fontina and smoked cheddar, then they must get put together; try to minimize reaching all over the food. The persian cucumbers, spinach artichoke dip, and hummus were all initial staples. The two savory dips were soon accompanied by their sweeter companion, pumpkin butter (which at first seems odd, but coupled with some brie on baguette is amazing). The assembly process was easier the more things I began to pile on. Crackers artfully fanned out, carrots stacked up on top of each other in a corner, mini brie slices and cheddar rectangles propped up on display. The dusty orange of the dried apricots complimented the moist ruby sheen on the fresh apple slices. As a finishing touch, I tossed espresso beans with wild abandon on the tray, then quickly placed some gold metallic-wrapped peanut butter cups as a final bit of sparkle. It all came together, slightly easier than I thought it would be, given my living situation and budget.
Here it was, the perfect board. There was a perfect variety of cheeses, crunchy vegetables and soft dips, lastly some sweet tidbits to finish the experience. This board had a great variety of items on it, and was built on a small baking tray with Rubbermaid containers and a cocktail glass. The rustic simplicity of the board mixed with fun holiday treats like yogurt-peppermint pretzels means that your friends won’t have to go back and raid your kitchen in a desperate attempt to either satiate their hunger or fix that sweet tooth. While this sweet narrative has given me an opportunity to eat for a class and go to Trader Joe’s again, I was simply happy that my board brought my friends together around something we all enjoy– a meal that isn’t Kraft Mac & Cheese.