Rootin' tootin' charcutin'
Charcuterie boards as fantasies or nightmares of abundance
It’s another post-holiday night at home. Outside, there’s nothing going on; Quebec’s under a 10 p.m. curfew during the height of Omicron. I’m huddled in the corner of our giant Facebook Marketplace sectional, peering at my phone, pinching the screen to get a better look at the Instagram charcuterie boards and “grazing tables” that have lately been fascinating me. Somewhere far away, where it’s likely much warmer, holiday gatherings are still being catered. The catering looks like this:
In my notebook I’m listing the foods arranged on these huge wooden slabs. Cubed cheese, salami, crackers, Italian bread sticks: Upscale Lunchables, check. Clusters of giant grapes, seasonless strawberries, enormous blackberries. Yogurt covered pretzels? OK. Unwrapped Baby Bel cheeses? Damn — yes. Roses fashioned from slices of pepperoni. Halved grapefruits and entire uncooked artichokes for garnish. Halved green figs (fresh figs are expensive, are these even going to get eaten?!), dried slices of blood orange, rough-edged chunks of hard cheese the size of a child’s fist.
Charcuterie boards are among the big snacking and entertaining trends of the last year, and they’ve become a familiar feature in the mamasphere — momfluencers love them.
They may be ostensibly about food, but charc boards are also potent visual displays, ideological crafting projects, and capitalist-fantasy roleplays. Charcuterie is a food trend that has emerged through an entanglement with Instagram. The visual style and scale of contemporary American charcuterie boards is built to be appealing in a photo or, even better, a reel that pans an entire table. These boards are delightful, they are uncanny, they are hilarious, they can be grotesque, and they contain at least as much socio-cultural information as they do Driscoll berries.
Let us begin by acknowledging that charcuterie boards are not new. When you order a charcuterie plate at a restaurant in say, Montreal (where I live) or in France (where I have been, hon hon hon) they are often kind of expensive and ever so slightly smaller than you wish they were. The word “charcuterie” itself means “cured meat” — so typically a charc plate will be a few different cured meats, a cheese or two (but also maybe not, fromage is its own thing), and maybe a little dish of some kind of relish, or onion confit, or like a few upscale nuts. And some crackers or a little bread to eat it with.
When I look back fondly on charcuterie plates of yore that I’ve enjoyed, the memory that dominates is the vibe of being like, “did you get a piece of this one yet?” Basically, polite food-rationing among friends. Like I said, the typical French charcuterie plate is never quite as big as you want it to be, and if you’re sharing, it means you’re trying not to eat more than your share while wanting very badly to eat it all, because it’s always really good.
I have never not finished the entire plate of charcuterie. It’s meant to be demolished by the group, and when you get to that last marcona almond or nubbin of rillette you’re like, “You have it!” “No, you - I’m full!” (They’re not full.)
Eating the French-style charcuterie plate involves an intimate and ongoing social negotiation. It requires that you keep track of the group. It’s definitely not about abundance, because you ate it all and wish there were more.
Charcuterie as abundance porn
The charcuterie of Instagram is nothing like what I described above. It’s completely dissociated from the meat emphasis; the new charcuterie is a verb and you can “do it” to any food. There are hot cocoa charcuterie boards arrayed with things to put in your cup of cocoa. Instagram charcuterie is above all abundant, to the extent that you’d never worry about your neighbour getting the last bite of something. It is a colourful mosaic, a mounded cornucopia, a rival to the glistening scale of a Whole Foods citrus section. The mamaspheric charc board is so big and beautiful that it’s basically sculpture.
It’s apt that the big boards are known as grazing tables. Grazing implies nibbling at the edges, never finishing. When cows graze in a field, it’s not like they’re going to finish off the grass. The grass stretches into the distance, an endless natural and regenerative resource. The grazing table conjures the same feeling — a horn of plenty that never empties.
We are living through a period of collective suffering, and it’s interesting that this Instagram-ready craft tradition — I’m calling it that — has emerged now. Maybe, like coziness, this food abundance can be understood to represent nagging, subconscious insecurity, or the conjuring of a fantasy of plenty that we all share. Maybe it’s a deliberate rejection of the calamitous nature of today’s reality.
Let’s admit that there is something a little off about the scale on some of these huge ones. I’m wondering, as they’re being eaten, is someone continually refreshing them? (The company I spoke to does not “replenish”, but often home hosts will.) Do they ever get picked-over to the point of looking a little sparse? And if not, what happens to all that leftover food? There is a kind of party food that is meant to be demolished — I’m thinking of fondues, dips, platters of wings. It’s a sign of a dish’s success when you’re greedily scraping the last of the sauce from the platter with the bony edge of the last wing. The mark of a successful grazing table is the way it looks before it’s eaten.
I spoke to the owner of a Texas-based charcuterie company who remarked that charcuterie is “all about the way it looks.” The flavours, in her view, are secondary to the visual effect.
The experience of abundance can have nuance, but grazing tables are bugle blasts of plenty. Something about how the food is arranged with great care so that everyone can approach it individually, as opposed to sharing it deliberately among themselves, makes the abundance feel static — even a bit dead.
Charcuterie as American folk craft movement
Thanks to the recommendation of a Twitter colleague, I checked out the book Corn Palaces and Butter Queens: A History of Crop Art and Dairy Sculpture by Pamela Hemenway Simpson which goes into fascinating detail about the ways that (mostly women) have created trophies and sculptures out of crops, seeds, butter, and really every other kind of food.
In the 19th and early 20th century United States, cereal architecture and food sculpture were made for state fairs and public exhibitions and were meant to evoke progress and agricultural modernization. The idea was to celebrate this new age of abundance-without-scarcity. So much grain was being produced thanks to new agricultural technologies that they could build a literal building out of corn stalks rather than use the corn for eating. It’s much easier for me to trace the ancestry of today’s Instagram charcuterie to corn palaces than to sparse little French charc plates.
Another reason I’m thinking charc plates belong to a crafting-with-food tradition is that charcuterie-board-assembly classes are quite popular lately, in particular as group activities for women. Essentially it’s a form of edible crafting, that you can do together, with or without wine.
Charcuterie as “clean eating”
The boards make sense in the context of today’s interest in “clean eating” because, even though much of the foods on the board are in fact processed, the aesthetic is one of rawness, and raw things are considered healthy. Compare the brightly coloured palate of the boards to the appearance of cooked dishes that might have been set out for guests in the 1970s:
Party food before social media was not prepared with photographic representation in mind, so it’s no surprise that it was uglier. There’s a whole realm of stewy brown foods from every cuisine on earth that look very disgusting in photos but taste amazing and that people have, for all of human history, loved to eat together. You don’t see them much on social media though.
Charcuterie as algorithmic food baby
The ROYGBIV ethos of eating — so neatly aligned with today’s myriad fad diets — is visually arresting in a way that lends itself to Instagram in particular. In previous editions of this newsletter I’ve written about how certain visual conventions (like letterboards, wide-brimmed hats, matching PJs, and children ordered by height) are favoured by Instagram’s algorithm because they have the power to arrest the scrolling eye. I suspect that charcuterie boards have a similar impact; people stop scrolling to take them in. When I first saw one on the gram, my face made an involuntary sound. That’s the desired response.
Stopping people in their tracks while scrolling triggers the algorithm to serve this kind of arresting food imagery to a wider audience, which affords more engagement. Folks who post pictures of charcuterie (or make use of the #charcuterie tag) notice the uptick in engagement in those posts, and for those who rely on those metrics, a charc post becomes a reliable performer. And thus the algorithm digests these displays of bright, beautiful abundance into ad revenue.
Algorithms are so reductive. Let’s end on a dreamier note. A friend of mine from college, Becca, recognized a similar visual sense of abundance in Dutch still life paintings from the 17th century and sent me some examples over DM. The juicy presence of the food and drink in these paintings threw my vague discomfort about the Instagram charcuterie into edifying relief.
I am once again up against the limitations of my ability to talk about art, so as always, your input is welcome. To me, the way these paintings look so loose, so “natural,” but in a way that is obviously the result of painstaking art direction, absolutely evokes todays’ charcutes.
But it’s the sensual inevitability of rot — even the numinous presence of death — in these paintings that make them feel so alive. The static abundance of Instagram charcuterie feels about as sensual as a Chopt salad bar. Their sterile brightness ultimately makes me think of control more than abundance, and that naturally demands the question: Control of what?
As a lover of the MN State Fair (highlights of which are the [often political, usually progressive] crop art and the live carving of butter sculptures of the dairy princesses), I hadn’t put together that link to the politics of abundance but it makes a ton of sense. Fascinating to see how these expressions evolve with how we connect and commune with others.
It would also be interesting to explore the intersection between these boards and diet culture. You mentioned that these boards make people feel like they're eating "raw", ie "healthier," foods, even when they're not. I also wonder whether there's a correlation between the desire to make these and disordered eating? There's so much touching of the food and it is treated like a craft, but how much of it gets eaten? Is making/presenting it another way to interact with food and hone your own image without actually eating much?