These days, charcuterie doesn’t just mean meat. You can thank COVID-19 for that.
Long a common feature of social gatherings, the platters garnered fresh attention in the past 18 months as people sought to elevate their at-home snacks. Sure, hungry humans have arranged provisions such as prosciutto and cheese on boards for centuries. But amateur chefs aren’t just flocking to salami or brie. They’re redefining the term charcuterie itself, adding novel ingredients to their creations.
There are Mexican boards featuring nachos, while others focus on breakfast foods and even candy. “Barkuterie” boards with dog treats are also a thing.
These alternatives aren’t exactly new, but they truly blew up as people entertained themselves during lockdown with posts of eye-catching designs and odd ingredients. And it doesn’t seem like they’re going away: In August, Pinterest searches for mini charcuterie cups rose more than 30-fold from a year ago, the company said. Hot cocoa and pumpkin platters also attracted attention.
This creative explosion could be a sign of a broader shift. In the view of food historian Ken Albala, the COVID-19 era represented the last gasp of a rustic, do-it-yourself approach to eating. As people get bored with making their own bread, he said interest in more exotic, over-the-top meals and ingredients could take hold.
“The charcuterie board is a kind of harbinger of what’s about to change in our culinary aesthetic,” Albala said.
Before any connoisseurs object: yes, the dessert, brunch and vegan boards taking over Instagram and TikTok aren’t technically charcuterie, a term derived from a French phrase meaning cooked meat. If anything, the expanded definition shows just how much people are craving colorful ensembles on the dinner table.
The trend has even benefited more traditional creators. Marissa Mullen, a New York City-based author and food stylist who sticks to more conventional elements such as cured meat and cheese, published a cookbook outlining her technique in May 2020. At first, she was bracing for disaster given lockdowns, but the craze has brought in more followers.
“I get all these people who are interested in the loose term ‘charcuterie board,’ and I can teach them to go a little bit further,” Mullen said. “What can we learn about cheese? What can we learn about presentation?”
The surge in interest has also spawned a cottage industry of entrepreneurs, many of them women. Mel Rodríguez started making the boards in July 2020, after being furloughed from her job as a case manager at a Los Angeles law firm. Demand has remained strong after orders doubled in January, she said.
Her firm, Curated Spread, already has requests for Halloween (searches for charcuterie have been particularly popular around special occasions, including Valentine’s Day and Fourth of July).
In Detroit, Victoria Cummings pivoted to charcuterie after running an events business alongside her teaching job. Although she works weekends to fill orders, she prefers the platters to traditional catering, which can involve days of preparation and expensive ingredients that cut into her margins.
Her company, Detroit Charcuterie, offers everything from individual snack boxes to spreads that can span entire countertops — also called grazing tables. She’s incorporating tacos, chocolates and myriad other ingredients into her products.
“I’ve never known that you could make a rose out of so many different things,” Cummings said of a popular charcuterie design. She initially thought she might get one or two orders a month, but instead she’s booked every weekend. “Cucumber roses, salami roses, mango roses, orange roses. It’s crazy how creative people get with what they display on the board.”
The pandemic prompted Suzanne Billings, who has run Noble Graze in Fayetteville, Arkansas, since 2017, to make single-serve snack bundles known as “jarcuterie.” At one point, she couldn’t get enough mason jars for her arrangements, thanks to virus-induced supply chain woes. So, she turned to boxes, cones, plastic cups and just about anything she could find. Billings is now writing a cookbook on single-serve charcuterie.
“The vessel can be just about anything you want,” she said. “That’s the beauty of it. You can just use what you have on hand.”