A pepperoni rose by another name
The South is very much on board with the snack arrangement trend
Just as the term ‘martini’ is now applied by some people to anything served in a conical glass, ‘charcuterie’ in certain circles now means any snacks arranged on a horizontal surface. Kathryn Jezer-Morton, a doctoral student at Concordia University who studies “mom-fluencers,” last week delved into the trend on her Substack, Mothers Under the Influence.
Jezer-Morton believes boards furnished with yogurt pretzels, gingerbread men and citrus segments are the spiritual successors to American culinary crafts such as butter sculptures and seed paintings. She joined The Food Section to talk about the new charcuterie, which is wildly popular across the South.
Hanna Raskin: I was just so pleased that you had taken on this topic because it has haunted my story list for a year. It still says ‘Suburban charcuterie’ on the spreadsheet because I was watching all these women on Facebook who suddenly had these sidelines in charcuterie sales.
But I think maybe we should start by saying what charcuterie in this context is, because it's so different from what people might expect.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton: I see it as basically food arranged on a big flat surface, or sometimes a smaller flat surface, and it can be any kind of food. Charcuterie has become a verb in this context, like, "I charcuterie’d my pound cake."
I actually saw this post from this really successful influencer named Mattie James. She sliced up her pound cake, and laid it out in these individual pieces, and then she put all these different fruit toppings around it. And then she was like, "I charcuterie’d it."
HR: Well, I'm glad you mentioned pound cake, because it does seem like the new charcuterie is so sweet. I would be shocked in a traditional wine bar if I got a chocolate-covered strawberry on my charcuterie board.
KJM: I think it's a totally meal agnostic thing. You'll have all this different stuff on one board, like chocolate and cookies, and then there will be meat, and cheese, and fruits, and bread, and raw vegetables. The idea is it could be eaten at any time of day.
HR: Do you leave it out all day?
KJM: People do this for their own families, for casual dinners where they don't feel like cooking. And I think that's an important part of this, which is that it's very easy.
But at catered events, they do just sit out for hours and hours, and they get gross-looking by the end. And some of the people I know that run these catering companies, part of what they do is that they replenish throughout. They try to keep them looking abundant because that's the whole point.
HR: Right, you wrote that abundance is a central theme here. What do you think it signifies that these boards are so very abundant?
KJM: The range of sizes is really broad, so there can be a little one for two people to share. But then they grow in size to the point where you'll have people who will cover their entire kitchen island in Saran wrap and then cover that in food. I mean, to me it looks like it could feed 50 people easily.
It's kind of a cornucopia of piles of fresh, beautiful fruits, and then slices of cheese, and then arranged roses made out of pepperoni. And so it's this landscape of food that you then can luxuriously pick from, like a Roman emperor.
It's so much food. And I think the idea is that it looks more cheerful; it looks more beautiful. And when you're taking pictures of your event to share on social media, it's just incredibly photogenic in a way that a plate of something simply is not.
Food styling is really hard. I mean, taking pictures of food is a really, really difficult skill to develop. But if you just make this absolute sculpture of food, it's going to be cool-looking in a picture.
HR: I was surprised when you said the defenders of charcuterie would describe it as easy, because pepperoni roses are not simple.
KJM: Even if you're not interested in the roses, anyone can cut up some cheese, and lay it out in a nice way. It's not hard to do. When I'm talking to people who run these businesses, they're like, ‘Well, it's basically it’s just fancy Lunchables. There’s no secret.’
HR: It's interesting you bring up Lunchables, because I did want to ask, how much is store-bought? How much is homemade?
KJM: Oh, I feel like this is a 100% store-bought. It's store-bought through and through.
I live in Montreal, and it's very common here when you go to someone's house for dinner, before dinner, you have a pate and a few cheeses. The emphasis is on the quality of the thing.
It's not some big abundance, but you're like, ‘Damn, this is a good pate, where'd you get this pate?’ Because there's hundreds of places to buy pate here. So if your pate is good, I'm like, ‘I want to know where you got that.’
And literally, someone who runs one of these businesses in Dallas said to me, ‘It doesn't really matter how it tastes: It matters how it looks.’ It was the total inverse.
HR: Right, but maybe still about sourcing and assembling products instead of making them yourself. We all know about home cooks who never share their recipes and it’s this very personal thing that happens in the kitchen, but you write about women getting together in classes to build charcuterie.
KJM: Well, I think the classes are kind of cool, because it's a group activity you can do where everyone's going to have fun, and it could be kind of goofy, and you're using your hands. It’s like painting with wine, but it doesn't have to involve alcohol. It’s really big in (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) mom Instagram space.
HR: Who else is doing this?
KJM: I don't think that I've seen the edges of the charcuterie trend. I think it's a big wide net. I don't think race even really limits it. I think it's very popular among all kinds of people. But it’s probably more suburban than urban, because the emphasis is on stuff that you can get at a big grocery store.
When I was writing this, I really felt like I had to check myself, because I didn't want my inner snob to show herself too much. Because this to me is a little bit tacky. For me personally, it's not really my style.
But I don't want to yuck people's yum. And also, most people don't live in a place where you can buy pate from all these different people. So you go to your local Kroger, and what is there to be had?
HR: I'm so glad you said that, because I said from the outset, ‘Well, I haven't pursued this story because I don't have the sources.’ But there is no story that I've ever not done for that reason: I can call up anybody. Really, I think I paused because I'm kind of judgmental about this one.
KJM: Yeah, no, I feel the same way. For me, the way that I was able to avoid that was that my critique of it is not of the food itself. Eat what you like, I don't care. It's more the scale and food becoming a visual medium.
It’s the fact that it's the picture as much as the eating experience that people are going after. And to me, that says there's something going on here besides feeding yourself and sharing food with friends.
Like you, I would be very reluctant to ever criticize anyone for sharing food with friends. That’s a social good: We should all feel cool doing that.
HR: Speaking of the phrase ‘social good,’ one problem in looking at this is we're obviously in a climate crisis, so waste seems pretty uncool right now. And of course, the reality is that the supply chain is broken, and grocery stores are kind of empty.
KJM: I almost feel like it's this hard turn away from that reality. It’s like, ‘We're going to just pretend that everything's cool, because we are determined to keep living our lives.’ I'm really wondering how long people can keep living like that.
Maybe for most people it'd be like, ‘What's the big deal? They're just having fun.’ But I'm like, ‘Just watch, in a few years, there's going to be a political element to this kind of representation.’ It isn't there now, but I think it's coming.
HR: What else did you learn from these practitioners regarding what they're doing and why?
KJM: One of the things that brought me into this was I study how social media platforms shape trends by encouraging certain kinds of images over others. And then this stuff becomes popular in the real world, but it started out because the algorithm preferred these types. It's not a surprise to me that this incredibly eye-catching food has become popular, because the algorithm likes that.
When you're scrolling, you're like, ‘Oh my God, look at these crazy boards. I can’t believe this.’
HR: It's so interesting you talk about the algorithms, because it sounds like Instagram prioritizes boards of what looks to me like kilograms upon kilograms of food, but the algorithms also like really skinny bodies.
KJM: That's such a good point. Oh boy, I hadn't thought about that. I mean the moms who are standing beside these boards tend to be very skinny. I wonder if these massive kind of servings of food, these big presentations, are really only appealing or acceptable when they're shown with tiny people.
HR: Right, exactly.
KJM: It's like you're not really supposed to eat all this. Which is crazy. You should eat it all. It's all there to be eaten.
HR: Because I imagine that we will see more of this, do you have any tips for when people first encounter a huge charcuterie board, assuming we ever have social settings again?
KJM: Well, one thing is that in COVID now, people are coming up with these very funny--and sort of ridiculous--single-serving charcuterie, so there’ll be 50 martini glasses lined up, and each martini glass will have this tiny little perfect serving of one little cheese and one little strawberry.
I guess I would say, to me, these big groaning displays of food weirdly don't seem like they're inviting you to really eat a ton of food. If I was going to a barbecue, I’d be like, ‘I can't wait to get my snack on. I'm going to have all the food, and it's going to be so good.’
If I saw one of these things, I'd be like, ‘OK, how many little salami rounds can I really eat?’
HR: Interesting. It sounds like if someone gets an invite to a party where this is going to be the centerpiece, what you’re saying is maybe eat first.
KJM: Exactly: Maybe eat first.
For more on food as sculpture, check out The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals, published in conjunction with The Getty Research Institute’s 2015 exhibit on large-scale tabletop displays in early modern Europe.