The Rise of the Charcuterie-Free 'Charcuterie Board'

For centuries, charcuterie has meant cured meat—but that's missing from the growing trend of hot chocolate and candy "charcuterie boards."
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
December 21, 2020, 12:00pm
a christmas-themed candy "charcuterie board" by meg quinn of @ainttooproudtomeg
Photo by Meg Quinn/@ainttooproudtomeg

Charcuterie "has been considered a French culinary art" since at least the 15th century, according to the esteemed, decades-old reference book Food Lover's Companion. "It refers to the products, particularly (but not limited to) pork specialties such as pâtés, rillettes, galantines, crèpinettes, etc., which are made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie," the guide explains.

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If "charcuterie" is cured meat, then a "charcuterie board" is an assortment of meat, often alongside cheeses, pickles, crackers, and more. (This has historically been a food of the working class and not of the bourgeoisie, as this year's petty Twitter drama suggested.) Alas, 2020 has sounded the death knell to the strict bounds of centuries-old tradition. "Charcuterie board" has come to denote any varied, artfully arranged, Instagram-friendly spread—even if there's no charcuterie to be seen.

No site published more glaring examples of the loosening of the phrase "charcuterie board" than lifestyle publication PopSugar. In 2020, it heralded: Christmas cookie charcuterie boards (an assortment of cookies); pancake charcuterie boards (spreads of pancakes, fruits, and syrup, though admittedly a few contained bacon); waffle charcuterie boards (similar, but with waffles); hot cocoa charcuterie boards (cups of hot chocolate paired with candies and marshmallows); s'mores charcuterie boards (s'mores fillings, neatly laid out); 90s charcuterie boards (arrangements of nostalgic junk food); and Halloween charcuterie boards (mostly candy). Food blogs and publications across the internet share similar spreads.

In late November, Bath and Body Works posted "a charcuterie board with your favorite fragrances," with a picture of a wooden tray holding lotions, hand sanitizers, and candles—charcuterie boards, apparently, need no longer even be edible.

On this new usage, butcher John Ratliff was of two minds. "One thought is it doesn’t matter," he said. "If marketing jargon started pissing me off now, well, then I got a real shitty road ahead of me." At the same time, charcuterie has a clear definition, he added; at Ends Meat, his whole-animal salumeria in Brooklyn, he focuses on cured meats: fat-studded soppressata, vibrant logs of chorizo, silky ribbons of pancetta with a thick layer of fat. "It’s part of classic French cuisine (and all cuisine really) and has enthralled so many passionate people to follow the traditions. I’m hoping this will be a short-lived misuse of the word."

The use of the term "charcuterie board" is somewhat controversial in the food board scene, according to Meg Quinn, a food stylist and the content creator behind the popular Instagram page @ainttooproudtomeg. "Being an expert in this space, I definitely am careful about my use of it," she said. On her Instagram and her blog of the same name, Quinn shares a range of boards organized into categories like cheese boards, charcuterie boards, breakfast boards, dessert boards, kids' boards, boards for one or two, and more. As long as the spread has meat, she's not opposed to using "cheese board" and "charcuterie board" interchangeably. "I'm more lax than the traditional definition, because whenever you use 'charcuterie' that really is just pertaining to meat, so I would say any of my boards that have meat and cheese should technically be called 'cheese and charcuterie boards." 

Though Quinn steers away—at least, in a public-facing sense—from the trend of using "charcuterie board" to mean simply a varied spread of food, she understands why people do it. First of all, people love saying "charcuterie," she said. With the huge viral success of the "shark coochie board" meme, that checks out. The phrase lends itself to wordplay like "charcuter-wreath" and "charcuter-tree," the latter of which has become one of Quinn's most popular posts. (Recently, there's also been "jarcuterie" and the "charcuterie chalet.") And, at the end of the day, the average budding board enthusiast probably just wants to eat something good and 'gram it—no matter what the board is called. "They're just seeing the trend and they see that other people are calling it that so they call it that."

It could also be a way of working the system since "charcuterie board" is a more popular search term than "cheese board." With interest in the term steadily growing over the past two years, content creators might use the phrase more liberally—even if it's not the most accurate—in order to take advantage of this search potential. "My SEO person [...] is always like, oh, people are searching for 'charcuterie candy board,' and I am like, oh, but I can't call it that," Quinn said. "But on the back end, I do, because I want to show up in those searches."

Shelly Westerhausen, the blogger behind Vegetarian Ventures and author of the 2018 cookbook Platters and Boards: Beautiful, Casual Spreads for Every Occasion, avoids the phrase "charcuterie board" in reference to her work. That's in part because her arrangements "really go beyond" traditional charcuterie board ingredients, she said, and because, as a vegetarian whose boards rarely use meat (she works with a co-writer on boards that include it), she doesn't feel ownership over the term. 

She has, however, also had to use the phrase "charcuterie board" pragmatically in the past. When she was working on her book in 2016, the board boom hadn't quite hit. "This meant that a lot of people would give a confused look when I described my book as 'platters' and 'boards', so I'd oftentimes have to then refer to them as similar to 'cheese boards' or 'charcuterie boards' for the concept to ring familiar," she said. 

Big spreads, boards, and grazing tables have certainly picked up since then. Though the pandemic might have initially threatened large-scale, shareable finger food, cheese board purveyors have adapted through smaller, individualized formats. What started out as "charcuterie boards" or "cheese boards" has spun out into a trend that's far beyond the typical ingredients of cheese, nuts, and cured meats, Westerhausen said. "So, it feels very natural to drop the constraints of the word 'charcuterie' and refer to this growing category as something more general like 'boards', 'platters', etc."

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