Courtesy of Marissa Mullen
On a whim, in October, Maggie Johnson filmed herself washing cartons of blackberries and grapes over a marble-lined sink, carefully slicing wedges of cheese and opening packages of cured meats before arranging them ornamentally around a circular wooden board.
Though she had been privately watching videos on TikTok for months, she decided to share her own video for the very first time, posting it to her page before heading into an early shift at the bakery where she works in Nashville, Tennessee. When she opened the app during her break, she was astounded to find that her post had thousands upon thousands of likes and comments.
Three months later, she’s amassed more than 175,000 followers to her TikTok page @magsmeals, where she regularly shares charcuterie-related videos.
“It blows my mind every time I open the app and have a hundred notifications or 2,000 new followers,” she said.
Johnson — an epicurean at heart, who first started making charcuterie boards for her sorority sisters in college — discovered that she had unwittingly tapped into an obsession among young Americans suddenly seeking out charcuterie content unlike ever before.
Though charcuterie itself has existed as a culinary delicacy for centuries, it only really flourished into a bona fide social media phenomenon in the past year, marking those like Johnson as “charcuterie influencers” along the way.
Aspirational meat and cheese
The word charcuterie is derived from the French words “chair” and “cuit,” which translate to “flesh” and “cooked,” respectively. According to the food blog Serious Eats, charcuterie first rose to prominence in the 1400s in France “to represent storefronts specializing in the preparation of pig and offal at a time when shop owners weren’t allowed to sell uncooked pork.”
The owners of these shops, known as charcutiers, grew popular for their thoughtful meat preparation that helped establish stylized plates of “cooked flesh” as a part of French gastronomic culture. Over time, breads, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables joined the boards as accoutrements to the succulent meats, forming the charcuterie board as we know it today.
While the word “charcuterie” gives off an air of European luxury and sophistication, plates of meat and cheese have also long been a mainstay of American social life, fueling partygoers and vanquishing hunger as restaurant appetizers. Today they’ve become a fixation on social media platforms. A search for “charcuterie” on Instagram yields nearly one million results, while on Facebook there are hundreds of public and private groups dedicated to the art form.
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According to Ken Albala, a history professor with a focus on food at the University of the Pacific, the mass appeal of charcuterie on social media coincides with the rise of crafting and foodie cultures, paired with an inherently aesthetically pleasing nature.
“For hundreds of years people have been doing cheese boards and charcuterie, but I think it has been part of the rise of the interest in do-it-yourself artisanal craft food,” he said. “It’s also very photographical, and a lot of food that is great is not. A plate of stew is just disgusting-looking on camera, but if you can arrange things in fun patterns it looks nice and that’s why it’s very Instagrammable.”
Marissa Mullen, founder of the food-styling blog That Cheese Plate and widely known as the first “charcuterie influencer,” understands just how Instagrammable — and, thus, profitable — meat-and-cheese boards can be.
Courtesy of Marissa Mullen
Mullen, who has a background in photography and visual arts, first started posting photos of stylized charcuterie on Instagram back in 2013. Her hobby helped her cultivate a small but devoted following over the years, prompting the occasional gig from brands like Whole Foods, which once gave her a $100 gift card to create a board and share it on Instagram.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I made it,'” she said, recalling the experience to Business Insider.
While her social media star grew, she was cutting her teeth in the music industry, working as the house band coordinator for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Despite the flashy job, she still spent most of her spare time styling meat-and-cheese boards, coining a method she called “Cheese By Numbers” for arranging charcuterie boards.
Encouraged by support from her social media fans, she pitched the concept as a book, a venture that proved unsuccessful. She shelved the idea until November 2018, when a producer on “The Rachael Ray Show” found her Instagram and brought her on to talk about her love of charcuterie and cheese by numbers. It didn’t take long for Random House to come running back to Mullen. Her book, “That Cheese Plate Will Change Your Life,” will be published in May.
She has since dedicated herself full-time to That Cheese Plate, which she monetizes by hosting cheese plate classes, tutorials, and special events. Today she has more than 300,000 Instagram followers, including notables like Gigi Hadid, across her @thatcheeseplate and @cheesebynumbers accounts.
“I can’t take credit for, like, being the person to make cheese plates popular because that’s, like, a very big statement to say, but I do think I made it accessible for people to put their own spin on their own plates and get creative with them,” she said.
Courtesy of Marissa Mullen
The rise of the ‘Adult Lunchable’
A few days into the start of the new year, the private Facebook group Bon Appétit Test Kitchen — a fan page for devout followers of the popular food publication and its chefs — was awash with photos of elaborate charcuterie boards, including one so large is spanned an entire room with mounds of fanciful meats and cheeses.
The posts had become so ubiquitous that Amanda Hasaka, one of the group’s administrators, stepped in to ask the group’s more than 16,000 members to refrain from posting charcuterie imagery.
“I’m sure we all enjoyed the meat & cheese boards (because who doesn’t) while they lasted, and now that the holiday season is behind us, let’s try and limit the posting of them for now,” she wrote. “In fact, we can start a charcuterie main thread, and everyone can post in there, so it’s limited to once [sic] place!”
Hasaka told Business Insider she became administrator of the group on request from her friend Megan McGowan, who created the page in 2018 for fellow Bon Appétit fans to talk about their favorite chefs and swap recipes. Neither of them expected it to become as popular as it is today, but Hasaka said it’s helped democratize several food trends, including charcuterie.
“Personally, I am kind of intimidated by cooking and preparing a full-on meal, but there’s something that’s kind of low stakes about a charcuterie board,” she said. “Anyone truly could do it very easily.”
Samantha Birkholtz is a fellow member of the Bon Appetit group, as well as several other Facebook pages including “Show Me Your Charcuterie” and “Is This Charcuterie?” which each hosts thousands of meat-and-cheese enthusiasts. Some of these groups have strict barriers to entry, while others list group rules including “no charcuterie shaming” and a request to avoid the use of “explicit” terms like “charcooterie,” a play on words that has previously made some group members uncomfortable.
Birkholtz said she primarily uses the groups as inspiration for meal preparation for both herself and her 12-year-old son, whom she is currently homeschooling. Like several others on social media, she likened the boards to an upgraded version of the Lunchable, the popular childhood packaged meals made by Oscar Meyer.
“When my son was a bit younger, he wanted those Lunchables but I find those things repulsive,” she said. “When I started introducing the boards to him, I called them Adult Lunchables. I was like, ‘Let’s have an Adult Lunchable’ and all of a sudden it became highfalutin.”
a charcuterie board & red wine is just the adult version of a lunchable & caprisun
Spotting an opening to capitilize on the trend among young Americans, Fisher-Price went so far as to roll out a “Snacks For Two” charcuterie playset in December, which quickly drew ire on social media as some called it “bougie” and “snooty.”
“This is the most bougie toy I’ve ever seen. A f****** toddler rocking a Fedora and serving salami to nother one in a beret?” one Twitter user wrote. “The persnickety rep at @FisherPrice who thought this was a great idea should be demoted.”
Fisher-Price via Amazon
Charcuterie as art form
For Birkholtz, charcuterie influencers and certain members of the Facebook groups have become “artists” to their followers. She added that the craze around stylized food in many ways mirrors the aspirational nature of fashion and lifestyle influencers on Instagram.
“We’ve gone from showing off our designer handbags and expensive makeup to now we’re showing off [charcuterie],” she said. “I keep looking at these boards and they’re so beautiful and I’m thinking, ‘My goodness, that person’s an artist.'”
Beyond its ability to cultivate influencers, Hasaka of the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen group said that part of what social media has done for charcuterie is help demonstrate its relative ease and cost-effective nature. Ultimately, you don’t have to be wealthy or particularly adept in the kitchen to make a stunning board, she said, which is what makes charcuterie particularly attractive to millennials.
“I live in LA and I don’t have a beautiful, sprawling kitchen with all this space where I can cook some intricate meal,” Hasaka said. “But I have enough room to make a little board with meat and cheese. You don’t need a gourmet kitchen to put something like that together.”
Looking toward the future, Albala, the history professor, said he anticipates the passion for charcuterie will start to die out on social media, as the obsession over artisanal goods starts to wane.
“The whole idea of handmade artisanal stuff is just not going to be that interesting to people anymore because everyone’s doing it now. It’s not a market distinction of coolness,” he said.
However, influencers like Instagram fan favorite Mullen and TikTok star Johnson are banking that the boards will remain beloved on social media, both for their fans and their bank accounts. Mullen said she anticipates that the next wave of charcuterie will be focused on plant-based “meats” and cheeses, as well as new takes on deconstructed meals displayed on boards.
“I feel like it’s released my inner child again,” Mullen said of the obsession with charcuterie.