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Making Mass Trauma Tasty and Classy with Charcuterie Boards

Charcuterie with cheese, cold cuts, and a bowl of olives.

Normally associated with catering spreads and dinner parties on the casual side, charcuterie boards have become this major phenomenon as social isolation continues to take its toll. Charcuterie board contents can also help serve as a portal to chapters of our lives we miss.

 

Well hey there, homebodies. It’s been a minute!

Your girl the toad lady has been busy in other realms. What with the whole deadly plague happening outside as I gear up for both film school (WHAT!) and selling my home, I fell behind on my Home Stratosphere column but am picking up now.

And oh lordy, is 2021 turning out to be an even bigger dumpster fire than 2020 was so far. It’s only the middle of February? It feels like a whole-ass YEAR happened between 2020 ending and now!

So yeah, this is a time of low mental energy for all of us. New year’s resolutions? Oh screw that, you’re lucky if you can muster the energy to roll out of bed and get on that daily Zoom meeting you’re probably sick of, if you’ve got your boss and co-workers as unwanted long-term digital houseguests. Even if you’re a free agent like myself and fortunate to be spared from that…you go out of your way to keep Zoom off because the overwhelm is completely suffocating. In fact, since this pandemic was declared, I’ve only made it to a grand total of two digital events.

Anyway. It feels strange for an abuse survivor with ADHD to see all you poor normies picking up Abuse Brain behaviors or seeing this global trauma play out on social media with people who otherwise had full control of their faculties now exhibiting some degree of executive dysfunction.

So onto what’s been a hot topic these past few months: CHARCUTERIE BOARDS!

Just like how fondue was THE THING in the 1970s and the cupcake had its moment in the sun in the late 2000s, charcuterie boards have become a 2020s pandemic cornerstone.

Charcuterie and cheese on wooden boards.

Normally associated with catering spreads and dinner parties on the casual side, charcuterie boards have become this major phenomenon as social isolation continues to take its toll, along with getting more mixed messages from various levels of government than your average commitmentphobic tech bro on Bumble.

Tastewise says that charcuterie board consumption has increased 60% since lockdowns first began in March 2020. Interestingly, the average time someone would eat a charcuterie board was just 1.85 times a year, literally just once or twice for most people, but this has significantly gone up since the age of social distancing commenced.

I constantly see them all over my Twitter feed when it was a relatively rare occurrence in the past. Both actual charcuterie board presentation, and then jokey memes about it. Some are incredibly artistic and Pinterest-worthy, like some kind of Williams-Sonoma sales display. Others are less visually appealing but still serve their delicious intended purpose.

Then one day it dawned on me:

What is a charcuterie board but a random plate of food?

Turns out that just like memes and our linguistics in general, various dishes can also stray far from their origins and intended use.

 

Charcuterie actually means “cooked flesh” in French.

Cut pieces of raw meat on a round wooden chopping board beside a knife and spices.

Oh great, now Armie Hammer wants to come to the party.

Before we instantly thought of cannibalistic weirdos who starred in The Social Network, “charcuterie” was primarily used to describe butcher shops in 15th century France that chiefly sold salted and smoked pork products. If you recall French lessons from middle or high school, you may have heard the term “charcuterie” to refer to butcher shops, something you don’t see as often in America these days as big-box stores and grocery stores are more likely to have their own butcher counters.

But French culture takes its cuisine very seriously, and frequently demarcates different types of fare you’d get at these establishments. “Bakery” is more apt to be a catch-all instead of “pastry shop” in the states, while the French have separate words, patisserie and boulangerie. Charcuteries are specifically for certain TYPES of smoked and preserved meats.

According to the quite obviously biased Eat Cured Meats, restaurateurs first expanded on the definition of “charcuterie board” then social media basically exploded it into a million tiny pieces. But these boards’ origins were meant specifically for cooked and preserved meats specifically of French origin, like terrines, pates, rillettes, and salumi (not salami, which is both dry-cured and salted). It’s ironic that charcuterie boards are such a hot item right now given that North America is experiencing a meat crisis. Or almost averted a major one, anyway. Well, there’s ANOTHER meat crisis happening until all us single people get vaccinated, but I’ll spare you the kind of content that would make the late great Larry Flynt proud.

The definition eventually broadened to include game meats and dry-cured meats, then eventually cheeses. Chefs realized they could pair these meats with cheeses, fruits, plant-based proteins and fats like nuts and olives, and breads and crackers to make them more like a huge snack that becomes a small meal, rather than something a few people just pick various bits and pieces from at a party.

Eventually, this morphed into vegan and vegetarian options like Mediterranean meze platters featuring a variety of appetizers and finger foods plus cheese plates sans meat, often accompanied by honey or other dips. I love me some cheese, but I never understood the compulsion to put HONEY on cheese or crackers, be it whipped honey you can spread or that $15/bottle stuff at Whole Foods and fancy tea shops that you handle like cocaine.

 

Today, a charcuterie board just means it’s a random assortment of food when you can’t be arsed to prepare an actual meal, yet you put effort into the presentation.

Charcuterie and cheese platter.

There’s all kinds of them now. Cheeses are the most popular addition, or even the cornerstone if you don’t eat meat, but they can also include pickles, fresh and dried fruit, sometimes contain fresh vegetables, and then what I dubbed “random party foods” that don’t seem to fit into either the condiment, side dish, or appetizer categories, such as olives, pretzels, nuts, and sometimes even candy.

Ravenbandaaa on Twitter posted one that has a variety of snacks:

Carri9991 got one comprised solely of Valentine’s candy!

The modern incarnation of the charcuterie board has been a top notch party food because it has a little something for everyone no matter their dietary needs or preferences. There’s salty, sweet, bitter, and bland. You can put one together with $6 worth of groceries you got on food stamps or blowing $60 at Whole Foods’ cheese department.

But in the pandemic era where we have to eat at home far more than we’re used to, charcuterie boards seem to be the perfectly emblematic food now that we’re a year into this hell.

We want to make the effort, but we cannot be fucked to. We’re tired.

Whether you’re single and living alone, or you got kids making every single thing sticky and you plan on having a bubble bath/orgy once all the teachers get vaccinated, everything sucks now. We’re trying to make the best of it and stay safe. Some days, you’ll want to use this time to level up your cooking or baking skills, but now charcuterie boards have taken over the pages of sourdough boules that were taking up all the front page space on Pinterest.

It’s because we’re tired, cranky, sick of living like this, and the last thing we want to do is prepare any more food. I managed to crack the code on how to make my favorite Turkish red lentil soup, so I gleefully kept making it until somehow, I got the exact recipe to start sucking again and gave up. Now I wonder if it’s just a psychological thing that I like the soup better from a restaurant, or perhaps I just need to use fewer red lentils, get a smaller potato, and dump more salt and dried mint in.

A bowl of red lentil soup on a wooden board.
Mine almost never comes out this lovely orange despite using tomato paste. WHY MUST YOU TAUNT ME SO.

Executive dysfunction is a painful byproduct of traumagenic mental illnesses like all the different subtypes of PTSD, it’s like you’re in a video game and you can see what you need to finish the level across this huge chasm but there’s no way to cross it.

It can make things like meal prep INCREDIBLY mentally taxing, even if your household is just you. Hell, it often doesn’t even seem worth it to buy all the groceries and put the time in if it doesn’t even save that much money compared to supporting local restaurants.

When you make your own charcuterie board though, you can be as fancy or “whatever” as you want. My personal favorites are cheese, crackers, dried fruit like pears, apricots, and apples, some peanut or almond butter, roasted nuts, fresh fruit like apples, strawberries, and blueberries, and just a little chocolate at the end.

The actual arrangement of a charcuterie board can be meditative, knowing you’re about to eat it in a few minutes unlike the crapshoot in that recipe you just tried or hoping in vain that all the time and groceries you spent on your umpteenth attempt to make restaurant-style Turkish red lentil soup came out decent this time. (I GOT IT TWICE, THAT WAS IT!) 

Or you can just schlock it onto a Dixie plate to quickly jam it into your facehole. Because HOW are the sink and dishwasher that frigging full already when it’s just you?!?

 

Moreover, charcuterie board contents can also help serve as a portal to chapters of our lives we miss.

Food served on board of economy class airplane.

A little plate of random things like cheese, nuts, and crackers makes me think about my JFK-SFO Delta segments that were a regular part of my life. Delta seriously needs to go back to the supplier they were using for the fruit and cheese snack box pre-2018, the Murray’s one is decent but it’s just not the same as that EPIC snack box we used to get with that super sharp cheddar.

I also always opted for the Jetblue cheese box on my flights to Burbank, because they’d be at such a weird time that I wouldn’t be hungry at the airport but I’d be starving with at least 3.5 hours til touchdown somewhere past Cuyahoga Falls.

I’m not the only sky warrior who felt this way: people actually bought AIRLINE FOOD after lockdown began last year. Hey, the supply was going to go to waste while fewer flights were taking place. At the time of writing, my ass hasn’t been on an aircraft in a solid 1 year and 8 months between a major surgery and lockdown beginning shortly after. And lemme tell you, IT HURTS. I miss the thrall of getting ready for a trip, seeing my friends on the road, happily running to events, and entertaining you from my hotel rooms, hostelry, or friends’ homes.

But having a little plate of sharp cheddar cheese, artisanal crackers, little packs of roasted nuts, and a mint chocolate candy as my ass atrophies in my swivel chair to the tune of my hulking air conditioner’s hiss? It helps me remember The Before Time and hope for the post-vaccine era.

We’ve gone through a mass trauma as a nation. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost loved ones and pillars of their communities. Small businesses have hemorrhaged. Being caged like an animal sucks.

That plate of meat and cheeses might bring back good memories of entertaining your friends and family, or going to parties. God knows I’d do something ungodly for a mass catering pack sandwich that comes with a bag of chips and a fun size Milky Way where I’m picking off all the stuff I don’t like, but am not complaining because it was a free feed from whatever conference I was speaking at.

DEAR GOD, I MISS FREE FEEDS. I miss the road, the sky! Peopling! Cooking at home all the time? This shit’s for the birds! I seriously don’t know HOW anyone with a household larger than three people hasn’t been committed by now. If you are in my path in The After Time, I will take you out for fizzy drinks and cheesecake that neither of us has to make.

A charcuterie board can be whatever you want it to be. Make an all-meat one if you’re sorely missing a certain kind of meat right now. Nothing but cheese if you’re doing the low-carb thing. A mix of candy, nuts, and pretzels that remind you of sharing a blunt with your friends. Food prep can be a source of stress right now, but we can also have a random assortment of food be a well of comfort.

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