Recent college graduate Grace Hagerty was out to dinner when her friend's mom asked the 23-year-old, "So what are you up to post grad?"
"You know, I'm making a lot of charcuterie boards. I think that's my new hobby," Hagerty replied. While her friend's mom was taken off-guard, Hagerty isn't alone. In fact, there's a whole subsection of Instagram devoted to cheese plates, and @thatcheeseplate is the most famous account among them, with 98,000 followers and counting.
"It's funny to watch the trend grow," says Marissa Mullen, who founded that page and recently left her career as a creative coordinator in the music industry to manage it full-time. "Back in 2013, I would go through the hashtags — #cheese, #cheeseplate — and like all the photos with the hashtags to grow my following. In the beginning, there weren't that many. #cheeseplate, back in 2013 only had about 40,000 posts or less and now I think it's over 200,000." She's right. As of this writing, there are over 215,000 posts tagged with #cheeseplate, and dozens like Mullen's @thatcheeseplate and @cheesebynumbers, which share artful arrangements of cured meats, nuts, veggies, spreads, and of course, cheese. Mullen's own accounts have more than doubled since Vox interviewed her about the growing phenomenon back in January.
The Instagram trend may be recent, but cheeseboards have been trending on and off since the early 1900s. As prohibition came to an end in the United States, the popularity of cocktail hours at hotels and other social gathering sites soared and so too did the popularity of snack trays, which often included cheese. "The 'cocktail hour' not only whets the appetite for food, but also satisfies it. One need never leave it hungry. With the many drinks, are eaten delicate gastronomic bites — caviar, anchovies, rare cheeses, red salmon roe, crisp crackers and biscuits; constant processions of tempting canapés and hors d'oeuvres passed on trays, in seemingly undiminished numbers," John W. Harrington says of the social trend in a 1935 New York Times article. Though cheese platters have long been a popular offering at parties for older generations, millennials and gen z-ers have a new reason for their special connection with smorgasbords. They're gravitating to the dishes because they're simple to put together, but the pay-off can be worthy of a social media share.
Hagerty became a fan of @thatcheeseplate and @cheesebynumbers thanks to her roommate. "This is kind of silly, but every night before bed, I would make myself a little dessert plate and call it my 'treat plate.' It was like, a couple of cookies and some nuts and some fruit, and I would get a little meticulous about arranging it in the kitchen," she says. "My roommate walked in one night and was like, 'Oh, that's adorable. You should put that on Instagram.'"
Hagerty's roommate DMed Mullen's accounts to her, and the photos demystified the process of putting together a nice-looking spread. Perhaps it wasn’t all that different from how she made her "treat plates." "I was always intimidated by charcuterie boards. They seemed really fancy, but after I saw the step by step way to put them together, I got into it." Now, Hagerty is sure to always have base ingredients on hand so she can throw together a photo-worthy snack if a friend comes over for drinks after work. And, she gets those ingredients at Trader Joe's, the millennial-favorite meal-hacking haven.
The process of putting together a cheese plate that Hagerty finds so gratifying is exactly what Mullen thinks is so appealing about them. "Millennials strive for things that we can do tangibly… especially in New York, a lot of events and workshops are popping up that are more like ‘create this, use your hands, get off the screens,'" says Mullen. "Being able to have your friends over and create something with your hands that's beautiful and exciting that you then can take a picture of, that’s been a big trend in the past year or so."
Mullens created That Cheese Plate, which features photos of finished cheese plates for inspiration, and Cheese By Numbers, a cheese board tutorial account where followers can swipe through step-by-step, while she was still working full-time in the music business. "For me, creating a cheese plate was this therapeutic meditation where I could create this art form of cheese and accouterments and then bring all my friends together and we could all share the experience."
The sense of community is also what got Laura Nelling, the creator of @cheeseboardandchill, another cheese-centric Instagram account with a few thousand followers, into the cheese board influencer game. Nelling always loved creating a beautiful spread for friends to enjoy or even just for herself, but it wasn't until she moved across the country to Los Angeles in her mid-20s without knowing anyone that she became truly passionate about cheese boards. "About once a month I would invite over some co-workers, a random connection from my college who happened to live in L.A., or the friend of a friend who also just moved here and knew no one," Nelling shares. The spreads she created for the gatherings always starred a cheese board.
Nelling, whose day job is working as a CPA at a public accounting firm, shared cheese board photos on her personal Instagram. It wasn't until a relative commented on one of the pictures to suggest she start a cheese board blog that she considered creating a dedicated account.
Cheese plates have clearly become an outlet for creativity and for feeling connected to something bigger for many millennials and fresh-out-of-college gen z-ers. But it's not just about making something. For instance, I could watch sped-up videos of cheese boards being organized for hours, but when I eat cheese and salami and pickles at home, it's usually standing up over the sink. I'm not planning to ever recreate them, but I still find these cheese board photos engaging.
Mullen doesn't think I’m alone in that. "A lot of people like avant-garde, different plates that normally you won't see. I did a Game of Thrones plate, where I did a full rotisserie chicken and a baked brie… The themed, off-the-beaten path plates do really well because people love seeing cheese plates in not your normal context." In fact, in addition to the photos of her most-accessible cheese plates, pictures of the super over-the-top platters are the ones that get the most love on social media. These are spreads that not just anyone is going to make for a run-of-the-mill after-work get-together.
Another example that caught my eye: Recently, Mullen shared a photo of a Gemini-themed charcuterie board to her That Cheese Plate Instagram account. As a typical millennial woman, I often look to astrology for answers, and as a true Libra, I’m kind of obsessed with Geminis. I sent the post to nearly everyone I knew. "That Cheese Plate's following is almost all millennials, and you know, everyone our age loves horoscope memes," Mullen explains. "My mom was talking to me this weekend and she was just like, 'When you first posted that Gemini plate, it really went over my head. I don't really know what you were thinking.' And I was like, 'Just wait mom, it will hit.'"
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