For years, cheese boards reigned over Instagram like so many decadent Roman emperors. Wedges of shiny brie tumbled with almonds and pears in compositions that grew ever more ornate and voluminous — yet always perfectly unstudied — until they resembled Dutch paintings so pumped-up they would be banned from the Still Life Olympics.
As evidence of how pervasive this aesthetic has become, there are humans who actually identify themselves as “charcuterie stylists.” People attend classes where they learn to array slivers of cheese and rosettes of prosciutto into photogenic art.
So is it any wonder that the mania for arraying food on boards has crept well beyond the borders that separate cheese-and-charcuterie-ville from the rest of the food world? Folks, the wall has been breached.
No food is off limits. Pancakes? Why not! Recent headlines declared arrays of the breakfast food — displayed, of course, with pretty fruits and little pots of toppings — to be the “new avocado toast” — in other words, they are so hot on the ’gram.
French fries? Oh yes, definitely. L.A.-based food blogger Sarah Gim has popularized artistic arrangements of the fast-food staple (waffle, crinkle-cut, sweet potato — who knew there were so many kinds?) on her Instagram account, @thedelicious.
Candy, with its vivid colors so perfect for rainbow-hued displays, seems particularly suited to the medium. Salads? They’re the new chairman of the board, with perfectly chopped vegetables and accoutrements.
When it comes to anything edible, apparently there’s a new motto: All aboard!
“It’s just a cool way to eat, and I love to see the way people have gotten so creative with it,” says Shelly Westerhausen, a food stylist and author of “Platters and Boards: Beautiful, Casual Spreads for Every Occasion.”
“There is no right or wrong food to go on a board,” says Carla Smith, a graphics production manager at a marketing agency in Austin, who started documenting the boards she serves friends on the Instagram feed @pretty_and_plated. She started with traditional cheese and charcuterie but is branching out — a recent Super Bowl-themed arrangement featured sliders and fries. “It’s just a way of serving food that fosters communication and connection.”
So what is a board exactly? Typically, it’s an actual chunk of wood — people use slabs of lumber, bread boards and cutting boards — topped with tableaus of foodstuffs, offered for communal eating. Some are arranged in tight patterns or designs, others are looser and more natural-looking. That’s given rise to “grazing tables,” which typically appear at large gatherings, in which a mass of similarly arranged food is placed directly atop a table or on strategically hidden plates.
The appeal is evident. “People are attracted to abundance,” says Alice Bergen Phillips, the owner of D.C.-based Cheesemonster Studio, which offers cheese-board catering and classes. “It’s something deep in the human brain. When you see lots of perfectly ripe food all together it’s attractive, and the more different elements there are, the more your eye moves around — like, ‘ooh look, there’s that, and that and that!’ ”
Perhaps most importantly, the colorful and textured tableaus look good on Instagram, where food fills the frame in close-cropped photos or spills lushly across the screen. Creating them is an artistic outlet for Smith, who uses the graphic design principles she employs in her day job to create something more shareable — and satisfying, because, duh, you can eat it. “I start with a clean slate and build from there” she says. “I try to make sure everything is balanced — it’s like treating a board as a canvas.”
Bergen Phillips watched the social media evolution, as “boarding” spread from cheese to just about any kind of food ’grammers could toss in a picturesque pile. “The creative inspiration people got from cheese boards has begotten creative inspiration for a lot of things,” she says. Even though she remains somewhat of a cheese-board purist, she doesn’t hate the way the trend has expanded. “I’m a rising-tide-floats-all-boats kind of person, so if people want to go crazy, I say go for it,” she says.
Eric Michael, co-founder and chief creative officer for Occasions Caterers, said clients started coming to him about four years ago with images from social media depicting lush charcuterie spreads on boards. That has morphed into the grazing tables — often requested for parties and weddings, but increasingly even for corporate events — that can hold anything from breakfast to desserts, created not just by chefs but by food stylists. Depending on the ingredients, he says, such spreads can cost anywhere from $40 to $70 a square foot, which is more than luxury carpeting but infinitely tastier.
As long as it’s not too bulky, it can go on a grazing table, he says. Though for caterers, such displays present challenges. Michael says his team sometimes uses clear plates to hold individual components that can be switched out after crowds devour them. “Nobody Instagrams the grazing table 20 minutes in,” he says. “That’s like carnage.”
In her experimenting with boards, Smith has found some foods just aren’t meant to sit on a flat surface. Vegetables might sweat, she notes, or get grease on adjacent foods. Other foods simply get cold before you can even style the board and get it out to your guests.
Even Westerhausen, who champions everything on boards, says the boarding lifestyle can be taken to extremes. She bemoans the kitchen-sink approach many Instagrammers are taking to putting together their creations, which she says often look like they’re designed just to be photographed and not eaten. “Some people are so over the top — they’re literally filling their whole tables with food,” she says. “I wouldn’t know where to start — it’s gotten away from the idea of being beautiful and curated, and there’s just too much food it’s not practical. That’s a trend I’d like to see calm down.”
At least for now, boards aren’t going anywhere. But even if they fall out of fashion, Michael has no doubt they’ll be back — like anything else, what’s old is eventually new again. Michael recalls that when he first started out 30 years ago, many clients wanted the “smorgasbord” look they had seen in then-chic Swedish restaurants, which resembles … you guessed it, the boards of today’s Instagram feeds. “Years from now,” he says. “Your kids will be coming to us and saying, ‘Have you heard of this new thing called boards?’”
More from Voraciously: