A few years ago, I felt really fancy if I plopped a few bricks or wedges of fancy cheese on a board next to some crackers. Look, I went to the cheese shop, or at least the Trader Joe’s cheese aisle! I also put out a fig jam! But alas, such a display now looks like a child’s attempt at hosting with the rise of the maximalist cheese plate. You’ve probably seen them on Instagram — charcuterie boards overflowing with crumbled cheese, folded prosciutto, handfuls of almonds and berries and delicately positioned rosemary. The boards appear crafted with barest amount of order, exuding the aura of a farmhouse harvest, the bounty of the land piled and tumbling and ready to be casually snacked on.
Of course, these Instagram-friendly cornucopias are not actually how it looks when you — or even a professional — haphazardly threw a bunch of salami and goat cheese together. They are carefully crafted, and being able to pull it off has become a hosting flex, with a stable of popular influencers to prove it.
One of the most renowned is Marissa Mullen, who has dedicated herself to the art of the cheese plate. In the beginning, she used Tumblr and would post photos of plates she made for her friends. That turned into the Instagram @ThatCheesePlate, the catalyst for much the cheese plate envy in your feed. Then she made @CheeseByNumbers, which lays out step-by-step instructions on how to make these sorts of plates on your own. Then came That Cheese Class, her event series. And on May 5, 2020, she’ll publish That Cheese Plate Will Change Your Life, which will both feature recipes and guides for cheese plates, and argue that arranging one is a self-care tactic akin to flower arranging.
The rise of the an overflowing cheese plate as an aesthetic perhaps says something about these trying times. We crave beauty. We crave substance. We crave at least the appearance of homey authenticity. We want our friends to gather around the table and feel warm and welcomed. And more importantly, we want all that without having to cook.
We spoke to Mullen about the rise of the cheese plate, and why the #SalamiRiver is so satisfying. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Eater: When did it dawn on you that your career is being a cheese person?
Marissa Mullen: I know, cheese plate influencer, it’s so funny. For me, making a cheese plate was my way of just calming down after a stressful work week. I’d invite friends over, and sharing this creation because it’s almost artwork in a sense. My background is in photography. I love taking pictures of my food, and That Cheese Plate started in college as just taking pictures of my cheese plates and posting them.
The shift happened when I started the Instagram for Cheese by Numbers. When I first tried to pitch the book, I had about 30,000 followers on That Cheese Plate and I got rejected by every single publisher who saw it. Basically they all said I didn’t have enough marketing power. So I made Cheese by Numbers on Instagram, just to save the name. In November of last year, I got an email from the Rachel Ray Show. The first TV appearance with Rachel Ray led to my second TV appearance on Today, which led to Random House emailing me.
What makes Cheese by Numbers so appealing?
I call it “swipe to build.” Each frame in the Instagram swipe is a step in the process. People saw that and it really resonated because it takes something that’s so intimidating, like a cheese plate, and breaks it down and makes it really simple. I don’t know, it’s like chicken or the egg. I don’t know if I started the trend, or that people became interested in cheese plates this year, but I definitely saw an influx in the followers and momentum in only the past year, and I’ve had this since 2013.
Just from the outside, it really seems like random friends of mine are now posting fancy cheese plates when they have parties, and I’m like, “You never did this before!”
Yeah, it’s definitely a trend, which is awesome. It’s so fun. My favorite thing about cheese plates is that they just invoke this sense of excitement, because it does look so fancy, and everyone loves cheese, so it’s great.
If you look at some popular cookbooks right now like Alison Roman’s Nothing Fancy or Ottolenghi Simple, they’re all about simplicity with hosting. But making a cheese plate is a multi-step, involved process. Why is that something people are interested in, even though so many other trends are shying away from really complicated cooking and hosting?
I think with cheese plates, it’s more that they look very intimidating and a little bit more involved than they actually are. But when you break it down, there are ingredients that go on the plate that require shopping for, but you don’t really have to cook anything. The biggest thing that you do that’s complicated is cutting cheese, cutting vegetables, and folding meat.
But it looks complicated, which is why people gravitate towards it: You bring it to a party and it’s like, “Look at this beautiful spread I made!” It’s great because it’s something that you feel good about — you’re bringing this for people and you’re showing your own creativity.
For me it goes beyond cooking. It’s more a form of art in a sense. I do these cheese plate classes and it reminds me of the paint and sip classes. With my classes I basically have a cheese board. I go through the steps, show them how to make it, and then everyone makes their own cheese boards. And at the end of the class, not one cheese board is the same. You can flex your own creativity and put your own touch on it. I think that personality shines through and people love putting their own touches on it and showing that to their friends and bringing them to gatherings.
You have this clear aesthetic to your boards, which has become the aesthetic of cheeseboards in general. How do you feel about copycats of your work?
I’ve definitely noticed there’s a lot of similar photos out on the internet now, but I just try to stay in my own lane and keep doing what I’m doing. I think imitation is flattery, and although sometimes you can get wrapped up in looking at all these accounts and being like, well I did that first, it’s just a waste of energy. I know that I created my brand and everything that I put on the internet is my creativity. Someone can imitate a cheese plate that I make, but inventing these new ideas, I probably have a step ahead just because it is my initial creation, my initial idea.
For example, I’ve been doing these fun, more kitschy plates that are easy to replicate. I did a turkey for Thanksgiving and I just did one for Christmas called the charcuter-wreath. And I literally give step by step instructions how to make a cheese plate, so I’m not surprised that there are all these accounts popping up.
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SWIPE TO BUILD ➡️ That “Charcuter-Wreath” Plate as seen on @thatcheeseplate Let’s see you re-create this one for the holiday season! First, make your herb wreath out of rosemary, sage and thyme. KEY 1 - CHEESE: Goat Brie and Truffle Italian Cheese 2 - MEAT: Salami and Prosciutto 3 - PRODUCE: Cranberries and Pomegranate Seeds 4 - CRUNCH: Dark Chocolate Covered Star Cookies 5 - DIP: Honey on the side would be a great pairing for this board 6 - GARNISH: Eucalyptus (around the plate) #Charcuterwreath #CheeseByNumbers #SwipeToBuild
Given that you’re putting all these instructions on Instagram, how do you write a book that gives your followers something different?
The book is going to be 50 cheese plates that I haven’t posted on Instagram, for all different occasions. And then there’s recipes throughout the book. There’s a really good baked brie recipe. There’s a recipe for pimento dip. There’s a section about how to build a grazing table. It’s almost like I want it to be your companion at the grocery store. When you open up to a plate, it shows you a shopping list of what you need to buy with a picture of the cheese plate. And then the next page is an illustrated map of the cheese plate. I think it’s nice to see it laid out in this way, because on Instagram you have to swipe through. It’s hard to copy and paste captions to put it on a grocery list. It’s a little bit more complicated to go to a grocery store with Instagram, using that as your guide. But with this, it’s pretty much that you open it up and everything you need is right there.
So you started on Tumblr, and you’re on Instagram. And I saw you also have TikTok. What differences have you found between these platforms? Do your followers want different things?
Definitely. TikTok is this world that I am trying to learn. It is so intimidating just because there are so many amazing creators on there who have nailed the app. I feel like I totally understand every part of Instagram, but TikTok is just this whole frontier that I’m learning. I’ve deleted some TikToks because I posted something thinking it would do really well and then not one person sees it or likes it. I made a TikTok because there’s this one girl, @magsmeals, who makes cheese plates and tagged me in a bunch of her creations. I learned that she is TikTok-famous for charcuterie boards. I looked at her account, she has 100,000 followers. There are all these people on TikTok who love cheese plates, so I was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s this whole other community that I don’t even know about.” It’s a really popular app right now amongst the teens and college kids. I think college is a big market for cheese plates.
On Twitter, I trademarked the term Salami River, which refers to a meat flowing down the center of the plate on your cheeseboard. I’ve done funny tweets where it’s like, cry me a salami river, and then you copy that, put it on Instagram, and it blows up as a meme.
Have you seen any of the cheese plate parodies on TikTok?
No, I haven’t. Are they funny?
Yeah, it’s people being like, “Oh yeah, look at me, I’m going to make this beautiful, fancy cheese plate,” but it’s string cheese and gummy vitamins.
Oh my God, that’s hilarious.
At this point, how much cheese do you eat?
I honestly don’t eat a crazy amount. Pretty much every weekend, or every other weekend, I invite my friends over and make cheese plates for them with all of the cheese that I have from the week. So, I give it out to people. There’s been times where companies would send me cheese for a sponsored post and think that I work in industrial-sized kitchen, but I work out of my apartment, so I can’t have pounds of cheese. When that happens, there’s actually a really great church in Brooklyn that accepts all-size food donations. I definitely try all the cheeses on my plate, but I save going all in on it for special occasions.