over easy

What Does Your Cheese Platter Say About You?

Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

Over Easy is a weekly food column by a 20-something woman who can barely cook an egg and just wants to learn how to throw together an elegant three-course meal for her friends.

At 26, I have officially reached the Age of Entertaining. This means fewer parties have stale Cheetos and trash-can punch and infected nipple rings, and more have specialty cocktails, and people with retirement plans, and elaborate cheese platters. Beautiful, beautiful cheese platters.

The ideal cheese platter is, in my opinion, a lush, dairy-filled cornucopia that brings to mind those ancient Roman bacchanals where everyone got to lie down and wear loose fabrics and seductively drop grapes in their mouths and also probably do a bunch of weird sex stuff. It looks abundant and luxurious, but also effortless, like you invited people over at the last minute, and then just popped out to your backyard olive grove to pluck some kalamatas, and gently tossed some nuts and high-end cheeses together. A beautiful cheese platter is everything I want to be, and everything I fear I am not: sophisticated and elegant, but also cool and relaxed.

So, when my roommates and I decided to have a game night at our apartment, I offered to make a cheese board, and I would do whatever it took to make it beautiful and effortless, and to prove that I am super elegant and relaxed, goddamnit.

As any easy, breezy host does, I started by scrolling through the over 137,000 pictures tagged #cheeseplatter on Instagram, reading 20-plus articles, and watching a bunch of videos online. There was Ina Garten’s cheese board (she rested her cheeses and snacks on a bed of fig leaves), Bon Appétit’s “perfect” cheese plates, their “Cheese Plates for Every Possible Occasion,” and Real Simple’s “The Perfect Cheese Platter”. They all looked good, but I wanted something more extravagant, so I chose this platter by Gaby at What’s Gaby Cooking. It looked like a Renaissance still life, and had every possible treat you could want at a party, and also she had a video of her composing the board that I watched six times while taking copious notes about how to place the various components. Cool and relaxed.

After work on Friday, I went to the Whole Foods by my office where, it turns out, they had anticipated a mad rush of insecure weekend cheese plate builders, and conveniently arranged all of the olives and fig jams and expensive nuts and crackers together near the cheese counter. I made my way carefully through Gaby’s list, getting three types of crackers (cheese wafers, regular toasted crackers, and rosemary raisin pecan Raincoast Crisps), Castelvetrano olives (according to Gaby, my entertaining doula, they are “the gateway olive if you don’t like olives”), candied walnuts, almonds, roasted pistachios, grapes, fresh figs, fig jam, dried apricots, prosciutto, and salami. Then, it was time to pick the cheeses.

At this point, I became overwhelmed with anxiety. What if I picked the wrong kinds? What if I picked cheeses that didn’t go well together, and everyone went home at the end of the night and said, “My God, can you believe that rube tried to pair a Normandy Camembert with a Wisconsin Muenster?! How absolutely mortifying! Let’s shun her.” (I think Camembert and Muenster are actually fine together, I don’t know.) Standing in front of a display of Parmigiano-Reggiano, I read through Bon Appétit’s “perfect” cheese plates again, and also their “Cheese Plates for Every Possible Occasion,” and also Ina’s cheese board and Real Simple’s “The Perfect Cheese Platter.”

Finally, I came to my senses and remembered we are all just flesh sacks hurtling toward our inevitable demise, and that any cheese I pick is fine. I did follow two guidelines that I had encountered multiple times: (1) to choose cheeses made from different milk — cheese, goat, and cow, and (2) to choose different types of cheeses — aged, soft, firm, and blue. For the aged cheese, I got a Parmigiano-Reggiano made from cows’ milk, for the soft cheese I got a Bucherondin goat cheese, and a smoked Gouda for the firm cheese, and a Roquefort for the blue. The total for everything came to over $120, and after paying I felt extremely faint and spent the whole train ride home meekly whispering to myself “Sophisticate. Elegant. Sophisticated. Elegant.”

The next night, and hour before the guests came, I began arranging the food on a thick wooden cutting board I had bought specifically for this purpose. I watched Gaby’s video again (I love Gaby, Gaby is my queen) and also a Bon Appétit video in which cheese experts say you should arrange your cheese “softer to harder, clockwise, with blue at the very end.” I wasn’t sure what the purpose of this was, but I trusted this fedora-wearing cheesemonger.

The preparation. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

Once the cheese was placed, and a few slices cut so guests don’t get confused, I guess, I folded the salami into what Gaby distressingly referred to as “meat flowers,” delicately piled the prosciutto so it looked loose and casual, placed the different crackers around the board, the green grapes in the middle, the red grapes on the side, then tossed the dried apricots, nuts, and figs, wherever there was room, and squeezed in the jar of fig jam, and a bowl of the olives.

When I was done, it looked amazing. It was abundant and casual and fun, and it only took me and my roommate Kenny about 20 minutes to get the perfect picture of it to post to Instagram. Sophisticated! Cool!

Our guests all appropriately ooh’d and aah’d, which was good because I would have felt uncomfortable but ultimately justified in kicking them out if they didn’t compliment the platter. In the end though, it didn’t really matter. We played What Do You Meme and drank too much wine and then left to get more wine and also whiskey and came back and drank more and by the end we were shoving meat flowers into our slack maws like a pack of wolves descending on an abandoned campsite, and the cutting board looked like a crime scene.

The cheese platter, while possibly the most beautiful thing I have ever created in my life, honestly wasn’t really worth the expense, and it definitely wasn’t worth the existential angst. But I do think it was worth the effort, if for no other reason than that the next time I make a cheese platter, I will know I don’t have to use 56 components to make it good. Maybe next time I’ll be sophisticated and elegant, cool and relaxed.

My report card
Preparation: B+
Taste: A
Easy, breezy effortlessness: F

My Overall Performance: C

What Does Your Cheese Platter Say About You?