In keeping with one of the purest dad stereotypes, my father is extremely tricky to buy gifts for, because he only ever wants socks and underwear. Over the years, though, I’ve learned that the key is to come up with something unexpected and, ideally, aligned with his sense of humor. Something like … a wooden box for bats to nest in, so he can watch them zoom over the backyard at dusk, or an antique novelty pipe with a basset hound’s face for a bowl. You know it when you see it.
In November, I spotted what looked like the perfect Dadgift: An item so unhinged, it arguably shouldn’t exist. It was a charcuterie chalet, or, a small cabin constructed from the contents of a charcuterie board. A charcuterie chalet is like a gingerbread house, only instead of cookies, the walls are crackers and meats, and the glue that holds the whole thing together is not icing but sticky cheese. Images of beautiful protein cottages, tidy and minutely detailed and sometimes oddly elegant, began circulating on Instagram in late 2019, but for whatever reason — people having a lot of time on their hands, and maybe also more shelf-stable meat in the pantry? — seemed really to take hold in 2020. “The most savory snack this side of Christmas!” Taste of Home boasted this fall. “Mesmerizing,” I naively observed on these pages.
Initially, I admired the freaky Pinterest minds that looked at cheese-spread and saw adhesive. These meat houses appear enchanting from the outside, but then, so did the witch’s cottage in “Hansel and Gretel.” Appearances can be deceiving.
With that in mind, the first thing I would suggest to those of you considering meat-building is, don’t do it. Just let the meats and cheeses lounge on a plate or a board or whatever. Their natural habitat is what they want, they don’t want to be repurposed as shingles. And do you want to consume charcuterie that’s been manhandled for two to three hours? Trust me, you do not!
Please heed my cautionary tale.
Phase I: “Planning”
Looking back, I think it would’ve been useful to make a whimsical sketch of my target creation, like they do on the Great British Bake-Off. I at least should have thought about the materials — soft cheese to hard cheese ratios; whether Brie might adhere the bits more effectively than mascarpone; how either of those elements jell with chorizo — before I went shopping.
But I am not a planner, and I arrived at the grocery store prepared to wing it. My conviction crumbled at the cheese counter, however, where choice overwhelmed my brain. I just started grabbing things: The biggest, sturdiest crackers I could find; whatever dried meat presented itself; bags (!!) of olives; giant bamboo garnish spears in lieu of toothpicks. I threw a wedge of fancy blue, a redundant half-round of Roquefort, a full wheel of Brie, a generous hunk of spicy Gouda, two packs of deli-sliced pepperjack, and a tub of Gouda paste into my overcrowded cart. I figured I could use the Brie and the Gouda spread to stick things together, whereas the solid options could potentially help shore up my interior or even stand on their own. Maybe I will carve little Gouda flames to make a fire, I thought, tossing a thing of mascarpone on top of my pile, just in case.
I spent an egregious $114.67, and emerged with … this:
Phase II: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
On Christmas Eve afternoon, I appraised my materials, spreading them all out on a counter. Again, don’t do this! Make a plan first and remove your fighters from the fridge as needed, rather than letting them all sit out for the duration of your scaffolding experience. This is common sense, and I ignored it, opting instead to just dive in.
I laid my foundation: Two slices of the pepperjack, layered three deep and stacked end-to-end in a rectangular formation. Hm yes very orderly … now what? In my head, the meat house was made of sausages, Lincoln Log-style, only I didn’t see anything like that at the store. Kicking myself for not remembering about hot dogs, I considered my crackers and selected my longest, waviest boys for the wall. Their multi-grains sort of recalled stucco!
Next, I broke some of my bamboo spears in half and sank them into the pepperjack, supports for the exterior: Two crackers wide, three crackers deep, each panel pasted to a spit with mascarpone (which at this point was still cold) and feebly buttressed by more crackers in the interior. Somehow this seemed to work, and I congratulated myself as I dairy-spackled decorations — cornichon hedges, a soppressata round as a hobbit door, why not — to the outside.
She began to look like a little home.
Phase III: Collapse
Confidence soaring, I turned to a critical feature: The pointy roof. Up until now, I had entertained a vague notion of simply … making a sort of tetrahedron out of support beams, then draping it in speck. You know, ham-thatching a roof.
Picking up my spear halves, though, I realized this plan would potentially wind up crushing the cracker walls, already beginning to sag, because it would sit atop them like a witch hat. Also, I was about an hour into construction; the cheese stench was overpowering; the whole thing would spoil if I did not move quickly. And how quickly can an amateur weave meat?
Gloom descending, I scrapped that idea and scrambled for some crackers. They did not want to stand to attention, preferring to slide down the sides, so I cemented them with a gratuitous layer of Brie grout at my sister’s suggestion.
For a brief and shimmering moment, my methods appeared to actually work. But then I began pasting chorizo rounds to the gables, something I should have finished before I pitched the roof. The slight pressure, combined with the weight of the sausage layer, sent the tidy A-shape listing resolutely to one side, as the wall panels began pulling away from one another. A dollop of cheese dripped from the rafters. She was melting. I shoved her into the fridge to chill for half an hour, ignoring an ominous thunk as I shut the door.
At this point, I had sunk nearly two hours into my project. The sun had set. Christmas festivities loomed. It was time to end this.
I steeled myself for the worst and opened the fridge. As suspected, my roof imploded, its cheerful peak reduced to a mess of cold cuts. My spirits fell with it. Everything stank of salami, including me. My palms were shiny and red with spicy oil. I could not see an end to my labor, except to pile sausage slices over the top of what was now a strange cracker fence, and call it a day. I cut a chunk of gouda to signal a chimney and stationed a few festive rosemary pine trees on the slantiest side, for added support. I crumbled blue cheese around the perimeter, its moldy veins meant to evoke grass peeking through snow — a new and assertive addition to the olfactory landscape.
My meat house was an undeniable eyesore, truly offensive to behold, but it could not be allowed to sit any longer. I summoned my father.
Somewhat surprisingly, my dad loved his meat hovel. Even if he did not immediately understand what he was looking at, he laughed as soon as he saw it, and later hauled it downstairs to show off on the family Zoom. I suspect his reaction has more to do with a parent’s obligation to appreciate their child’s arts — even when the arts are crappy and the child is an adult — than it does with my creation being nice to look at, but either way I’ll take it.
Although making it was a tremendous pain in the ass, and although it was condemned to the trash — largely intact — for health reasons, the meat house had its intended effect. My dad received a gift, he got a kick out of it, and! Most important of all, nobody got food poisoning in the process. A Christmas miracle if ever there was one.