Exploring Culture: Challenging Eurocentrism in the Cheese Industry | culture: the word on cheese
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Exploring Culture: Challenging Eurocentrism in the Cheese Industry

In culinary school I learned knife skills; I learned the mother sauces and the sauces they spawned. Everything I learned was rooted in classic French style. Everything I was taught had a focus on European standards. But I wanted to cook like my Big Ma—Southern comfort food—biscuits, greens, and grits. I wanted to cook with foods from Barbados like my great-grandma and my island ancestors. But I knew I had to conform if I wanted to make a career out of cooking. So I did.

I want to tell you that I struggled to ignore my cultural curiosity, but I didn’t. To anyone who has had to code-switch, or has been called aggressive for asking a question, you know why I didn’t fight. You know why I kept my head down and tried not to call “negative” attention to myself. Would I do things differently today? I don’t know. I think I would. I want to believe that I’m secure enough in my skills, and my promise to stand up for myself, but confidence and strength are often annihilated by a thousand cuts of micro and macro aggressions, as too many of us know.

When I eventually left the professional kitchen and went behind the counter for my first cheese job, I didn’t question the types of cheese we sold. I didn’t look any further than what was in front of me. As years progressed, I wondered which other cultures had cheese. Cheese was presented as a food produced by Europe, the United States, and (to a lesser extent) Canada. I knew there was more out there, and I wanted to explore. So, six years ago, I asked a friend for advice on a grant proposal idea. My idea was in its very early stages. I just needed their opinion.

I wanted to go to countries in Africa. I thought about countries in the west such as Senegal, Nigeria, and Ghana, and eastern nations such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Eritrea. I even considered some Middle Eastern North African countries. My friend told me I would never be considered if I didn’t go to Europe. They told me they didn’t think “anyone’s even making cheese in Africa” and suggested I focus on Spain, and if I wanted to mention Africa, I could talk about the Moors.

I still hold that conversation with me, and although it was not their intent, I have allowed that answer to burrow in my heart and keep me from exploring.

Enter Natalie Matos (@madcultured). She’s a Los Angeles resident, activist, and friend who has been in the industry since 2015. She is also working toward opening her own cheese shop in 2024. In November 2023, she posted a video on TikTok about Waagashi, a West African cow’s milk cheese. My heart skipped a beat. I sent her a DM and asked if she could share some of her cheese experience with us here.

Wagashi cheese.

Agela Abdullah (AA): In November 2023, you posted a video on TikTok highlighting Waagashi, a cow’s milk cheese from West Africa. It was the first time I’d ever heard of this cheese, and the brief video had my mouth watering. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Natalie: Yes, please! Waagashi is sentimental to many West African diaspora when found stateside because it’s a reminder of home. If you’ve ever had paneer, Jibneh Nabulsi, or many of the white cheeses you can cook up and fry, you can understand its use, but Waagashi is so unique to me because it’s coagulated with local apple of sodom (Calotropis procera, a type of milkweed) extract and has these excellent spongy holes. The cheese tastes like fresh milk, and the sponginess helps soak up the pepper sauce it’s typically eaten with. You really cannot make it exactly like you’d get it in West Africa, so when someone brings you some back, it’s almost like they brought you along with them on their trip back home.

AA: Where did you find the Wagashi cheese?

Natalie: A good friend knew that I love cheese and asked another friend in the motherland to bring some back for me. I’ve never been to Africa, but my friend welcomed me to her homeland with this act. I knew to look for cheeses outside of the West/Global North because I came from a place that made cheese, and my people knew we made cheese; the only ones surprised to learn that were the folks knee-deep invested in this weird Eurocentric notion that somehow cheese is only made in Europe and maybe North America – it was wild seeing other mongers eat this cheese concerned about hygiene (microaggression 101). I tried applying for the DZTA, but there seemed to be no place for cheese in this context, so I just kept searching and, with community, have found incredible cheeses brought to me since I’m too broke to travel to these places.

AA: In an industry that focuses on European cheeses and American cheeses made in the style of European cheeses what inspires you to discover cheeses made by cultures outside of the Euro standard we celebrate here in the States?

Natalie: Without getting too into the weeds of colonialism and white supremacy, cheese is not only part of the colonial legacy; it is also just the logical thing that people do with too much milk. No one is surprised when folks make butter because it’s “easy,” but it takes skill to make cheese, and Eurocentrism cannot accept that our folks can be skilled (you know how in the show Ancient Aliens, pyramids must be made by Aliens because no way Black and Indigenous folks could), or worse, they honestly believe that they just learned because Europeans taught them (yikes).

AA: What do you have planned for your next cheese bite? What are you looking forward to trying next?

Natalie: Oh, I love suggestions, so please let me know! Maybe we can dig deeper into a cheese made in the

AA: A few years ago, when we first met online, you mentioned a cheese from the Dominican Republic that you love. Can you tell us more about that cheese and how people use it in culinary applications?

Natalie: The two big ones everyone brings back to the States after visiting family in DR are Queso Geo and Queso de Hoja. Geo is an Edam-style with red wax on the outside, something you find in many former colonies, like Marca Pina in the Philippines. You eat it with crackers and salami, but it melts nicely, so I love it in a grilled cheese. Queso de Hoja is a pasta filata cheese, similar to mozzarella but tangier. It doesn’t sit in a water mixture so it holds onto its yummy richness. This one is fun to peel back like string cheese, but I don’t think many folks eat a whole one in a single sitting like I do.

AA: Do you have any suggestions for finding and incorporating cheeses from outside the European model? Are there any stores or markets that you can suggest?

Natalie: If you go to markets intended for diaspora or immigrant people, see what their dairy aisle looks like; also, you can sometimes find cheeses in cans. Most importantly, if you’re in community with these folks… ask them. You’d be surprised how many people around you eat cheese! It doesn’t always have to be pretentious; maybe it’s super-processed, but I genuinely believe all cheeses are beautiful because they tell a story. I’m trying to get a cheese store opened here in Los Angeles where I can sell or at least have pairings with global cheeses, but in the meantime, you can get a snapshot of some of these cheeses on my website, madcultured.com.

I am so grateful to Natalie for sharing her experiences with us, and hopefully, she’s inspired you to look for cheeses from different cultures.

Additionally, I would like to introduce a nonprofit organization called the Cheese Culture Coalition. Founded by Whitney Roberts, the Cheese Culture Coalition is focused on education, beginning at the elementary school level, and advocates for teaching and promoting Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color within the cheese industry. This spring, they are announcing a new grant program for BIPOC industry folks. There are no limitations to your proposal. They want to meet you where you are in your professional journey. Suppose you want to use the grant funds for continuing education, studying for your American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional Exam, doing an apprenticeship with a cheesemaker, or exploring cheese from other cultures—the Cheese Culture Coalition wants you to apply for this grant. Check out the website for more information.

Disclaimer: I am the board president of the Cheese Culture Coalition.

Agela Abdullah

Agela Abdullah is a “reformed” cook and chef who took her first job behind the cheese counter in 2008. She currently handles marketing for an Illinois cheesemaker and serves as a board member for the Cheese Culture Coalition. She lives in Chicago with two cats, two sourdough starters, and an old laptop named Harbison.

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