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Cheese for the Culture: On Cooking Through Grief

This is going to be a bit different than my other columns. I have lost someone dear to me and my heart has broken. When facing heartbreak in the past, I’ve been comforted by words, song, and cooking. My words have been trapped by grief. So I went into the kitchen.

I am 2-years-old at my great- grandmother’s apartment in Rochdale Village, Queens. There’s a pigeon right outside the window walking back and forth on the windowsill. I am on a wooden step stool and my great- grandma is teaching me how to make oatmeal. I must keep stirring so the bottom doesn’t burn. She tells me when to add the raisins so they plump a bit, but not so much that they burst. This is my first memory. My great-grandma is long gone. She was my first heartbreak.

I am 10 and my mother has put my brother and I into the car. It’s still dark out, even though it’s technically morning. The whole house smells like cookies and quick breads. We hurry because it’s a long drive to the flea market, and we must get there early for a good spot to sell the baked goods my mother spent all night making. Food stamps don’t keep us fed for the month, and even though she works two jobs, there’s always too much month at the end of the money. My mother has set aside a few chocolate chip cookies for my brother and has made carob chip cookies for me so I don’t break out in hives. We eat cookies for breakfast, and I help my mom sell while the sun beats down on us. My mother is gone. Another heartbreak.

I am in culinary school. I visit my Nana and she has me drive to OB’s Bakery for takeout. When I ask her what she wants, she says curry tripe. I ask what her second choice is just in case they’re sold out. It’s beef stew. I get myself jerk chicken. When I go home, I tell her they were out of the tripe. This is a lie. I just hate the smell and don’t want my car to smell like curry tripe on my drive from Queens to Vermont. I tell her they’re sold out every time she asks me to get her tripe. She’s suspicious. She wants me to admit to the lie. I stand fast. I will do anything else she asks of me. Anything except curry tripe. She’s gone now. My heart is shattered.

I am driving from Montpelier to Norwich, Vermont. I am crying. I can’t do this. I should quit school. One of my chef instructors called me worthless and I’m afraid he may be right. The matriarch of my chosen family comes to the door and wraps me in her embrace. She feeds me and has me stay the night. She folds $20 for gas into my palm when I leave the next day. “I’m so proud of you,” she says. She says this at my graduation two years later. She says this when she reads my first column, and when I’m inducted into the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, and now she’s gone too. I am numb.

I am in the kitchen making bread, kneading the dough by hand, even though my elbow and shoulder complain about the labor. The dough is too sticky. I’ve been cooking all day and there’s moisture in the air that I didn’t consider when I weighed the ingredients. It feels like the dough will never come together. So, I add a bit of flour, knead a bit more and I let it rest for an hour. I go back to it and start kneading again. It’s a bit stronger now. There’s more flexibility, but it still tears. I let it rest. Each time I go back to the dough, it’s stronger than it was—it just needs to rest. I am the dough. In time, I too will develop strength. I just need to rest.

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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