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Reflections on a Year: Celebrating the Joys

I’m sitting in the living room of my new apartment, surrounded by the compartmentalization of my life in box form. My kitties are playing tag and are screaming what I imagine translates to “PARKOUR!” I’m listening to the debut album by the Bird and the Bee, and it is during this scene of joy and absolute chaos that I am finally able to take stock of the past year.

I’m torn on what should be in my Best of the Year list. I could do a review on some of the best cheeses I tried: Quinta from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, Botanero with cilantro and jalapeno from Don Froylan Creamery, Fig and Grapefruit chèvre from Laura Chenel, Hatch Chile chèvre from Cypress Grove, etc.. While some of my best memories of this year involve cheese, I want to celebrate the people who helped make this year amazing.

At the Cheesemonger Invitational in San Francisco I met up with a friend from my early monger days. I’d never been to San Francisco, hadn’t traveled outside of my 22-mile work commute since 2019, and hadn’t seen Shawn Adair in at least 10 years. I cried. I couldn’t stop hugging him. We went out to Aunt Mary’s Café in Oakland where I had the best meal of the year: grits waffles with fried chicken. We checked in on each others’ mental health. We laughed. We worked hard during the monger event, toasted with some Black Girl Magic Rosé, and when I said goodbye I cried again, but felt lighter in my heart than I had in a long time.

My next trip was to Brooklyn, New York, for the New York Cheesemonger Invitational. More hugs with friends. More tears. I was nervous. It was my first time among my peers since I started this column, and I wasn’t sure how interactions would go. I was introduced to monger Izzie Ocampo. She thanked me for writing, and in doing so she unknowingly helped me conquer my fear of rejection from “the industry.” Now, when I’m feeling insecure, I think of that moment, when surrounded by hundreds of cheese enthusiasts and cheese industry titans, a monger came up to me and said thank you. I am humbled and grateful.

My last cheese trip was to Portland, Oregon for the American Cheese Society Conference. I was wearing three hats, which was too many. I went for work, so I had to make sure we were set for my company’s events. I was also there as a representative for the Cheese Culture Coalition, and I was a panelist for a session on Mental Health in BIPOC communities. A week before the conference, I received an email announcing that I had been nominated and was going to be inducted into the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers. I lost it. I took my glasses off to re-read the email. Put my glasses back on to read it again. This is the verbatim response I sent to David Gremmels:

“WHAT!! NO!!! WHAT?!?!”

Sent from my iPhone which is a technical marvel, but not perfect. Please excuse any typos, double entendres, bad puns, or sparkles.

Should I change my signature? Maybe. Should I have waited until my heart rate was no longer at rabbit speed before sending an email? Probably.

I wanted to tell everyone about this honor, but I held back. I only told a few people, and I asked them to keep it hush. I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t screaming from the rooftops, but the answer was simple: I was convinced that there’d been a mistake.

On the day of the ceremony I asked a few friends if they would come. Three wonderful friends sat with me while I waited to be called. Three cheese professionals who deserve their own flowers held me while I shook and cried and acted a whole mess. These powerful, educated, and creative women created a community for and with me. Thank you, Kyra James, Natasha Bailey, and Alisha Norris Jones. Thank you, Vanessa Chang, for standing with me even as you were being inducted as well. Thank you, John Antonelli, for your generosity. Thank you, Emiliano Lee, for creating an incredible panel and including me in the discussion, and thank you to everyone who came and listened. Thank you, Lisa Lopez, for holding down the fort as I ran around during the conference.

I am honored to have had a year filled with amazing experiences, but the actual best thing in 2022 was this column. It gave me the opportunity to share some of my stories, and through those stories I have been able to make amazing connections with folks in the cheese community. I’m looking forward to 2023, and hope you’ll join me at this juncture where cheese meets culture.

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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