My pair of professions straddles two worlds. By day, I work as an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and otherwise, I’m a food writer. Although these domains rarely intersect, it’s a thrill when they do. In 2011, I broke the news of San Francisco’s first Deaf-owned restaurant, Mozzeria and followed up last Spring with an interview of the owners in ASL.
But there are plenty of Deaf Bay Area food lovers who aren’t chefs, and I recently took a dozen of them--software developers, college professors, actors and retired folk--on an only-in-sign-language tasting tour of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto through Edible Excursions.
I’ve been leading Edible Excursions tours of San Francisco Japantown for the general public since last summer, and recently added ASL–only tours for members of the local Deaf community. (Because ASL is a separate language, with its own grammar, one can’t speak English and simultaneously sign ASL.) Since the Berkeley culinary romp was my third ASL tour, I knew from experience that I would be breaking a rule of politeness in Deaf culture and added the following warning during my intro speech in front of Shattuck Avenue’s Cheese Board.
Due to our tightly planned schedule tasting tidbits at nine places in three hours, I explained that I was going to have to rush the group from one spot to another. In Deaf Culture, despite the advances of email, video phones and texting, face-to-face communication in expressive ASL often has top priority and thus it is considered rude to interrupt signed conversations. In the interest of maximal food appreciation, however, the Deaf foodies replied to my rudeness tip-off with amenable nods.
With that, we headed to Saul’s Deli, where a table was already set with glasses for what proved to be our first guessing game of the day. I told the group that this straw-colored soda was house-made, as was common in the heyday of New York delis in the early 20th century, when this flavor was touted for its health benefits. What is it? Ginger and vanilla were the first guesses. I shook my head no. Finally, a member of the group with a sensitive palate guessed correctly: celery seed soda.
Then, we were joined by Saul’s owner Peter Levitt and over succulent house-smoked pastrami sandwiches, he explained Saul’s mission to serve locally made deli fare, as opposed to the former practice of flying in deli foods from New York.
Next, we ambled over to the Epicurious Garden complex and entered the regal Imperial Tea Court for a lecture on the history of tea with seven kinds to sniff and one to taste.
The most popular stop on the tour--not surprisingly--introduced the group to “the best chocolate in the world,” accordingly to Alegio’s co-owner Robbin Everson, which grows only on Sao Tome, a tiny island off the coast of West Africa. The series of nibbles of bars from 100% to 73 1/2% cacao was revelatory and sublime. Thanks to Everson’s expertise, the guests delighted in having all their questions answered. Two of the most surprising discoveries: Hershey’s bars contain only 10% cacao and there is no caffeine in chocolate--instead a stimulating compound called theobromine produces a different set of effects on the body.
On our way out of Epicurious Garden, we made a quick stop at Soop for some warming Thai Red lentil soup and I explained that owner Marc Kelly serves Swedish yellow split pea soup every Thursday to honor his Swedish mom's national tradition.
After a short walk down Shattuck Avenue, the group assembled in a large semi-circle (with sign language, everyone needs to be able to see) in front of The Local Butcher Shop. While they munched on the sandwich of the day, pork with onion, cabbage and BBQ sauce, I interpreted a fascinating lecture about whole animal butchery from co-owner Monica Roccino, after which she entertained questions. “What’s the most exotic meat you carry?” one person asked. Perhaps the questioner was hoping to find ostrich or reindeer on the menu. But Roccino explained that she and husband Adam’s commitment to local ranchers means that they only use animals raised within 150 miles, so the most exotic meat she could come up with was squab (pigeon).
In front of the Cheese Board Pizza Collective, I told the group how this worker-owned collective was inspired by an Israeli kibbutz, while they scarfed down the flavor of the day: zucchini, onions, mozzarella, feta cheese, and basil pesto.
After a shot of caffeine and history at the original Peet's Coffee which started the gourmet coffee movement back in 1966, the group was more than ready to mellow out across the street at Vintage Wine, where owner Peter Eastlake described the three wines the group was about to sample from Healdsburg’s Preston Winery. But as I began interpreting in ASL, I had a momentary brain-freeze as I realized that common terms in the wine world, such as: “full-bodied,” “thick, round texture,” and “floral notes” were not the kind of phrases that usually come up in my daily courtroom interpreting. Thankfully, several Deaf guests were clearly wine connoisseurs and knew exactly what Peter was talking about. Reverence for the grape, it seems, transcends language.
And with a parting sweet scoop of gelato from Lush back in Epicurious Garden, the Deaf tour guests reflected on the satisfying aspects of the day: one enjoyed learning the history of many places she has frequented throughout her years as a foodie, another appreciated “discovering these awesome hidden gems in Berkeley and the stories behind them and learning about them in ASL,” and a third was so overcome with the delights of the day, he admitted, “I’m sign-less!”
Edible Excursions’ Gourmet Ghetto tours Thursdays and Saturdays (stops may vary).