I’ve been obsessed with the act of eating since before I can remember. My parents, aunts and uncles regularly recount stories about my obsession with food as a wee one, creating a folklore in the family around my longstanding obsession.
All kids remember the first “big purchase” they spent weeks or months saving up for. I can’t express the elation I felt when buying that Black & Decker Bread Maker way back when. I’d spend hours rolling out dough for cinnamon buns or pizza and quickly tweaked my own recipes which were filled with roasted garlic, sharp cheddar and sesame.
In high school I was a total nerd at an academic school which focussed on science, math and the arts, but fell short on culinary classes. I was prepared to go into medical school, or study something fancy like film. In my final year of school my mother took me to visit the culinary programs offered at Humber, George Brown and Guelph to get a sense to see if the food tract was a good fit for me. I figured that University of Guelph’s Hotel and Food Administration program would be the best fit as it allowed me to nerd out (taking courses in art history, apiculture and gender studies) while spending hours sipping in wine lab, running my own fine dining tasting menu and exploring the anthropological aspects of how people around the world engage with food.
After finishing university I spent three years running around the globe, soon realizing my love for documenting life by telling stories and shooting photos of my favourite meals. My intention was to return to Toronto and dive into the bar or restaurant scene. When I returned to YYZ in 2010 I made an appointment with my doctor to get a checkup and soon found myself in an audiologists office. For the past year I’d been noticing I found it harder to listen to conversations. I was in loud hostels and figured it was just my surroundings but wanted to test my hearing as it had been years since I had done so.
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That day my audiologist informed me my hearing was significantly impaired. I sat in shock as she told me I needed hearing aids (I was 24 at the time). I was hit with a second blow when I realized the two tiny devices that would sit behind my ears costs thousands of dollars with little help from the government. I came home that day to tell my family about the news and ended up bursting into tears and running into the bathroom to hide. Sobbing in the bottom of a bathtub was the peak of this grief. I was terrified about no longer being able to hear beautiful music or watch films in a theatre. It was all very overwhelming.
Being hard of hearing is stigmatizing. In the first year using my hearing aids I can’t even count the number of times someone looked at me sorrowfully when they realized I was “deaf.” Often these folks wore glasses propped over their nose so I made a point of immediately reminding them of their more fashion-forward disability which blatantly flashed on their face for the world to see. The best moments are when someone doesn’t actually believe you (they legit think you are joking) and you have to take your hearing aids out of your ears and show them to them to make them shut up about it. In case you are wondering, their faces turn pale and jaws go slack with disbelief and embarrassment.
I found out about my hearing impairment at a pivotal moment in my life. I was ready to launch my career and had just moved to a new city where I intended to settle down. I wanted to use my degree and spend every day sharing my passion for food but it all seemed out of reach. I love making cocktails but couldn’t imagine taking orders at a loud bar on a Saturday night. There’s only so much lip reading one can do. Working in a restaurants front or back of house also seemed daunting as communication is key and I felt shy (and let’s say ashamed) about taking down a wrong order or having to have a chef or patron repeat themselves to me over and over again.
It seems as though photography and writing has saved my soul. Rather than cooking a fine feast or mixing cocktails for the masses I have found a job which caters to my needs so I can excel in what I do. Limited hearing forces me to be more observant, and pause to reflect on the ambiance of a restaurant and the flavours found in its signature dishes. I really do feel like my other senses are heightened, smells are sharp, tastes slip across my palette and for me so many dishes are stand out because of their texture.
It’s certainly not easy. I’ve found myself interviewing personalities, having to ask them to slow down and pause so I can scribble down their thoughts. I quickly learned that recording my conversations wouldn’t work as I could barely hear the three hour conversation when I got home. I also prefer organizing face to face meetings (or Skype) rather than “hopping on a call,” as it’s easier for me to read lips and follow along.
After using hearing aids for five years they’ve become a part of my life. I can now hear better than I did when I first walked into that audiologists door which I’m thankful for.
Moral of the Story: don’t let a disability dishearten you. Continue to pursue your passion by making adjustments so your work is manageable. I may not ever be the chef or cocktail whiz that I once thought I’d be growing up but can confirm I’ve found happiness in Plan B.
My happiest moments today are cooking for friends and family (albeit a much smaller audience) where I whip up creative cocktails and rattle over recipes. Just know if you’re over for dinner sometime I’ll need you to nix that “speaking ever so softly shtick” on the ASAP. Inside voices at Casa Dobbernation are as loud as can be!