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A Sign of Good Taste |   Betty Ann Prinz is the go-to food expert for the East Bay's Deaf community. |  By Anna Mindess

Betty Ann Prinz loves working with her hands. The vibrant, red-haired, Deaf Oakland resident has taught American Sign Language (ASL) to thousands of students over the past 20 years at San Francisco State University and Vista/Berkeley City College. But her real passion is using her hands to slice, stir and sauté in the kitchen. In the local Deaf community, Prinz holds the singular position of acknowledged food expert, party planner, caterer, cooking teacher and trusted restaurant critic.

The Bay Area has an active Deaf community that regularly organizes events for socializing, fund-raising and celebrating, and it seems that Prinz has catered them all: Deaf film festivals, art openings, retirement dinners, birthday bashes. She also entertains guests at home almost weekly. “My mother has more energy than the four of us daughters put together,” says her oldest daughter Christine.

Linda Bove, a Deaf actress well-known for her longtime role as Linda the Librarian on Sesame Street, praises her friend Prinz for making entertaining seem effortless. “Food is her art,” says Bove. She recalls a memorable evening out that Prinz organized for a group of Deaf friends at Foreign Cinema in San Francisco. “She took care of everything: she picked the perfect table (it was a large square one where we could all see each other well), gave us advice on which dishes to order and what wines to go with them.”

Besides having the right-shaped table and adequate lighting, there are a few other considerations for Deaf diners. They choose seats carefully to avoid having their backs against a sunny window that would create glare or a table too close to the kitchen door as the constant parade of servers rushing in and out constitutes the equivalent of a distracting “visual noise” for people who depend on their eyes.

Priscilla Moyers, who is also Deaf, considers Prinz a “bicultural food ambassador” having enjoyed Prinz’s feasts when they both taught ASL at Vista College. “We Deaf people tend to rely on other Deaf people’s opinions of a great variety of things, from which car dealer to trust to which restaurants to go to,” she says.

As Prinz describes in sign language the genesis of her passion for food, her eyes sparkle, her face glows and her hands do a graceful dance.

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Prinz, 69, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the only deaf member of a hearing family. Following a traditional pattern for deaf children, she spent the school year boarding at the state residential school for the deaf. To the uninitiated, it might seem like a bleak life for a young child to live much of the year separated from family, but Dr. Thomas Holcomb, a Deaf professor of Deaf Studies at Ohlone College in Fremont, explains why this has been a treasured part of growing up for generations of Deaf people. “Life at school is often a respite from a rather lonely existence at home where very few family members, if any, can communicate effectively with the deaf child,” Holcomb says. “At school, by contrast, deaf children are in a rich signing environment and surrounded by people who can communicate with them.”

For Prinz, it didn’t matter that “the food was terrible, the teachers were hearing and the budget for after-school activities was almost nonexistent.” She remembers organizing a story time when she and her friends sat in a big circle after school and took turns entertaining each other for hours in sign language. “We told each other true stories, made-up stories, our dreams, and our wishes. Those friends were like family to me.”

When Prinz went home on weekends, summers and holidays, her chronically ill mother was often in the hospital and her father cooked the family meals. Prinz remembers him buying scallops at Legal Seafoods and making a big production of deep-frying them with delicious results. Her culinary awakening occurred at age 15, when her father took her to an Italian restaurant and she tasted freshly made ravioli for the first time. As her fingers trace the shape of the delicate squares, her expression is ecstatic: “Their cheesiness was soft and sensuous—it was a food orgasm.” She begged the cafeteria supervisor back at school for ravioli, and was thrilled to see it served for dinner, but profoundly disappointed to bite into canned Chef Boyardee pasta.

After high school graduation, Prinz married at age 19 and began experimenting in the kitchen for friends and family. To show her appreciation to her beloved aunt Katherine, who had raised her after her mother died, Prinz decided to make her something special. She paged through a cookbook until she spotted a photograph of an enticing eggplant soufflé. (With a limited food repertoire at school, she had never tasted a soufflé or an eggplant before.) “When I noticed the black seeds in the first eggplant I cut open,” her hands freeze in midair and her face takes on a puzzled expression, “I thought it was rotten, threw it away and went back for another. The third time I went back to the Italian grocer, I decided it was okay to ask for help and wrote him a short note: ‘Bad? Spoiled? Rotten? Black dots.’ Because he was Italian, his gestures were clear. He told me it was supposed to look like that.” The dinner for her aunt turned out beautifully. Soufflés have since become one of her signature dishes (with goat cheese, spinach or crab) as well as eggplant parmesan, cheesecake, an array of party appetizers and bountiful brunches of German pancakes, quiche or strata.

“When you entertain, keep it simple and unpretentious. Trying to impress guests will only make it more stressful,” advises Prinz, who has taught stress-free entertaining at San Leandro’s Deaf Community Center. “People tend to overdo it for company and underdo it for family. I always used my ‘good dishes’ with my children when they were young. [Her four hearing daughters are now grown.] Practicing with your family will help you entertain with confidence.”

Prinz’s daughter Catherine recalls, “My mother always set a lovely table for us, as if she was having company. She said that surrounding herself with the visual arts was ‘her music.’”

As a self-taught cook, Prinz has amassed a large collection of cookbooks for inspiration, although she has the confidence to freely adapt and substitute. A devoted reader of Bon Appétit, Gourmet, San Francisco magazine and Dining Out, she studies the restaurant news and reviews like a sports fanatic poring over the latest trades. Prinz follows her favorite chefs’ latest endeavors as they move to a new restaurant or open their own and then tries out the new eateries. Youngest daughter Anya admits, “It’s embarrassing, she always knows the hippest new places before I do.”

Prinz gets a steady stream of inquiries from both Deaf and hearing friends, students and acquaintances who trust her to suggest the perfect restaurant to wow an out-of-town relative or propose to a sweetheart. She can usually provide a list of four restaurants in different price ranges, with notes about the specialties of each one. Over time, Prinz has developed a relationship with servers and chefs at her favorite spots.

Several years ago, a mysterious fainting spell convinced doctors at Kaiser Oakland to keep her overnight for observation. Prinz resisted mightily, until her daughter, Claudine, suggested getting dinner to go from nearby Bay Wolf. When owner-chef Michael Wild found out the meal was for Prinz he gave it to Claudine without charge. Says Wild, “She is an absolutely wonderful person, gracious and appreciative. The whole staff knows her, and as soon as she walks into the restaurant, everyone smiles.”

Prinz’s favorite reviewer is Michael Bauer, food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. She devours his reviews, agreeing with his preferences 98 percent of the time and feels they share a common culinary soul. “My dream is to meet him one day, share dinner and a bottle of wine at Blue Plate or maybe one of Pat Kuleto’s new places and compare notes over dessert and coffee.”

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Anna Mindess is a sign language interpreter, freelance writer and author of Reading Between the Signs (www.interculturalpress.com).

Betty Ann Prinz
Betty Ann Prinz. Photo by Lori Eanes.

 

Note: Deaf people who use American Sign Language and identify with the Deaf community use the capitalized “Deaf” to express pride in their language, heritage and culture. The term “deaf” refers to the physical condition of not being able to hear.

 

 

Betty Ann PrinzDeaf dining diva: Betty Ann Prinz, who the Deaf community turns to for advice on food matters, whips up an asparagus pancake in her kitchen. Photo by Lori Eanes.