Faces Behind the Screen: Mary Mammoliti (Kitchen Confession)
Meet Mary Mammoliti.
She built her career as a financial analyst but has since shifted gears. She likes to say she went from “counting beans to cooking them.” Mary is, of course, referring to Kitchen Confession, her blog which is dedicated to sharing delicious recipes and confessing stories about her experience.
But that’s not all Mary’s up to. She also produces and hosts her own podcast, stars in a cooking show on Accessible Media, Inc. called “Now We’re Cooking,” and even travels the Canadian prairies making delightful documentaries for all to enjoy. We think a petition to get Mary on the Food Network is in order!
Mary identifies as low vision, but she emphasizes that retinitis pigmentosa is only a part of her. It doesn’t identify her. She admits that she’d rather be known as “the only Fruitloop in a bowl of Cheerios.” It’s safe to say that this sentiment perfectly describes Mary’s cheerful and bright demeanor.
For Mary, food equals happiness. Cooking helped her to open up about a hidden part of her life and to find a new path, and we’re lucky enough to hear her story.
In part one, we get the inside scoop from Mary on how Kitchen Confession began. Plus, she goes into what “Empowerment through food,” means to her.
What is your background?
MARY MAMMOLITI: I was, well, am, a senior financial analyst. My deteriorated sight actually worked against me, so I was unable to continue doing what I knew was my life. That kind of led me to what I’m doing today, believe it or not.
I mean, I always like to say that I went from counting beans to cooking them, because I went from counting money to starting my career in cooking. You’re always working towards your career. You’re always trying to build more towards your career and build something for yourself. When my eyesight deteriorated even further, I realized that, OK, something’s gotta give…that’s how I began cooking again.
What does cooking and food mean to you?
MARY: As my vision deteriorated even further, I lost some more vision.
I could regain my independence through food and through cooking.
You kind of hit rock bottom when that happens. At least for me I did, because it was the realization that my life was about to change. Everything that I knew…in terms of work and how I do things, that was going to change. There’s a new way of living. You kind of mourn that. You mourn the loss. You mourn it as though something did pass away, because it is a loss to you.
And the kitchen and cooking was something that I started doing. I’ve always cooked, but when you’re focusing on your career, that’s what you’re focusing on. So the kitchen kind of took a back seat. I realized that cooking became a form of therapy for me, and it was a place where I could be me, and I could regain my independence through food and through cooking. So that’s how Kitchen Confession began.
How has Kitchen Confession evolved over time?
MARY: Funny enough, my girlfriends were just saying to me, you know, Mare, can you give me this recipe? So I opened up an Instagram account and told them to check there. I noticed that the account started growing in popularity, then I thought, OK, so maybe there’s something here. So I put together a blog, which was “Fab Fresh Food.” That name quickly changed because I realized that there’s something more here, there was more that needed to be discussed and more that I wanted to share with people than just a simple recipe.
Kitchen Confession is about having conversations, and people learning from each other, and sharing stories with food.
“Kitchen Confession” was born because…food has always been a big part of my life and it holds so many memories. I remember growing up, everything was in the kitchen and around the kitchen table. We would always come over and talk. It was like a confession. So, sitting there one day, that’s when it hit me. That’s what my blog would be, kitchen confessions.
Kitchen Confession is about having conversations, and people learning from each other, and sharing stories with food.
What does the phrase, “Empowerment through food,” mean to you?
MARY: “Empowerment through food” means so many things. When you create something, you feel a sense of pride. When we cook, especially with vision loss, it’s a place where we can recharge, regroup, regain our independence, because you don’t need any assistance. With cooking, it’s just you and the food. When you add vision loss to the mix in someone’s life, we’re always asking for help. Because, to be honest, there are certain things that we can no longer do on our own.
Cooking always ends with either a smile or laughter.
But when you’re cooking, you can do it on your own. No one’s telling you, “Watch that step,” or “There’s someone beside you.” In the grocery store, it’s like a landmine for me when it’s busy. But in the kitchen, there’s none of that. You feel empowered because you’re tapping into that independence, an independence that you feel like you’ve lost. When you lose your sight, you feel like you’ve lost some of that independence. And in the kitchen, you don’t think about it. It’s just you and the task at hand.
Honestly, cooking always ends with either a smile or laughter. Things may go wrong. But as long as you can laugh it off, and then go, all right, I’ll do it differently next time. That’s why I think there’s so much joy around food. You don’t take yourself too seriously, and it empowers you to continue being you.
In part two of Mary’s story, she opens up about her vision loss and how retinitis pigmentosa (RP) affects her.
How does having vision loss redefine what it means to be a chef?
MARY: You’ll never find a chef or a home cook that’s more connected to their food or puts more love into it than someone who is either low vision or completely blind because we have to be connected with our food. We’re touching a lot of it. I encourage you to not take yourself seriously. Touch your food. Make sure you know and you’re familiar with what the texture is, what it feels like, and pretty much just don’t take yourself so seriously.
How does retinitis pigmentosa affect you uniquely?
MARY:I was born with retinitis pigmentosa (RP). It’s a degenerative eye condition and a rare genetic disorder. It’s the gradual degeneration of the retina. I think that’s the easiest way to explain it.
I like to say that RP lives with me, not me with RP.
It begins with difficulty seeing at night, and then it moves to a loss of peripheral vision. I myself have central vision, but it can lead to total vision loss.
Right now, I have central vision, but it’s wet. [By wet I mean] when you rub your eyes really hard and you get those squiggly lines, for lack of better terminology. That’s how I see, so if it’s not directly in front of me, I will not catch it, unless I look directly at it. I was diagnosed in my early 20s, but I can remember as far back as being seven when I knew that there was something different about me.
How do you identify in terms of your vision loss?
MARY: Low vision. I never really thought of using anything to identify myself, because, to me, I’m just me. But when I get asked the question, it’s like, OK, I guess I need to identify myself as something. And since I can’t use the term, “the only Fruit Loop in a bowl of Cheerios,” I guess I’ll go with low vision.
I like to say that RP lives with me, not me with RP. It’s a part of me. It doesn’t identify me.
What struggles did you face before opening up about your vision loss?
MARY: For most of my life, I let it [define me]. I let it control me. I let it overpower me. I allowed it to take center stage because I was always the one trying to hide it and not wanting people to know exactly what it is, or that I am different.
When it came to work, I never wanted anyone to know, because there was always that fear of being treated differently. My employers never said, if we knew that you had this you would be fired or let go. But in my mind, I always thought that by letting people know, bad things were going to happen to me.
Meanwhile, the bad things were happening because I was hiding it. I was basically living as an imposter, an imposter in my own life. I was going through the motions, pretending I’m fine. But there was a lot going on behind the scenes. And I think my body just kind of shut down.
I learned that I don’t have control over what happens with this condition, but I do have control over how I choose to spend my day.
I was getting migraines because of the constant eye strain, from hiding it, from overexerting myself, and not wanting to show that I do have this condition. My anxiety level was through the roof. That’s how I figured out that I need to change things.
What changed and made you want to open up?
MARY: I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t walk around the block…When you have a condition like RP, everything is unknown to you. You don’t have control over anything. You always have that fear of the unknown. Your anxiety and fear skyrockets – the fear of going out, the fear of walking, of not seeing the curb, of not seeing a car, of tripping and falling because you didn’t see something. I would always catastrophize.
But one day, I had my pajamas on, put my winter coat on, called my husband, and said, “I’m doing it. I’m walking around the block.” And I made it all the way around the block.
I credit that to me finally realizing, OK, I need help in dealing with this. This is bigger than me. So I reached out, and I got cognitive behavioral therapy.
I learned that I don’t have control over what happens with this condition, but I do have control over how I choose to spend my day. And that’s what’s changed. Now I live every day for what it is. And I’m present in the moment.
What do you wish that others could understand about your experience?
MARY: I wish that people would not jump to the conclusion that everything that’s being done is done with malicious intent. I like to tell the story of grocery shopping. I bumped into someone’s grocery cart, and said a simple, “Oh, I apologize. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were there.” He was like, “Oh, geez, what are you, blind?” And right away, I said, “I am, actually.” And he just stood there. I said to him, don’t judge a book by its cover. No one is out here doing things with malicious intent. It was strictly an accident.
Everyone thinks [blind and low vision people] have to have a cane. I don’t have a cane as an identifier, because I do have enough central vision, and I don’t use a cane. So of course, someone’s going to say, “Well, no, you’re not low vision. You’re lying.” I’ve had someone say that to me. And again, it’s with that negative intent, that someone thinks that I’m lying about it. Why would you think someone would lie about something like that?
I hope that by opening up the conversation and encouraging questions that people will learn more about it.
In part three of Mary’s story, she gives us the secret to perfect homemade tomato sauce and reveals the one food she couldn’t live without.
What’s the secret to making one of your favorites recipes special?
MARY: I’m Italian, so pasta with a good, fresh tomato sauce.
We make our own tomato sauce every year. We do a fresh tomato puree, jar it, and then we use it throughout the year. But if you don’t have fresh puree, you can buy it from the grocery store, any jarred, fresh puree. Just make sure that it doesn’t have sugar added, and no spices to it. Just the puree itself.
Then my secret to that is while you’re making it, so you can put all the ingredients in, whatever you want, your herbs, your spices, you’ve got your onions at the beginning. But my secret ingredients is the cheese rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano. You save those, and you freeze them. Then, every time you’re making either a tomato sauce, soup, or some type of stock, you throw one of the Parmesan rinds in and have it cook. While it’s cooking, you’re getting that flavor from the rind of the salty, hard cheese.
And I’m giving you a bonus. I’ve got two secrets. Another secret is right at the end when you finish cooking your tomato sauce, add in about a tablespoon of butter. It gives it this little velvety finish to it. You’ll love it.
What’s one meal you could eat for the rest of your life?
MARY: One meal, no, what are you doing to me here? One meal for the rest of my life, what would it be? I’m going to say pasta again.
Faces Behind the Screen would like to thank Mary Mammoliti for participating in our storytelling project. If you’re interested in sharing your story with us, fill out our nomination form.
Faces Behind the Screen is a storytelling project focusing on members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community.