Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dining in the Dark

Dining in the Dark | Wynn Anne's Meanderings
Just before heading into the dining room.
Last night, for two and a half hours, Steve and I , and our friends Ron and Heidi, were "blind" as we ate a four-course meal as part of a fundraiser for Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. Every year, a local restaurant named Chances R invites people to don masks and eat an entire meal in the dark and gain a real appreciation for just one facet of life without eyesight.

Let me tell you how it unfolded.

The restaurant holds two seatings, and you must purchase tickets ahead of time. It is not unusual for tickets to sell out, so we bought ours early -- a month ago.

When we arrived at the restaurant, there was a crowd milling around (including a few guide dogs in training), waiting for the first seating to clear out so we could go to our tables. The staff handed out black sleep masks as we waited. After we put on the masks, they had us form a conga line and we shuffled to our table.

Our friends Ron and Heidi (picture taken at my 50th birthday party in June 2012).
Eve though Steve and I are very familiar with this restaurant (I love their prime rib), we were completely disoriented.

The first thing we did upon sitting down was try to orient ourselves to our booth and table. We each had a side plate, napkin, knife, and fork. There was nothing else on the table, which was fortunate.

When she brought our drinks, the waitress asked us to place our hands on the table, so we could feel where the glass was as she put the drink down. Smart! My biggest fear was that I would spill my drink. Even with full sight, I've been known to spill a drink or two. Fortunately, that dd not happen as I pointedly kept my glass at 1 o'clock, and gingerly slide my fingers toward it whenever I wanted a drink.

The first thing we all noticed was that it was really hard to hear each other. I suspect that we ordinarily rely on a certain amount of lip-reading when we are in noisy environments. The next thing was that we were suddenly conscious of how much of our "listener" part of the conversation is non-verbal - nods, raised eyebrows, and the like.

Once everyone was seated, our host welcomed us, thanked us for our contribution -- they raise approximately $5,000 each year. He mentioned that all of the staff, including chefs and servers, were volunteering their time for the event. Then he introduced a woman who talked about her personal experience with blindness.

She went blind in both eyes, as a result of a benign tumor on her optic nerve. She said that the most difficult thing for most blind people is not reading, cooking, entertainment, or any of those pastimes; it is walking. That, she shared, is terrifying.

For several years, she used a white cane, but found it "dumb" -- it has no intelligence and could really only warn you of obstacles or unevenness in the pavement.

Finally, she adopted a guide dog, and it changed her life, suddenly giving her back her mobility. She now can navigate busy downtown streets without fear. Her dog will retire in a few years, and she intends to adopt another guide dog.

As each course was laid, they played music to give hints as to what the dish was. The first course was accompanied by lovely vintage French music -- a cheese-and-fruit platter. Fortunately, they had already sliced the cheese.

We had to resort to our hands to retrieve the food - and it was hard to find the different items. Also: discovering a sliced strawberry when you are expecting grapes or cheese is a little unsettling.

I tried telling Ron that the bread was at 6 o'clock, but he was seated opposite me so had to translate it . . . and it just got too confusing. I'm not sure he ever got a bit of tasty bread with his cheese.

About this time, Steve, Heidi, and Ron all found that the masks were too uncomfortable (they made their eyes sweat), so they took them off. I, however, knew that if I took off the mask, I would continually struggle with opening my eyes. I'm just like that. So I left the mask on.

The next course was ushered in with some good southern country music and a riff on "You Can't Hurry Love" - with the lyrics:
You can't hurry ribs,
No, you just have to wait.
Ribs don't come easy, 
It's just a game of turn and turn!
Once again, a platter was placed in the middle of the table. We reached into the dish to find barbecued ribs. The ribs were delicious, but were accompanied by a small bowl with heated spherical objects. Olives? Nope: cherry tomatoes. Once again, we just used our fingers.

An individual intermezzo of raspberry sorbet cleansed our palates. Again, without being able to see it, Steve wondered what he was to do without a spoon. (The spoon was sticking out of the sorbet.)

Then we were serenaded with "That's Amore!" and we speculated what kind of Italian dish we would be served. What if they give us spaghetti! Can you imagine the mess?

The waitress placed a dish in front of each of us. The warm aromas of garlic, cheese, and tomato filled our nostrils. Mmmmm. After some investigation (yes, I actually touched my food), we determined that we had a Caesar salad and lasagna.

This was our first real challenge with cutlery. We all laughed as we tried to get some salad on our forks, only to come up empty. Or we stabbed a chunk of lasagna and came up with a chunk the size of Labrador!

"I feel like I get three empty forkfuls for every time I actually get food in my mouth," noted Steve, "and then it's this huge mouthful!"

Eventually, I learned that it is easier to scoop salad than to pierce it. Moving on to the lasagna, I tried to be strategic about cutting it, but the top layer of cheese was tough and the entire serving ended up in disarray. I thought I had finished my salad, but I continued to get bits of romaine lettuce in with my lasagna.

As the wait staff cleared the tables, or host introduced a surprise: a stand-up comic to entertain us. He was very funny but took a minute to realize that we didn't exactly "get" his joke about being in a mixed marriage because we couldn't see that he was black. That might have helped.

Dessert was a feuillette pastry with ricotta filling. I tried using my fork at first, but gave up quickly and ate it like a doughnut. It was, ahem, very messy and my fingers were so sticky by now -- after ribs, tomatoes, salad, pasta -- that I dipped my napkin into my water glass and washed my hands. What I would have given for a finger bowl!

At that, they turned on the lights. We all rubbed our eyes and felt, once again, disoriented.

I glanced at our table and was not the least bit surprised to see it covered with debris and splashes of drinks and food. When I commented to our waiter that we sure had made a mess, she replied, "Oh, you should have seen it after the previous meal. There was Caesar salad all down the middle of the table!"

What a memorable experience! I'm looking forward to doing it again next year.


  1. There's an exhibition called "Dialogue in the Dark" that is similar to that. You enter a room and they slowly dim the lights until it is pitch black. You don't even need a blindfold- you literally can't see. Then a guide takes you from room to room in the dark. Each room represents a different real-world setting- a park, a grocery store, a busy street, a bar where we ordered sodas and then sat and asked our guide questions. They hire individuals who are legally blind to be the guides, so it is a great employment opportunity, as well as raising awareness. I believe it is a traveling exhibition, but there is a permanent one here in Atlanta and I've done it twice. I really loved the experience. It's a little terrifying at first to not be able to see, but you really get in tune with your other senses (and you also let go of a lot of boundaries- I went once with Stacey and once with Laura and both times we were groping each other in odd places in order to "see" things the other wanted to show, plus there was a lot of running into people we didn't know). I ran into a car on the street. That was alarming. But I was surprised I was able to order a coke at the bar, take it to and set it on a table, remember where I'd set it, and drink it without spilling it. We learned a lot from talking with our guide as well- things like "labeling" canned goods with elastic bands- one band for black beans, two for kidney beans... Same with clothes- certain cuts in the tag represent different colors. And money- I had no idea what I handed over when I bought my soda but they had a machine that scanned and read aloud the bill- someone who is blind can use that, then fold their bills differently for each denomination.
    I guess I could go on and on. It is truly fascinating, and really does make you understand a whole different life. And I can attest to the fact that the white canes were not very helpful.
    http://www.dialogue-in-the-dark.com/ (It actually appears the one here closed)

    1. What a cool experience. I actually was worried about how we would pay our bill (we'd bought our tickets, but they didn't include drinks or tip). I guess that's why they turned the lights on, but the shock was, well, shocking!

  2. this is such a great idea! I might even do this at home one night (probably best to choose pizza night maybe - ha!) so my kids can have the experience.
    although either myself of their dad might have to retain "sight" to make sure no major accidents or such occur. But I just love this idea.

    1. I never thought about doing that, but it's a great idea!


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