I sat a table with six other people and prepared to put on a blindfold. In moments, I would attempt to eat a three-course meal without the aid of sight. This exercise was a simulation of what 300 guests will encounter at Dining in the Dark, an event on February 27 hosted by Alphapointe, a private, non-profit organization that serves Kansas Citians who are blind or visually impaired.
At Dining in the Dark, everyone eats in complete darkness. No blindfolds, no cell phones, no ambient light, just sheer darkness. The focus of the meal goes beyond what it is like for guests to eat without a key sense. The event is designed to showcase the capabilities of people who are blind. Attendees will be served by blind and visually impaired Alphapointe members.
At the moment, I’m in a small dining room at the Westin Crown Center Hotel. I slip the blindfold over my eyes, pausing beforehand to mentally visualize where the place settings and glass of ice water are located. Immediately, I’m relying on other senses and coping strategies. My right hand feels for the knife and spoon, following the knife to its tip where the glass is located. I remind myself to place and line up the glass in this same spot each time I take a sip to avoid reaching out blindly – literally, temporarily – and knocking my drink over.
Our host from Alphapointe tells us that during past dinners, guests invariably spill something such as sauce on the tablecloth. Today’s outcome remained to be, well, not seen, but determined. We try to keep the mood convivial as part of this experiment. The group’s banter was light; the mood buoyant in our sightless state.
Apparently, sometimes a few guests grow anxious at Dining in the Dark, although we’re told that many steps are taken to put them at ease and reassure diners. The menu is set; the setting is safe. There will be no surprises – no weird foods served that they cannot see, no one grabbing your feet while seated, no funny business. Again, the emphasis is to place yourself in the hands of vision-impaired servers that guide you slowly, carefully, to your table, seat you, capably serve you and attend to your hospitality needs during the meal.
Once the novelty of eating in sheer darkness fades, practicality sets in as guests devise ways to find food on the plate, cut it into bite-size portions, secure it with a fork or spoon and guide it through the barn door without getting food on the face. It’s fun, a little unnerving, challenging even, but once it is understood no one else can see you make a mess, the social graces of dining are less important.
Our first course is a salad. Actually, two different salads are on the plate. For this tasting, we are to help determine what the final dishes will be at Dining in the Dark among two options for each of the three courses. I bring a fork full of salad – I think, I don’t know yet and can only guess – toward my mouth. The sharp, tangy aroma of Italian salad dressing arrives before the mouthful. Smell, touch, taste, even hearing, all come into play throughout the meal. Through our common experience, table conversation and individual assessment, we figure out the difference between each salad and determine our preference. The shape, crunch and texture of the lettuce leaves provide crucial clues. We’re undertaking detective work as we feed ourselves.
I hear a good-natured wisecrack from the host about my “air fork” as I attempt to bite into a second mouthful of salad that I thought I had stabbed delicately with a fork. I try again, load my fork and succeed in taking a bite. I reach for the water glass, mentally sticking to my plan, wash down the salad and return the glass to square one. At first, the process becomes a ritual of steps to not make mistakes, to not make a mess, to eat properly and efficiently and completely. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. I don’t have refined skills or practice at eating in the dark, so I gradually abandon the pretense of propriety at the table.
If only the kids at home could see me now, how they’d chide me for taking bites far too big or touching food with my fingers. It’s all in good fun. Frankly, the food prepared by the chefs at the Westin smells and tastes so good that I want to clean my plate.
Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey, host of the chef competition show “Hell’s Kitchen,” leads blindfolded contestants through an exercise where they attempt to identify the taste of familiar foods. Watching at home, it’s easy to be stunned that a wannabe chef cannot identify the taste of mozzarella or lobster or whatever the ingredient might be. Sitting here with a salad composed of multiple ingredients, I begin to see – no, I understand – how challenging it can be to put a well-versed palette to the test. Getting the answer right is part of the fun.
A server removes our plates and brings the second course – two cooked variations of the same meat with two types of starch and vegetables. We’re asked by our host to identify what we’re eating. What do we prefer? What else do we discover on the plate? Again, the detective work resumes.
The banter and good-natured ribbing continues. Apparently, the first fifteen minutes at the actual Dining in the Dark event grows louder in volume as people sit, adjust to the darkness and speak louder and emphatically to aid hearing and place where they are in relation to others. Our host reminds us how much we rely on our sight, how the eyes are a key part of visual, nonverbal communication. For now, we are unable to roll our eyes, wink, or otherwise express through the windows to our soul. Our voices, spoken and silent, serve as the key instrument to let our thoughts be known or reserved.
Our host explains that after those first fifteen minutes, guests typically quiet down as they concentrate on their meal. Eating without sight requires more energy and effort, at least for those of us not used to eating this way. We eat with our eyes first; presentation is important and it builds anticipation for our other senses. It’s a challenge to not use vision. Imagine a sprinter competing in a race using only his or her hands, as clumsy as that comparison is. As a food writer, I am used to paying attention to the details of food – the appearance, scent, texture, temperature and other hints that relay information to complement what my taste buds convey. Now I concentrate even more on my other senses to discern details and neglect to join in the conversation as others describe what we’re eating.
We fill our bellies and conclude the second course with anticipation of dessert. The final course is perhaps the most fun because the contrast between sweet options is quite different. Creamy, crispy, aromas homespun and fanciful, a burst of fruit flavor cutting through decadent sweetness. My other senses and, let’s face it by now, my fingers, come fully into play as I tuck into dessert.
After we’re done eating, the blindfolds come off. A sense of relief arrives. Instantly, I revert back to my sense of sight to orient where I am in relation to others. A trio of chefs from the Westin appear with fresh plated versions of the dishes we just ate. It’s a revelation to see them, to study the food with our eyes and confirm what we thought we ate or acknowledge what was guesswork.
At the conclusion of the meal during Dining at the Dark, the lights will come up so guests can view the dishes they consumed. The lights come on in more ways than one as guests begin to understand the differences that blind or visually impaired people face when eating, a daily ritual that the rest of us take for granted.
More importantly, the servers – none of them work in the hospitality industry by trade – sit with the guests they just served. Together, they connect, exchange comments and address questions. The key takeaway is that the blind and visually impaired are capable, talented individuals. Not only can they serve a ballroom of 300 people after undergoing a mere seven hours of training, but they are also capable of so much more in the workforce.
Alphapointe is the single largest employer of visually impaired individuals in the state, employing more than 176 people. Alphapointe is the only comprehensive rehabilitation and education agency for people with vision loss in the state of Missouri, serving more than 4,000 individuals.
While Dining in the Dark is a one-night experience, the goal is to have 300 people emerge from the event with a change in perspective and motivation to act that lasts far longer.
Dining in the Dark takes place in a completely darkened ballroom on Thursday, February 27 at The Westin Crown Center Hotel, 1 Pershing Road. Cocktail hour begins at 5:30 p.m. at Benton’s at the top of the Westin. Seating for dinner begins promptly at 6:30 p.m.
New to the event this year is The Art of Dining in the Dark, a silent art auction of fine art and photography prior to the start of the dinner. For tickets and further information, please visit alphapointe.org/Events or call 816-237-2099.