Dining in the Dark: Eating with Smell, Touch, and Sound

At a recent dinner, I exhibited such poor table manners, I practically turned into a caveman: Tie tucked into my dress shirt, slouched posture with my face hovering closely over the plate, I’d abandoned my knife in favor of stabbing at the meat and bringing it up to my mouth in one chunk. I spoke to other people at the table without any effort to make eye contact. I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing everyone else was doing the same.

There was a reason for our collective lack of grace.

We were eating in total darkness.

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This wasn’t a blackout—it was all part of Foundation Fighting Blindness’s Westchester-Fairfield Dining in the Dark event, held in a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton, Westchester, in White Plains. Foundation Fighting Blindness is the world’s largest non-governmental source of research funding for retinal degenerative diseases, like macular degeneration, and retinitis pigmentosa.

As its signature fundraising event, FFB adopted Dining in the Dark, a concept first made popular in Europe. The dinner—served in complete darkness—gives people a brief glimpse into a world without sight.

I was seated at a table with six others. Before the lights were dimmed, Jan, a Dining in the Dark veteran, suggested we imagine everything in the clock position: bread basket at 12 o’clock, water glass and wine glass at 2 o’clock, knives and forks at their usual right and left positions. I also made sure to note the bottle of wine standing two arms’ lengths away—the last thing I wanted to do was knock an open bottle into someone’s lap.

As a preview of what lay ahead, the lights were turned off for 30 seconds, at which point people could bail if the darkness was too much to handle. No one did.

We met our server, Eddie, who, like all the other wait staff at Dining in the Dark, is visually impaired. To help Eddie and the other servers find their tables, ropes were set up along the ballroom, plastic mats were taped to the floor, and tabs were placed on the back of chairs as points of reference.

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One last warning from the organizers: “Please turn off all cellphones. No helping with the light.”

Then the lights went out.

A collective “Ooooh” from the room. A few nervous laughs. I noticed that everyone began speaking louder, as if that would compensate for our lack of vision.

I kept blinking and waiting for my eyes to adjust, but they never did. There was nothing to adjust to. This was darkness completely foreign to most of us—no glow of a computer monitor, no crack of streetlight through a window, no stars or moon. Just pitch-blackness. It was mildly disconcerting, but also strangely liberating. My tablemates, Jeremy and Diane, and I laughed and spoke in a noticeably more relaxed tone than when the lights had been on. When you can’t see someone and they can’t see you, inhibitions and self-consciousness go out the window.

Eddie arrived with our food. I poked around and felt a big piece of meat on one side, and softer items on the other. With a little difficulty I cut off a slice of meat and tasted it. Some kind of tender beef in a red-wine reduction. I scooped up a heap of something soft—potato purée.

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Edith commented on the tasty asparagus.

“There’s asparagus? Where?” I asked.

I rooted around my plate some more, sorting through carrots and onions until I located the asparagus. Such an interesting way to eat—every bite was a moment of discovery. Using a knife became cumbersome, so I leaned over and started biting off chunks of beef without bothering to cut it. I heard someone at the table say he was using his hands.

If anyone had night-vision goggles, we would have been quite the sight, sitting there in suits and cocktail dresses, eating with our hands and tearing at our meat as if we were in a scene from Lord of the Flies. At one point, I realized I was completely hunched over, eyes closed and head down so that I could focus on hearing what was going on around me. Without vision, you instantly become more attuned to sound.

And then the lights were raised. It had been almost 30 minutes of darkness; amazingly, we had managed to clean our plates without making a mess of things. The noise level in the room came back down, our eyes re-adjusted, and we compared notes about our unique dining experience. For those of us with the beef, we were told we’d eaten medallions of beef tenderloin in a Shiraz demi-glace and onion confit. Dessert was served with the lights on, a divine warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream.

Having dined in the dark, I certainly have a better understanding—albeit, a small one—of what it’s like to live without vision. I’m just happy I didn’t spill food all over myself.

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