AN EYE ON YOUR FOOD • by Ryan Knighton
I was blinded by a condition known as Retinitis Pigmentosa. Although
a mouthful to say, the disease is simple enough: my retinas were
genetically programmed to self-destruct. I know the pathology involves
pigment slowly scarring my eyes, but a better scientific description
requires I stay awake while reding one. Nevertheless, of my long
march to blindness I can say this much: having bad genes is one
thing, but having bad genes that take their sweet time is another.
I always knew I was a slacker, just not a slacker to my molecular
Blindness does have its revelations, though. Noodling around in the dark, I’ve
bumped into many unique sensory lessons. Some of these have been culinary, while
others not-so culinary. For what it’s worth, here’s one for folks
who see, or those of you I fondly call “sighty”.
People often ask me whether my condition has heightened my sense of taste, which
is not to be confused with my appreciation of tastes. The short answer is no,
a loss of sight does not augment the other senses. There’s no compensatory
tit-for-tat. Were that the case, blinkered folks would suffer the troubles of,
say, superhuman tastebuds. Such sensitivity might even force us to spend all
our money at fine restaurants, in self-defense, just to protect our mouths
from the perils of franchise eateries and sundry greasy spoons, not to mention
our own bad cooking. Credit cards would throb, and we’d feel the debt pulse
between our very touchy fingers. Sensory chaos. You get the picture.
Having said that, I must admit that blindness alerted me to my mouth in ways
I hadn’t anticipated. For one thing, I never knew how much sight prevents
both fear and surprise, two feelings which can otherwise overwhelm a dining experience,
no matter how pedestrian the menu.
Because I can’t see my food coming, all I have are expectations and words
on my plate. Think of a pizza. The term creates a promise, a picture in mind
of its attendant flavours. A tasty idea. Except for its smell, I’ve little
more to imagine heading my way until a slice of reality lands in my maw. While
surprises can be fun, the only trouble is that the difference between what I
expect to taste and what I do taste, well, that difference can hog all my attention.
That’s a very limited dining experience, just to be surprised.
Since I’ve got pizza on my mind, consider my most memorable
slice. When I was 22 I uprooted to Pusan, South Korea, and taught
English along with all the other North American university graduates
who’d fled their student
loans -- a poverty jetset of ESL instructors. Not only
was I young and blind, but unworldly and lazy. What little knowledge
I had about my host culture I’d gleaned from M*A*S*H reruns.
In other words, I imagined Korea to be a lot like California.
Oddly enough, it was. I could order a pizza at any hour, and
Sure I’m ashamed to admit it, but comfort food couldn’t come fast
enough. When it did, however, nothing had prepared me for the bean sprouts and
corn among my toppings. Lotus roots, too. I never saw them coming. Since then,
I’ve learned that dining – blind guy dining – is full of surprises.
My assumptions about food often have little to do with what the world is actually
serving up. Did I enjoy my sprout and corn pizza? I think so. But I don’t’ remember.
I was busy being alarmed and confused.
Such a feeling can take over in other ways, too. Once, still in Korea, I was
at a movie theatre, just another blinkered patron ready to listen to the big
picture show. I’d bought my requisite munchies, a bag of crisps I’d
ask for in very unsteady Korean, and when the lights went down, and the trailers
began, I laid into my first piece of potato heaven. The crunch was loud and familiar,
unlike the taste that spread in my mouth. In fact, I’d never known such
a taste. An alien, pungent chemical compound, salty but not salt. From what I
could tell, my crisps were, well, something-flavoured.
The surprise soon faded, only to be replaced by fear. I fretted about the unknown
and its very peculiar flavour. Because I wasn’t about to pester my poor
neighbours, I carried on one chip at a time, and tried my best to identify just
what the hell I was tasting. Maybe the potatoes were off, I thought. Can crisps
be off? To make matters worse, I drifted in and out of the film’s dialogue
and lost track of the story, too preoccupied with the mystery in my mouth. When
the credits began to roll, I found out, only then, with some help reading the
bag, that my snack was indeed crisps, but squid crisps.
that the word “squid” was in the air, my tastebuds
seemed to focus. They knew what to look for, and, after hours
of searching, they finally found it. Yes, this was indeed squid.
Artificial squid, but squid-like, without question. It was as
if somebody had turned the lights on in my mouth.
Not that it was all bad, either. That’s not my point. The
basic business of recognizing a taste, however, is a problem. Let
me put it this way. Is identifying a flavour the same as enjoying
a taste? Not even close. Does confusion enhance my attention to
the flavours? Yes, but only if you consider panic or agnosia a
more attentive relationship to food.
Certain restaurants and dining trends would have the sighted believe
that ‘blind dining” is a mighty good way to enjoy food,
and a means to heightened sensitivity. Dans Le Noir is one such
joint. Founded in Paris, and recent to London, the schtick at Dans
Le Noir has customers blinded for a smidge. They are guided to
their tables in the dark by blind waiters, an advantaged staff
who then serve meals to be enjoyed sans lumieres, the theory being
that food will brighten, as will our attention. Dine like the blind.
Gimp chic, I guess.
But take it from an authority, and a man of simple tastes, shutting
your eyes does not make the cheese cheesier, nor the figs, er,
figgier. Sure, turning off the lights might help tether the attention
of those unfortunate souls with A.D.D., Blacking-out the number
of possible distractions is always a good idea. But the main
sensory gain can only be cheap, uniform and overwhelming: surprise.
Besides, you know what you ordered, too. There’s nothing
to fear. I can only imagine a lesser thrill, then, restricted to
the minor loterry of your plate.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a good time if you
want to give blindness a try. That’s also why I suggest that
folks who are going to bother should give it a real go. For instance,
maybe blindfolded customers should be set loose on an arbitrary
street corner, armed only with a fork and a bib. Finding something
to call supper ought to be part of the experience, don’t
you think? That would be truly extreme dining. Keep your pets indoors.
All joshing aside, such culinary tourism can’t replicate
the permanence of blindness, which makes for one critical difference.
For me, eating in the dark happens at different times and places
in my life, not occasionally. Keeping no pictures in my mind of
those times or places -- only the ephemeral flavours, smells and
textures of bygone meals -- changes the value of food for my memory.
Here’s some dessert, for example. While I never saw my
wedding cake, I did taste it. Taste “them,” I should
say. I remember eating a number of mini chocolate cupcakes, ones
found on their various plinths at varying heights. I plucked
each like an apple from a tree, and tried not to shower crumbs
on my new suit. My fingers even scarred the icing, as I reached
into the dark and grabbed willy-nilly. Goopy, rich icing. I remember
that feeling, and the taste in my mouth.
Though I felt no surprise or fear in eating my wedding cakes,
I did experience the other, greater facet of true blind dining:
In eating, I was taking my photographs of the moment.
I remember the taste of that specific time and place. It is sweet
and rich and dark. No, blindness did not make those cupcakes
more flavourful, but it did make them taste more meaningful.
In fact, I wish I had some right now. To offer you a bite would
be to share my wedding album. “Here’s a picture from
the best day of my life,” I could say. “Go on, take
back to hackery
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