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Below are a sampling of articles by Knighton. Discover his take on squid-flavoured chips, the neurotic psychology behind perfume, the fact airplanes have windshield wipers, and – most pressing of all –the dangers of Utah.
 

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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 core.

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 I did.  

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.   

Now 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 I’d 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 one.”




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