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Friday, May 1, 2009

A Sighted Account of Dining in the Dark

Posted By on Fri, May 1, 2009 at 4:37 PM

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Foundation Fighting Blindness' "Dining in the Dark" event at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco was a fundraiser for the organization's groundbreaking research in the field of degenerative eye diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and macular degeneration, which collectively affect over 10 million Americans.

The program begins with FFB's Visionary Awards presented to Mark Blumenkranz (surgeon, professor, and chairman of Stanford's Department of Opthamology) and John Doerr (a leading technology venture capitalist who sits on the boards of Google and Amazon, among other companies) as we eat the first course of salad in normal light.

After the acceptance speeches and a short film about FFB's work, the lights start dimming in anticipation of eating the main course in total darkness. It is revealed that our table's server, Sandy Arago of Concord, is visually-impaired and has trained for two days to wait on us exclusively. Arago tells us that dinner's a choice between chicken and a vegetarian entree. She doesn't know exactly what the latter is, so the veggie option immediately sounds like more fun because guessing is required.

After a test period of darkness, after which the skittish may leave the room if they so choose, the lights are shut off, and stay that way for the next 45 minutes. I'm the only one at the table of 10 who has selected the vegetarian entree, so I'm one of the first to get my food. I call out to Arago to let her know I'm the vegetarian and she makes her way over to my right side. She explains that she's going to put her hand on my shoulder and follow my arm down to the table to put the plate in front of me. She also has to take the cover off the plate; she does both perfectly.

Since no one can see me and I'm afraid that I will knock over one of three filled glasses at my side, I eschew my silverware and instead feel the contents of my plate to try to determine what's on there. Arago thought that the dish might consist of a pasta of some sort, but I don't feel any noodles or rice. It feels like it's all vegetables, possibly portabella mushroom, asparagus, and potato.

One particularly elegant woman (who I later learn is a private investigator) is telling us that she's got her chicken breast in her hands and is tearing off the skin with her fingers. I make a mental note to bring night-vision goggles the next time I attend a function such as this one; heck, I'm already cheating, why not go all the way?

I finally pick up my fork, grateful that I don't have to use my knife as my chicken-eating neighbors do, but even this is a frustrating exercise. Food keeps falling off the tines, and it's not long before I go back to using my hands like the heathen I apparently am. When it's time to clear the plates away (still in the dark), I keep mine so that we may see what it looks like when the lights finally -- mercifully -- come back on in the ballroom.

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Well, it certainly looks like a poor attempt at finger painting with the food on the plate, which would surely horrify even the most amateur of etiquette experts. Besides the bad artistic effort, I was surprised to see that what I thought was some sort of sauce on the plate might have been mashed sweet potato. Maybe?

While dark dining events are often marketed as sensual experiences that heighten senses, this night doesn't evoke romantic feelings. It is often said that, when one sense is deprived, others are heightened. This feels true in my first few bites, but quickly gives way to bit of a loss of appetite as I think more about what it would be like to always eat (and do everything else) this way.

Still, when the lights return, so do some feelings of hope and happiness, as I revel in a room full of compassionate people who raised nearly half a million dollars in one evening for an organization that's quite optimistic about its breakthroughs.

As the evening winds down, Sandy Arago returns to our table to ask us how we enjoyed the meal. A few people immediately express how difficult it was, and how they couldn't imagine how challenging it would be to navigate the obstacles of visually-impaired life.

"You just learn," says Arago.

I tell her that this experience taught me to appreciate my sight more, not to mention all of the other functions that my body performs automatically every day without me giving much or any of it a second thought.

"I know what you mean," she replies, "I broke my foot one time and I was in a wheelchair, and I realized how much I take walking for granted."

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Tamara Palmer


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