How do we taste in the dark?
Location of meal: Hotel Whitcomb, San Francisco; Location of world record for blindfolded chess: Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco; Date of world record: December 4, 1960; Holder of world record: George Koltanowski; Number of consecutive blindfolded games played by Koltanowski: fifty-six; Number of seconds allowed per move: ten; Koltanowski’s score: won fifty, drew six; Distance between author’s blindfolded meal and Koltanowski’s blindfolded chess victory, by car: 1.5–1.8 miles; Author’s vision: near-perfect, with scratches; Number of times author has been stabbed in the eye: one
To volunteer at LightHouse, a Northern California center for the blind and visually impaired, I am required to dine in the dark. Blindfolded, I am led into a restaurant: it is no longer a civilized institution but pitch-black chaos, a cacophony of silverware and glasses and orders and bells. I find my server. I order an iced tea. I grope the table in search of sugar, knock over my iced tea, steep my neighbor’s crotch.
In the dark, all food is black. Even my glass of water is black. Somewhere on the table sits a mountain of bread rolls, purportedly white and yeasty, but when I find them they are as black as a stack of black cats. Without the ability to see, I lose my ability to taste. Foods with their colors removed are completely devoid of flavor to me. A preliminary revelation: to taste the rainbow, you have to see the rainbow.
More fumbling. I shriek when I mistake the orchid garnish in my salad for a spider. My “green” papaya salad is a pile of burned matchsticks. How I long to see the verdant ribbons of unripe mango, the flowery prints of cilantro leaves. Instead, my fork shyly navigates the dark forest of my salad, each bite a terrible mystery. Eating—the thing I live for—has blackened into an atramentous horror.
Coffee is served. To add cream, I am told to pour it over my finger: this is how one measures liquid in the dark. The sensation of the cool river streaming down my finger distracts me from my measuring duties and I end up with a tepid latte. Still hungry, I paw the table and discover a foil butter pat. This thing, which is supposed to be bright and recognizable—what Seamus Heaney calls “coagulated sunlight”—tastes, in the pitch-black darkness, like a spoonful of grease.
It is a myth that when people lose their sight their other senses grow stronger. They merely begin employing their other senses more effectively. At the lunch table, I ask my mentor how big the table is. He replies, “This big!” and it takes me minutes to realize I am being prompted to rely on echolocation.
What else have I been missing out on during meals? My pedestrian routine of looking-putting-in-mouth-tasting-swallowing could clearly use some spicing up from my other senses. I call forth my sense of hearing, shake the remaining cubes of ice in my tea, and find therein a few xylophone notes to digest. I pick up a bread roll and polish off its pillowiness with the palm of my hand. My earlier notion that I can’t taste my meal without seeing it is hogwash: taste is really a collision of the senses, smell prevailing. I focus on letting what’s left on the table linger inside my olfactory cleft; when my neighbor offers me a fry to dip into her beef au jus, I whiff the broth, and the flavor of the cow comes through. I kowtow to my nose.
Beyond the basic Aristotelian senses are even further unrefined and underutilized ones I now start bringing to the table: thermoreception (How hot is this roll?), proprioception (Will my fork make it to my mouth?), equilibrioception (Can I keep the food on said fork?), all kinds of chemoreception for detecting otherwise-overlooked nuances. Perhaps, I realize, a meal is not something meant to be eaten but something meant to be integrally perceived.