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FOOD FOR THOUGHT - July 29, 2009
Mark R. Vogel - Mark’s Archive
Close your eyes, (as this will underscore the unenlightening scenario to be described), and imagine going to a restaurant where you are blindfolded for the entire meal. Moreover, you will not be told what you are eating. It’s called “Dark Dining” and its one of the newest restaurant fads to come out of the shadows. Guests are typically served a multi-course, supposedly upscale meal, often with wine, completely blind to the surroundings or what they are consuming. It is claimed that servers are readily available to assist the guests with their blind-sided needs. Have to use the restroom? You raise your hand, are escorted to the toilet by staff where you can temporarily remove your blindfold, and then are escorted back blindfolded when finished. At the end of the meal the patrons are informed what they just had for diner. Anybody else “see” any problems with this?
Dark Dining is the brainchild of Dana Salisbury, a multi-talented artist who “envisioned” the idea one day while eating an orange with her eyes closed. She describes a sublime experience whereby the taste and aroma of the orange was unlike any one she had before. Hence the first premise of Dark Dining: That when deprived of our sight our other senses become heightened. In other words, if we can’t see the food, our sense of taste and smell become more acute and the food tastes better.
At first I completely scoffed at the notion that there is an immediate increase in our other senses if deprived of sight. It is said this eventually occurs in truly blind people over time. But does this phenomenon transpire in a non-blind person spontaneously when sight is artificially and ephemerally removed? I posed that question to a UCLA neurologist who suspected that such a neurological permutation would involve changes in the brain cell’s pathways, and that would require a protracted period of time. However, he offered a psychological explanation how immediate, increased sensory acuity might happen. He pointed out that the novelty and excitement of the situation can cause increased arousal which can in turn sharpen our sensations. This latter point is a documented psycho-physiological finding.
Of course the proponents of Dark Dining claim that their sense of taste is increased sans sight but this doesn’t mean much. The advocates of any belief system are naturally going to substantiate its merit. I wouldn’t expect an astrologer to tell me astrology is hogwash. Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let’s just give’em this one. Let’s assume that taste and smell can be instantaneously accentuated by a temporary loss of sight. The next question of course is how much, which is extremely difficult to say. Obviously this would vary from person to person but I think the extent of the average augmentation in taste would be debatable.
The second premise behind Dark Dining is that our expectations can influence our taste reception. Thus, not knowing or seeing the food, our mind is in a purer state to receive it unfettered by preconceived notions or biases. I agree with this idea and have recently written on this topic. However, removing expectations cuts both ways. The same preconceived notions that can cause us to recoil at certain foods can also cause us to gravitate toward them. The positive effects of our expectations, and all the visual clues associated with them, are removed when dining blindfolded. While not the most important element, the aesthetics of the food contribute to our sense of taste. We can all relate to being presented a beautiful plate of food, such as a perfectly seared piece of meat with tantalizing steam swirling off it and saying to ourselves: “Mmmmm, this is gonna be good!” Such visual enticements and their auspicious effect on taste are now a blind spot in the panorama of Dark Dining.
But there’s so much more that is lost. We can’t appreciate the splendor of the restaurant, the natural beauty of the setting, or the countless other interesting spectacles in the world around us. Personally, I want to see the décor, the lighting, the color of my Bordeaux, the mountains in the distance, and the look of love in my wife’s eyes. I want to see the faces of the people I’m talking to, the plating artistry, and the candles or flowers on the table. Dark Dining has taken everything out of the dining experience but the sense of taste.
I also want to know what I’m eating. Expectations aside, everyone has foods that are genuinely not amenable to their palate. If I’m going out to dinner and spending money, I want food I know I will like and an overall pleasant evening. I don’t want to fish around the table like an infant, knocking food and expensive wine over as I dribble sauce across my shirt. Can you imagine fingering your plate searching for remnants, groping haphazardly for the butter, and not knowing if the salt has hit its target or a fly has inadvertently landed in your salad? Or having to play “blind man’s bluff” every time you wish to use the restroom?
And I’m sorry but this must be said: What about the trust factor? There are already enough things occurring in any kitchen that you don’t see and you don’t want to know. What latitude will the staff take if you are blindfolded? I’m sure the proprietors of the Dark Dining establishment will plight their safekeeping but who’s foolish enough to blindly trust total strangers? How do you KNOW some errant particles weren't left in the potatoes because “no one’s going to see them anyway.” Or the waiter who accidentally spits in your glass while talking and doesn’t bother to replace it. It’s human nature to take more liberties in the face of impunity.
Dark Dining’s premises are dubious at best. Even if they are valid it has reduced the dining experience to solely the taste sensation. While taste, (aside from nutrition and survival), may be the most important factor in eating, dining out is a multi-faceted experience. Many of these facets necessitate our use of sight which arguably is our most valuable sense. Thus, is it worth losing all else for a possible, at best minimal, increase in gustatory pleasure? As for me, I prefer to go through life with my eyes wide open, seeing reality for what it is. Dark Dining will stumble along in the dark for a while, fueled by trendsetters who possess a shallow need to partake in whatever is “in.” But soon it will really be out of sight, and out of mind. But until then, Dark Dining has yet to see the light.
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