By taste, not by sight: Our reporter learns what it's like to eat with vision loss
Here's the thing about eating when you cannot see: After a while, the satisfaction of the delicious food is outweighed by the work involved in getting that food into your mouth.
My experience with consuming fine cuisine while blindfolded occurred last week at The Silos at Pier B Resort at the behest of Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss. The center is hosting its first-ever "Dining in the Dark" event on April 26 at The Silos. It's a fundraiser, and it's also an opportunity for participants to "enjoy dinner blindfolded and engage senses other than sight," as the invitation puts it.
That dinner will be the work of executive chef Jacob Farkas, who prepared my food. Based on my experience, I can predict it will be one of the finest meals you never see.
I might not have been the best choice for this assignment — I'm a sloppy eater even in the best of circumstances.
But I had two things going for me. Their names are Nancy Northard and Kelly Orndorff.
Northard of Grand Rapids, an instructor at Lighthouse Center, sat at my left. She spends her working hours advising clients on how to cope with vision loss. In different capacities and different places, she has been teaching the visually impaired since 1982.
At my right was Orndorff, a 24-year-old student at Lighthouse Center. Orndorff grew up in Sartell, Minn., then attended the University of Minnesota Duluth where she earned a degree in public health, all with perfect vision.
Eighteen days after she graduated in May 2015, Orndorff was diagnosed with stage 3 brain cancer. She had surgery, and when she came to, she was totally blind. Almost six months later, her vision slowly started to come back, a development Orndorff attributes to prayer. Now she has about 10 percent vision, and doctors tell her it will not get better. But Orndorff, a woman of deep faith, said she believes a miracle will restore all of her sight.
In the meantime, she's making the best of her situation. She moved back to Duluth from her parents' home on Feb. 12, got set up in her own apartment and began receiving instruction at Lighthouse Center. Her goal is to get a job in her field.
'Use your fingers'
What vision Orndorff has now is extremely limited. "I don't want to be offensive, but you're just like a gray blob," she told me.
Before the food came out, Orndorff gave me some tips.
"Do not be afraid to use your fingers," she said. "I use my left index finger to position, and then I bring my fork to that finger and stab, if it were a noodle or a piece of meat."
When you're served, she advised, ask where things are on your plate according to the layout of a clock — the upper part of your plate is 12 o'clock, closest to you is 6 o'clock.
Make sure you have plenty of napkins.
"It took me a while to feel comfortable eating in public," Orndorff said. "I felt self-conscious that people were watching me. I felt like I was being a slob. ... I also learned I just need to laugh at myself sometimes."
The food was ready, and it was time to put on the blindfold. This was not the twisted towel over the eyes that might be used in a children's party game. This was a sincere blindfold, designed for the purpose, allowing not a hint of light through. I found myself closing my eyes much of the time, because there was no reason for them to be open.
If I started feeling nauseous or dizzy, I should take off the blindfold, Northard said.
I didn't feel dizzy, but I did sense that I was suddenly talking REALLY LOUDLY, something my colleagues tell me I also do on the phone.
'Gently jab around'
Orndorff suggested I place both hands on the table before the food was served and try to find the silverware. "If your food is in front of you and it's a hot plate, you don't want to be searching for silverware. You can also do that to identify where your glass is."
Farkas placed the plate in front of me himself, I was told.
What to do now? I asked. Orndorff suggested feeling the plate to get the dimensions and shape in mind (round, average-sized). "Take the fork, and just gently jab around," she said. "Foods are going to have different textures."
I maybe got something on my fork, guided it to my mouth and tasted something very good, reporting that it was some sort of vegetable. It actually was mashed potatoes with marsala gravy, Northard and Farkas revealed, so technically I was right.
The broccoli spears were easier to figure out, and messier. I should have cut them with the knife, but instead I'd feed a spear into my mouth as if it were a spaghetti noodle. It had to have been unsightly.
Northrup suggested pivoting the plate so the meat was at 6 o'clock and I didn't get gravy on my sleeve trying to get at it.
Once my fork found the pretzel-crusted chicken breast and got a bit of it into my mouth, I didn't want anything else. I don't know how to write restaurant reviews, so I'll just say this: Gosh, it was good.
I worked at it furiously, sometimes getting a small piece in my mouth, sometimes a really small piece and sometimes nothing. My hands felt greasy; I imagined bits of food clinging to my face, and I made frequent use of the substantial napkin.
A pitcher of water was placed at my left. Northard showed me how to place the tip of my finger over the edge of the glass so I'd know when the water neared the top as I poured. I thought I did that but was told I'd felt the water I was pouring and still didn't have a glass that was anywhere near full. The second time, I got it right.
'Unique sensory experience'
The edge was off my hunger by now. For the first time since childhood, I asked if I could be done eating.
I could if I wanted to be, Northard said. Gratefully, I removed the blindfold — and was dismayed to discover how much wonderful food was left on my plate, looking somewhat mushed up. I'm sure I would have cleaned my plate if I could have seen my plate.
The blindfold had been on for 40 minutes. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable, if awkward, experience. But I had the advantage of Northard and Orndorff cheering me on.
Mary Junnila, executive director of Lighthouse Center, said people who attend Dining in the Dark can expect to be blindfolded for 30-45 minutes.
"It's not meant to be scary," she said. "If you need to take your blindfold off, that's fine. We think it has a lot of potential to not only be a unique sensory experience that's a lot of fun for guests, but to bring light to the issues that we're trying to help people understand."
Orndorff, whose cancer will have been in remission for two years in May, said that of course she'd opt to be fully sighted again if she had the choice. But she also said she wouldn't trade what she has learned from her vision loss.
"It's a sense of freedom that I can get to know people based on their personality and how they treat me and how I feel when I'm around them (and not what they look like)," Orndorff said. "And that's why I feel like I've been blessed having the opportunity to live full-sighted and not-sighted. I'm seeing the world through a totally different set of eyes, and it's still a really beautiful, wonderful world."
If you go
What: Dining in the Dark
When: April 26, social hour and silent auction at 5 p.m., dinner and awards ceremony at 6 p.m.
Where: Pier B Resort, 300 W. Railroad St.
Tickets: $75 per person, tables of 8; purchase tickets online at LCFVL.org/DiningInTheDark; space is limited
Also: Cocktail attire optional; emcee is Renee Passal of WDIO TV
More information: Call (218) 624-4828