Last week, in honor of National Dietitian Day, I – along with the Membership Committee for the Massachusetts Dietetic Association – organized a Dining in the Dark event at the Hampshire House in Boston’s Beacon Hill. I heard about “dark dining” a few years ago when it became trendy in major cities, but when my friend Karen started working as the narrator for Boston’s Dining in the Dark I knew I had to go.
I gathered in the Hampshire House with 35 other Massachusetts dietitians who knew nothing about our meal other than if we had requested a vegan or vegetarian option. Before we began, Marci led us in a mindful eating activity and discussion, since mindful eating has to do with paying attention to all of your senses when you eat including sound, smell, and touch, and not just sight.
Here is an excerpt from a TIME article about a similar experience in Germany:
With the complete loss of vision — and the resulting heightening of the other four senses — an evening at Germany’s first-ever dark restaurant is an extraordinary culinary adventure. "You smell better, you are more receptive to differences in texture, consistency and temperature," says Unsicht-Bar manager and founder Axel Rudolph, 46, who opened the eatery in May 2001. "It’s a holistic experience." As taste buds work overtime to discover fresh nuances in well-known flavors, even simple, everyday foods like potatoes or plain yogurt morph into nouvelle cuisine.
We all put on our heavy duty blindfolds at the same time and felt our way around the table for our water, fork, and napkin slightly nervous for what would come first in our meal. Our waiters brought around our appetizer, which was a trio of soups. Fortunately they were in tiny mugs, so we could sip them instead of having to clumsily rely on a spoon. We each tasted, commented, guessed what we were eating, and rated our favorites. It was fun being surrounded by seven others and hearing what they felt, smelled, tasted, and spilled. My favorite of the three soups was a parsnip one.
For our second course, we were presented with plates that contained salad greens and some sort of egg rolls. After attempting to use my fork a few times, stabbing at the plate and coming up empty handed, I decided to eat like a caveman with my hands. I asked around and realized all of my tablemates were doing the same, which wasn’t embarrassing because nobody could see each other! The egg rolls were delicious. It was awkward eating leafy greens with my hands. I also felt pretty silly clawing around at my plate to find other food – I felt like an animal! Here you can see me nose deep in my meal, trying to use my sense of smell.
Next we got our main course and after poking around, I realized I had a plate of salad greens (again), some cooked root veggies, and a big hunk of tofu. My meat-eating companions had some sort of breaded chicken. I prodded around and popped a few tiny potatoes in my mouth which were extremely salty. I’m a salt lover and these tasted like they were literally crusted in salt and nothing else. I tried to discern if the intense salt was from my sense of taste being enhanced or the fact that the chef just used way too much salt, and we all agreed it was just too overly salty. Not good.
I was not a fan – at all – of the block of marinated tofu. Not only was it completely awkward picking up about a half of a block of tofu and taking a bite of it, but really Hampshire House? I expected that by dining in a high-class establishment in Boston, they’d know what to serve some vegetarians besides the quintessential block of soy. I understand the challenge of having to cook something that guests could pick up with their fingers, so something like stir fry was out, but I could barely get through my big blob of blubbery tofu. The chicken diners didn’t seem to be all that impressed with their entrée either, though. Maybe a room full of food experts just expected more.
We finished off with a dessert of lemon sorbet and fruit for the vegans, pumpkin ice cream and cookies for the rest. The sorbet was definitely homemade and some of the best I’d ever had. I realized once I took my blindfold off that I had dropped a big scoop of it onto my plate. Whoops! It was so clumsy eating with a spoon, not knowing what I was even picking up. Everyone else loved their pumpkin ice cream.
Karen did a great job of narrating the whole event, guiding us through an imaginary trip through the rain forest. She had nice musical accompaniment in the background which was a neat experience. Karen was also able to snap some fun pictures of us as we ate. I attempted to get a few while blindfolded and they were crooked pictures of people’s silverware, napkins, and the wall.
I found eating blindfolded was not as hard as I imagined it would have been, once I gave up on the silverware. But I expected to slow down and eat more mindfully and in fact, I did the opposite, and most of the group felt the same way. We agreed that because we didn’t know what was in front of us, we just kept grabbing at food to taste it and see what was on our plate, how much was left, and what it tasted like. We didn’t slow down at all. We didn’t sit up straight or use any eating etiquette either!
We also realized that taking away sight was a big downer in the dining experience. For someone who loves taking pictures of my food, that whole visual aspect was gone. I enjoy looking at food, and eating this way was pretty boring for me, but a terrific learning experience. It made me realize how similar this experience is to eating in front of the computer or TV. We’re so focused on the screen, we never really see our food. I’m certainly guilty of that. On nights Funk isn’t home for dinner, I’ll plop in front of the TV to eat. The next day I gave a seminar on mindful and intuitive eating and had some great examples to share for the group about dining in the dark. While I wouldn’t dine this way again, it was a fun experience and experiment and a great night of hanging out with some fabulous Boston dietitians.
Have you ever dined in the dark? Would you ever go to one of these events?