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Dining in the Dark

http://www.dininginthedark.com

It is not often that we rethink the way we eat. And I’m not talking about diets.

On the weekend of Halloween, I had the opportunity to eat at the stately Hampshire House, which is located by Boston Common and is generally used for weddings and other private events. Unfortunately, I was not able to enjoy our lavish surroundings as they were intended to be, since I was blindfolded throughout the meal.

Dining in the Dark is a concept that originated in Zürich, Switzerland. Guests of the blind clergyman Jorge Spielmann were accustomed to blindfolding themselves when dining with their host, and found that it increased their enjoyment of the meal. This inspired the opening in 1999 of a restaurant called Blindekuh (Blind Cow). The restaurant employed blind and partially sighted staff to serve its customers in pure darkness. The idea quickly spread to places such as Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and Hong Kong.

The experience I had was a variation on this theme, because our sightlessness was caused by blindfolds, rather than by darkness, and our waiters were not blind. Sadly, this eliminates one of the advantages of the original idea, which was that it offered work to the disabled. Nevertheless, the experience for a guest is not changed much.

The novelty of dining blind is that every bite is a discovery. There is the initial puerile fumbling of getting the morsel of food onto your utensil and into your mouth. Then comes the hypothesizing, as you analyze texture, taste, and smell to come to some conclusion about what you are consuming. Some consultation with your friends ensues, which may or may not confirm the matter and solve the enigma.

I was surprised by how often I would recognize what I was eating, but found myself unable to put a name to it. There was often a frustrating disconnect between my instinctive recognition of the taste, and my ability to confidently label it — somehow everything seemed more ambiguous. Foods that fell in this category included zucchini, and, more disquietingly, chicken. Likewise, I was pleased to find that some foods were distinctly recognizable, such as potatoes and cinnamon ice cream.

However, whether I was able to name the food or not, it was always an intriguing experience to eat it in this manner. The founder and manager of Unsicht-Bar (a German equivalent), Axel Rudolph, put it well when he said, “You smell better, [and] you are more receptive to differences in texture, consistency, and temperature.” I have heard that if you remove one sense, your others are heightened. I found not so much that my other senses improved at all, but rather that I took more notice of them, which changed the focus of the meal.

In terms of entertainment, there was live piano-playing, which enforced the slightly spooky impression I had that we could have been in an Agatha Christie novel, especially once it began snowing heavily. We also had a narrator “guiding” us through the meal with hints based on a storyline, which I felt was slightly unnecessary, as the food could speak for itself. Another expendable disturbance was the raucousness of some of the other guests, who felt the need to shout at one another from across their tables.

At the end of our repast, we removed our blindfolds and were finally able to find out exactly what we had eaten and what it had looked like (a few plates had been put aside for this purpose). There was elation and relief as we were proved right or corrected, and we partook in some final tea and coffee.

I felt that I just returned from a long journey, and it was rather comforting to be back in the land of the sighted, where there was candlelight and tall shelves full of books. Notwithstanding this, I had a truly remarkable experience, and would encourage anybody else to try it out. Dining in the Dark events at Hampshire House are one-time events, so if you are interested keep your eyes peeled for their next one.

Dining in the Dark returns on Feb. 11 at MIT Endicott House and Feb. 14 at Hampshire House. More information can be found at http://www.dininginthedark.com/.