Saturday, November 14, 2009

Charity dinner provide blindfolded guests with unique experience

Ernie Mastroianni

Tia Lancaster, Teri Newport and her husband, Dean Newport, try to identify their food Sunday while Dining in the Dark at Bacchus. Proceeds from the event were to go to the Badger Association and the Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired Children.

There's a saying in the culinary world: First, you eat with your eyes. Diners at Bacchus on Sunday night moved on to other senses for a high-end meal that they could only imagine. They dined with blindfolds on for a charitable event that wedded a pop-culture phenomenon, dining in darkness, with a cause - organizations that serve the blind and visually impaired.

It wasn't easy, and it wasn't pretty. One man put his blindfold on upside down. Gone were the visual cues that drive conversation - a raised eyebrow, a nod. The room's noise level rose as diners lost the ability to gauge how far they were seated from each other.

That's what dinner was supposed to feel like at Dining in the Dark, a $250-a-head fund-raiser for the Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired Children and Badger Association. Dining in the dark originated a decade ago in Switzerland. The Milwaukee event was billed as a chance to put vision aside "for a new, deeper understanding of what it's like to be blind."

Two reporters set out to experience what was billed as Milwaukee's first dark dining event - one as a diner, one as an observer.

Bacchus' James Beard Award-winning chef, Adam Siegel, created what likely was a visually stunning menu: Seared sea scallops with butternut squash flan; roasted beet salad with Camembert cheese and lemon-honey vinaigrette; braised short ribs in red wine sauce; apple tart topped with cranberry jam. He went for a variety of textures, he said, and something "a bit challenging to eat for someone with a blindfold."

More than 100 diners were game, for the most part. Bobbie Mendelsohn of Fox Point admitted she was just a bit nervous about wearing a blindfold through a four-course meal; her friend Jan Singer, also of Fox Point, had no reservations. "I go Class-5 whitewater rafting, so I'm not scared of falling off the chair."

She didn't.

Lights were dimmed every seven minutes during cocktails to illustrate the point that every seven minutes someone in America loses their vision. Finally, blindfolds went on at 6 p.m., submerging diners in a dark world where food would challenge, surprise, delight, frustrate.

Diner Cory Ballard, visually impaired for more than a decade, understood immediately and offered a bit of advice. Listen to the room, he said. You can tell by the sounds it's a big room.

Knowing the location of silverware was another battle. Once it's in hand, one of two things can happen - either you get too much food on your fork (which over the years has learned its pathway to your mouth, so no worries about that), or you can have none.

Ballard had advice for that, too: "Either way, you eat it. I figure if I put it back on my plate, I'll never find it again."

By now, the technique was clear: Stab, chase, round up food in the center of the plate.

The potential for a big mess was huge. A pair of glasses laid on the table before the blindfolds went on ended up with salad on it.

Even if they couldn't see the main course, diners were tantalized by it. Beef! The bold aroma moved through the dining room.

Ballard was happy it came in a bowl. Wouldn't it be great if all food came in bowls?

"I'm going to start a restaurant called Bowl," he said.

By Jan Uebelherr and Kathy Flanigan of the Journal Sentinel


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