Seeing What You’re Eating

 

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Our meal at Blackout restaurant in Tel Aviv.

First, I’ve more or less recovered from my everything is broken phase. Fixed my bike brake, swept up most of the shards of glass, and recovered much of my novel (in earlier drafts anyway, but a little rewriting can only be a good thing). I did shatter my iPhone in Ikea the other day, but I can’t focus on these things.

But, moving on, because that is what one must do, especially in this living-in-a-new-place-every-few-years lifestyle.

One of the best things, nay, the very best thing, about living in new countries is the food. I didn’t get to experience much of the local cuisine in Yemen, and Spain didn’t wow me with its abundance of fried food and jamon, but Israel has bewitched me. It’s my food happy place: Seasonal fresh veggies, eggs, lovely Middle Eastern spices, surprisingly excellent bread, and insanely creamy dairy. (Look for an upcoming post on the dreaminess that the yogurt “cheese” that is lebeneh. It’s like sour cream, it goes with everything, and I can’t get enough).

I’ve been Instagramming some of what I’m eating, because I want to share photos of these new and yummy things. But I’m realizing how tricky it is to take pictures of food in a way that actually makes the food look good. (I also realized this in Spain when trying to take photos to promote our EatWith dinners). Hummus isn’t super photogenic. Salads tend to look like pile of greasy leaves when photographed. And you should see the some of the snaps I’ve taken in my own kitchen recently. My sweet potato gnocchi really looked quite good in real life, but in a photo it looked like a Play-Doh creation. My Jerusalem artichoke soup had all the photographic appeal of a bowl of gruel, and my peanut butter brownies looked like children’s blocks.

I’m constantly impressed with the artful composition of dishes posted on the Internet, especially on Instagram, but rarely am I drooling over the images. (I mean, an elegant fig perched on a reclaimed wooden spoon with a spattering of mint leaves – gorg – but delicious? Meh).

What is inherently lacking in food photos is the engagement of senses other than sight. In real life, a gorgeous plate of food is delivered, and you smell it, feel it, taste it, and think about it way later if it’s really good. But a photo is only visual, and therefore it’s always going to fail to capture all the pleasures of eating good food. Food writing often gets me salivating, however, because it taps into a deeper set of sensory receptors and memories than does a photo.

Just as I was considering how vision is perhaps the least important sense involved with true enjoyment of food, I put this idea to the test when Mr. Jerusal-Em and I dined in total darkness at a restaurant called Blackout in Tel Aviv. The restaurant is located in a wooden structure inside the non-profit Nalaga’at Center, which seeks to promote understanding of people who are deaf, blind, or blind and deaf. They run a theater with visually-impaired and/or hearing-impaired actors, and Blackout employs only blind waiters. (The chefs can see).

Before entering the pitch-dark restaurant, we had some wine (served by a bartender who is deaf) and selected our entrees (cheese ravioli with a rosé sauce and cheesecake for me, and fish with leeks and potatoes and chocolate mouse for the hubs). Once we entered the restaurant, it was total, complete darkness, and not the type your eyes eventually adjust to. Our blind waitress introduced herself, and instructed me to place my hands on her shoulders, and Mr. Jerusal-Em put his hands on my shoulders and we were led to our table, and given a description of where everything was – our water pitcher, our silverware, etc. When pouring water, we learned, it’s helpful if you place two fingers in your glass so you know when the glass is full. We chatted in total darkness, listened to the giggles and Hebrew conversations of others in the restaurant, and laughed along with everyone else when someone knocked a glass off the table (it was bound to happen). The waiters seemed totally on top of things, appearing when they heard their names, bringing all the right dishes, and never seeming to collide with anyone or anything.

When our food came, we stuck our fingers in our plates to determine what was what. It was hard to tell. I wondered about the presentation of the dishes. Did the chef take care to drizzle the sauce just right over the cheesecake or did he focus more on taste and texture, knowing that no one will be Instagramming the meal?

We had heard that when you can’t see, your other senses are heightened, but we didn’t find that to be true. I couldn’t hear a bird crowing two miles away and cheese ravioli tasted how good cheese ravioli always tastes. What was true was that, without seeing our food, we ate rapidly. We never really knew how much was left which caused both of us to shovel food in our mouths at record speed. We got our check soon after, because when you’re done eating, and sitting in total darkness with someone whom you often sit in total darkness (like, for eight hours every night), you realize a part of what makes going out to dinner fun is visual.

Under the streetlights on our drive back to Jerusalem, we reflected on the major role vision does actually play in eating, and especially in dining out. We took away sight for one meal, and we ate like animals, and, truthfully, we enjoyed the food less than we would have if we had been able to see it. However, we did enjoy the unique experience of getting a tiny taste of what a daily task is like for someone who cannot see. This is not to say that people who are blind can’t enjoy food like people who can see, but it really made me realize how all the senses work together when it comes to food.

To enjoying food, whether in the light or dark,

Em in Jerusalem

 

 

2 thoughts on “Seeing What You’re Eating

  1. That seems like they missed a trick there. the Berlin one has you order from the chicken, meat, fish or vegetarian set meal list and then you don’t get told what your actual dish was until afterwards. Not knowing what the food was made it a totally different experience and I realised how unrecognisable certain foods are. And we found we ate slowly and were there two hours, maybe because there was the guessing element!

    1. That’s a really good point, Nicola. It would have been more fun that way, plus we would have relied on our taste buds much more. They actually did have a “surprise me” option – we should have selected that.

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