There is a tendency to rush to fill things we perceive as voids: talking to ease the silent spaces in conversations, pushing forward to fill the gaps while waiting in line, lighting things up to veil the darkness. One of the more fascinating aspects of dining in the dark at the Boulder Blind Cafe was the realization that darkness can reveal things that are usually hidden by the light.
The Blind Cafe is a pop-up event held in cities around the U.S., including Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco, and of course Boulder. I was invited to attend with a guest, and through the generosity of my department I was also able to invite some of my students to attend. Over the course of the evening you enjoy a vegan and gluten-free dinner, a question-and-answer session with one of the waiters (who is legally blind), and some live music. All in a pitch-black room. It’s a sensory experience like no other.
When you arrive at the event you are asked to turn off your phone to avoid casting unwanted light or sound during the event. We were warned in advance that some people experience anxiety while dining in the dark, but the most significant anxiety in our little group was clearly caused by turning off cell phones. If you have been itching to have a phone-free dinner experience, this alone makes the event worth attending. I did snap a few pictures outside before the event began, of course: pictured are some of my students, both current and former, as well as one of the adorable guide-puppies-in-training we met after the event.
After the trauma of turning off the phones had ended we headed into the well-lit reception area for wine, conversation, and dark chocolate. Rosh Rocheleau, who founded The Blind Cafe after experiencing a similar event while traveling in Iceland, then called the crowd together to explain what would unfold. Our waiter then had us link together hand-to-shoulder, and he led us into the dark, leaving us at our table. The food was already on the table, so after negotiating your chair and getting a sense of the space (this was perhaps the most disorienting moment) the next task was to find the food and move it through space to your mouth.
It’s one of those little things that you probably take for granted–finding your mouth with the food.
The meal was vegan, gluten-free, and quite good, and at our table we made something of a game of figuring out what we were eating. I abandoned my fork and used my hands for most things, though I did manage a spoon for the really delicious sweet potato coconut soup. There is no stabbing involved with spoons, so they are easier than forks. Sean located the bread basket on our table and passed it around–this, too, is something that is revealed in the dark; the way that sound helps you locate objects in ways that are different from vision. And let me tell you, we were not bats at this table. We had some trouble with the bread, and even more trouble with the open tub of butter. At least half of us dipped our hands in that butter. It’s a great way to get to know people.
Individual bowls of salad were knocked off of the table, and I also launched my water onto the floor. Since I recognized the futility of trying to locate anything, the fallen objects remained on the floor. Our perception of the size of the table was really distorted, and the distance from one side to the other seemed much greater in the dark. Foods that were previously thought to be unloved were consumed and enjoyed. The sensory experience of eating is completely altered, and for me it was in generally positive ways (other than knocking things onto the floor).
After dessert was carefully passed around (a dark chocolate-coconut mousse that everyone enjoyed), there was a question-and-answer with Rick, one of the waiters. Questions covered everything from dating to movies to drugs (hey, it is Boulder). We were then treated to some live music by Rosh and the Blind Cafe Orchestra, which was my personal favorite part of the evening. In the dark, the focus on the music is consuming, and for me it was an emotional experience.
When the “light” finally came on it was a single candle, and as we filed out we took in the real dimensions of the space and looked at the food we had been served. At my table we had successfully identified almost everything, and enjoyed it all. A comment from a diner at another table was “I only ate bread. That was all I could recognize.”
The Blind Cafe is not intended to recreate the experience of being blind, as that is impossible. What it does is create an empathetic and educational sensory experience, one that can be disorienting, hilarious, emotional, and fun. If you live near a city where they hold these events, I strongly encourage you to give it a try. I know I will be going back to find out what else I can learn about myself in the dark.
Thanks for reading,