Dining without sight


CNIB hosts Dining in the Dark

Have you ever sat down to an enticing plate of food, closed your eyes, taken a deep breath, and experienced that first bite sans sight? It’s a luxury many of us have taken in hopes of elevating our other senses. But for many Islanders, eating without the benefit of full sight is their day-to-day reality, not a luxury they can change with a blink of their eyes. For the past eight years, the PEI chapter of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) has provided Islanders the chance to experience, albeit briefly, what it’s like to eat blindly with their annual event, Dining in the Dark. The experience, as I discovered first-hand, is equal parts delicious and eye-opening.

It was an unseasonably warm Friday evening when I arrived at the Culinary Institute of Canada on March 2nd for my first-ever blind dining experience. The lower banquet room had been transformed into an elegant dining hall and a long table filled with silent auction items hugged the edge of the room. In the far right corner, glasses of red and white wine beckoned. Guests streamed in, some with guide dogs, some with full sight and all with smiles. It was happy hour at Dining in the Dark and for this portion of the evening there were no blindfolds.

I headed over to my pre-assigned table, curious to meet my fellow diners. At my place setting were the usual suspects-forks, knives, napkin, bread plate, and water glass. Sitting where my main plate would go was an eye mask, like the kind you might use while trying to sleep on an airplane.

“We wanted them to experience, with a blindfold, eating a meal, finding the food on their plate,” explained Pat Hilchey, of the CNIB’s Vision Rehabilitation Services branch on PEI. The PEI chapter of CNIB was the first in the country to host this unique fundraiser, and its popularity has given rise to Dining in the Dark events hosted by other CNIB chapters.

At my table, I introduced myself to the gentleman seated beside me. “I’m Richard Collins from Montague,” said the friendly man, extending his hand. And that is when my lack of local political know-how shone through. Unbeknownst to me until later in the night, I was sitting beside the Mayor of Montague who, as it turned out, was also the stellar guest auctioneer for the evening’s live auction. Introductions were made with the rest of the table—some, like Mayor Collins, were regular attendees and some like me, were new.

After introductory remarks by the evening’s MC, Kerri Wynne MacLeod, we were instructed on how to eat while blindfolded. Now, to be fair, the instructions wouldn’t suit a blind person, because they involved taking a look at the plate and rotating the food you wanted to eat to the 6 o’clock position. I peeked at the appetizer of spinach greens with bacon vinaigrette and a little cup of mushroom flan then pulled my blindfold on.

The Culinary Institute of Canada prepared the meal//Photo credit: Amy Parsons Photography

It was a strange and rather uncomfortable experience being plunged into blackness. I suddenly became much more aware of the sounds surrounding me and of my own hands, which I was using to clumsily find the food on my plate with a fork. There were, admittedly a few times the fork was empty by the time it reached my mouth, but I persevered. The task was made easier by the delightful tastes that greeted me; the Culinary Institute had outdone itself.

“It’s such a humbling experience and you walk away with an attitude of gratitude to not take things for granted and how blessed we truly are to have our capacity of vision that we do,” Crystal Leger, provincial program manager for CNIB’s vision rehabilitation services for PEI and NS, said when asked what the highlight of the event was for her. “To understand the challenges that people with vision loss face. This [dinner] is by no means meant to take the place of that, this is just a slight indication of what people deal with on a day-to-day and this, honestly, is one of the easiest ones. Can you imagine having to dress yourself? How to get a bus, how to find your way around?”

In addition to the three-course meal and blindfolded experience, we heard stories from two Islanders living with vision loss, Darren MacDougall and Todd MacAusland. Both men gave us glimpses into their day-to-day lives that were hilarious, compelling, and inspiring. I was fascinated by the fullness of their lives and their drive to excel. MacAusland shared his experience as a Boston Marathon runner, while MacDougall shared insights into his busy family life with four children (including twin two-year-old boys).

Darren MacDougall shares about his life//Photo credit: Amy Parsons Photography

By the end of the evening, I was filled with three things: delicious food, gratitude for my full-sightedness, and a greater understanding of how full a life with vision loss can be. I also walked away with a true appreciation for the CNIB, who have supported thousands of Islanders experiencing vision loss over the years. Their contribution to the Island’s vision loss community is immeasurable and is made possible by the ongoing support of businesses and individuals that provide support through fundraisers such as Dining in the Dark.

About Shannon Courtney

Shannon is the co-founder of Salty and was its editor-in-chief for the publication's inaugural year. When she’s not writing about food, Shannon's either cooking, eating, talking, or thinking about it. Her food adventures have included milking a Jersey cow in Australia, almost overdosing on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and studying local food systems in Vermont as part of her Master’s thesis research. Shannon is also a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and strongly believes you CAN make friends with salad.

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