Editor's Note: This story appeared in the December 2015 ORANGE Issue IV.
The Blind Cafe is a traveling organization that, according to its website, aims to deliver “inspiring positive social change” by hosting dining events in total darkness. Facilitated by legally blind volunteer speakers and servers, the dinners encourage communication and education between sighted people and blind people. The experience came to Austin Nov. 3-5 and was held at The American Legion house.
By Melyssa Fairfield and Megan Prendergast
The Colorado-based cafe hosts pop-up events across America, and the organizers find chefs local to each area to prepare the food. Local holistic health coach Dustin Lundewall was chosen for the dinners in Austin. To make The Blind Cafe as inclusive as possible, the menu is entirely vegan and gluten-free (besides the bread). Lundewall’s all-vegan menu included a tasting plate of roasted stuffed mushrooms, an Asian-dressed vegetable lettuce wrap, spicy hummus with marinated carrots, roasted Brussels sprouts, buffalo macaroni and “cheese” balls and chocolate-raspberry mousse for dessert.
Here, ORANGE Food + Drink editors Melyssa Fairfield and Megan Prendergast share their experiences from The Blind Cafe.
Melyssa: Darkness. Complete and utter darkness. I can hear voices all around me, close and far away, but I feel isolated and alone. When I decided to go the traveling The Blind Cafe to focus on writing about the food, I actually didn’t think about what it would feel like to have my most familiar sense taken away from me.
Megan: One of the wait staff leads us to the top of the staircase in groups of six. Once we reach the top, he tells us to start a mini conga line. I place my shaking hands on the shoulders of the guy in front of me, and Melyssa rests her hands on mine. He leads through a winding hallway into complete darkness. As we all lose our sense of sight, everyone begins to comment on the incredible darkness of the room. The wait staff seats each group of six at their own table and tells us there is a bowl of bread in the middle of the round table.
Melyssa: After a minor freak-out at the initial adjustment to the black room, I began to calm down and talk to Megan. “As long as there aren’t any mushrooms on the plate, I’m good,” she says. Voices from the other diners are echoing loudly, and the room feels massive. Remembering what the director of the cafe, told me before we went in about there being a bread basket in the middle of the table, I reach over where I feel my plate is and slide my hand until I feel a container. I grab two slices of bread for Megan and I, fearing that I might not like what I find on my plate.
Megan: Melyssa hands me a slice of bread, and I take my first bite, momentarily forgetting about the darkness that we were sitting in. Encouraged to talk to other people by Lundewall but too overwhelmed, I sit eavesdropping to the conversations around me — there is a young high school couple to the right of me and an older couple across from me.
Melyssa: I finish my bread and decide to explore my plate, sticking my hand aimlessly in front of me and attempting to pick up what I imaging is some solid piece of food on the round paper plate in front of me. What I feel is definitely not solid and sticks to my fingers. After a little more clumsy searching I find some small, hard bits of food that run into the sticky substance. Mustering all of the bravery I can, I bite into what I realize is a marinated carrot and some herb-laced hummus.
Megan: Knowing all of the food on my plate is vegan and gluten-free, I am curious and ready to dig in. Exploring my plate, my hands get messy as I accidentally dip my finger into the scoop of herb-y hummus. After touching most of the food on my plate (with clean hands, of course), I finally take my first bite of food: brussels sprouts. I am not the least bit disappointed because brussels sprouts are my kind of comfort food. As I become more confident with food on my plate, I began sampling more and more of the snacks.
Melyssa: With the fear of the first bite out of the way, I plunge into this new culinary experience of eating things without being able to see them. I find what feels like a small, round biscuit that’s crumbly and tangy. No idea what it is, but it tastes delicious — savory and crunchy with a little bit of a spicy kick (toward the end of the meal, the chef tells us it’s a buffalo mac and cheese ball). The next thing my fingers find is slimy, and I immediately realize it’s a mushroom. “Megan, I found a mushroom! Be careful!” I say and hear Megan gasp. No worries for me, I love mushrooms, and these are stuffed with something I can’t quite place but balances the earthy taste of the roasted mushroom perfectly.
Megan: I would not consider myself a picky eater at all. I love tasting new cuisines and dishes. But there is one food I refuse to eat: mushrooms. There is something about them — the smell, the look, the taste, the texture — that I just cannot stand. So of course, sitting on my plate were three stuffed mushrooms. No thank you.
Melyssa: After twenty minutes of eating passes, a Q&A session with some of the blind volunteer staff kicks off. The staff discusses everything from how they became blind to how they handle everyday tasks without conventional sight. The overall consensus from the volunteers is that they can do anything a seeing person can do, just in a different way.
Megan: It was interesting and quite emotional to hear the stories of the blind wait staff: how they lost their sight, how they adapted to their new lifestyle, the struggles they face from their lack of sight, and a few hilarious anecdotes from their lives. On more than one occasion, Richie, one of the blind wait staff, has been unnecessarily assisted in the bathroom. Faith, another one of the blind wait staff, tells us that she too has experienced uncalled for help in the bathroom.
Melyssa: Shortly after the Q&A, I feel a hand brush my shoulder and let out a startled squeak. “Hey, it’s just me, Faith, I’m trying to give you your dessert,” a voice says. I reach up and take a small plastic cup with a lid and get excited because, you know, dessert. I pop the lid off and scoop out rich and creamy chocolate with a hint of raspberry. Richie’s band Constellation Prize starts playing a song, and the music instantly calms me.
Megan: As the evening comes to a close, Rosh asks the diners if we are ready. He lights a candle, which lights up the room, but only slightly, and people begin to exclaim their misconceptions of the room, which was much larger than both Melyssa and I had imagined. After Rosh gives his final remarks, people begin moving around and making their way to the exit.
The Blind Cafe continues to tour across America, aiming to bring more of the dine-in-the-dark experience to as many people as possible. The cafe will return to Austin Feb. 2-4. Get tickets online at theblindcafe.com/austin.
Vegan Chocolate Mousse
By Megan Prendergast
This vegan chocolate mousse recipe is inspired by the dessert at The Blind Cafe. Makes two servings.
1/2 cup vegan chocolate chips (semi-sweet or dark)
6 ounces coconut cream, chilled overnight
A few raspberries
Melt chocolate chips in the microwave in 30 second increments, stirring after each increment. Set aside.
In a medium mixing bowl, use an electric whisk to whip chilled coconut cream until fluffy.
Add melted chocolate (except for one tablespoon) to the bowl and whisk again until chocolate is fully incorporated.
Divide mixture into two serving dishes. Top with remaining melted chocolate.
Chill in refrigerator for 1-3 hours.
Before serving, top with a few raspberries.