I love nothing more than a nice meal out. So why was I bit uneasy about the idea of going out to dinner one evening while vacationing in south Florida? Probably because the restaurant we’d chosen served you a mystery meal and suggested it might be safest if you didn’t use any sharp implements—since you’d be dining in the total dark.
I’d found this particular restaurant online, after a reader suggested “dark dining” for The 52/52 Project. Few places in the United States offered the option, but I figured my mother and I could conveniently stop at Market 17 in Fort Lauderdale on our way back to our hotel in Delray Beach, right after our afternoon at the nude beach near Miami. I’d spent the afternoon naked and nauseated. I only hoped I hadn’t lost my appetite.
Our server seated us in a room by ourselves. I wondered if she’d overheard our replay of our beach excursion, as we sat at the restaurant bar before dinner. Perhaps she feared I’d whip off my clothes in the middle of my meal. She explained, however, that the rest of the restaurant was normal dining, and while they used to group dark diners together in one room, the sounds of strangers talking around them tended to confuse people. I had to agree with this new practice, especially since my mom and I were the easily confused sort.
She asked if we had any food allergies or major food aversions. We both were quick to mention Lima beans (eww) and I added liver and onions to my list. Although I used to enjoy veal, I noted that I no longer eat it, for humanitarian reasons. (Vegetarians: Please don’t burst my bubble my telling me how inhumanely other farm creatures are raised, too. After my week experience of going vegan, I’m still taking a vegetarian lifestyle one baby cow step at a time.)
Our waitress reassured us they were serving none of those items tonight, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I could handle any other variety of meat or vegetables. After all, I’d eaten insects as one of my early 52/52 ventures. As long as I wasn’t served filet of cat, I wouldn’t complain.
The waitress turned off the lights and left the room to get our first course.
I leaned across to my mother. “This is weird, sitting here in the dark,” I said.
“I said, ‘It’s weird to sit here in the dark.’”
“You’re going to need to speak slower and louder. I’m not wearing my hearing aids.”
“You’re not wearing your hearing aids? Why?”
“I didn’t want to get sand in them at the nude beach.”
I rolled my eyes in the darkness. Terrific. Apparently, I’d be dining that evening with Helen Keller.
“You should probably put them in,” I said. It wasn’t a suggestion. She poked around, finally located her purse on the floor, and dug through it. Miraculously, she managed to find the tiny case and opened it.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” she said. “Now I just need to find the batteries to put in them.”
I dropped my chin but didn’t say a word. This mattered little, since she wouldn’t have heard me anyway.
To find and then insert the batteries, my mother determined she needed light. Fortunately, she told me, she and all her Golden Girl friends always carry a flashlight. Just as she fished it out of her purse and switched it on, our server appeared with our first course.
“Uh-uh,” she scolded us. “No cheating.”
“You need to cut us a break here. Trust me,” I said.
As my mother configured her hearing aids, our waitress told us she was placing our plates directly in front of us. She left the room, and I reached my hands out in the dark to find my food.
It’s strange how much you rely on the sense of sight while dining. Without being able to eye our food, figuring out what we were eating was a challenge. Throughout our four courses, we were only somewhat on-target. Some of the individual ingredients were easy to guess. I noted curry, onions, and whole almonds with no difficulty.
By the texture and shape of our first course, I thought at first it was well-cooked baby carrots, although it didn’t seem sweet enough. I finally concluded it was some sort of dumpling. Our waitress later confirmed it was gnocchi.
The second course consisted of round slices of something I thought at first might be eggplant. Yet the rind on them had a meaty taste. My mom and I were fully confounded. We learned it was a very rare fish, called Wahoo. I would not have guessed this, even in the brightest sunlight.
The third course: Easy. By the smell, taste, and texture, we both agreed it was beef. Our server corrected us. No, it was actually venison. And so, I added eating deer to my list of the year’s new experiences.
The fourth course was dessert, an ice cream and flourless chocolate cake, which my mother and I both closely called (we’d guessed brownies) and happily devoured.
Yet even more difficult than guessing what we were eating was actually eating it. We started off the meal by attempting to spear our food with a fork. Although neither of us stabbed ourselves, we often brought our forks up to our mouths only to discover the food had dropped off. Half the time, we also had inadvertently turned the fork sideways. Dieters: Dark dining is likely an excellent weight-loss plan.
We ended up eating most of the meal with our hands. Our waitress said this was typical. It proved far messier but was the only way to ensure we’d found all the food on our plates and relocated it to our mouths.
The waitress had an easier time of it—she wore night-vision goggles as she served us. She said the most difficult thing was filling our water glasses. Still, she never spilled a drop, as least as far as we knew. My mother, not known for her daintiness or grace, feared she wasn’t faring as well in the sloppiness factor. “When we get home," she said, "I’ll probably have to throw away this white jacket."
While researching dark dining, I had learned that without vision, an individual’s other senses are amplified. I did indeed note that I concentrated much more on the individual aromas and flavors of each dish. And, certainly, the sense of touch was more important. The old adage “Don’t play with your food” proved impractical here.
As far as the food itself, my mother and I agreed it was good but not fabulous. A true gourmet might have appreciated it more than we did. Perhaps we were just low-brow diners.
On the drive back to our hotel, my mom said dining in the dark had been an interesting experience. Still, out of the day’s two experiences, she thought she enjoyed the nude beach more. Huh.
If nothing else, The 52/52 Project has taught me you’re never too old to try something new. Or to learn something new about your mother.
Nude beach or dark dining? What's the one food that really turns your stomach? Want to go to dinner with my mother and me?