It may be premature to make any grand conclusions only two dinners into the IdeaFestival Lights Out series, so let’s just call this an early observation: some people seem to get a charge out of ceding a level of control over their lives.
How else to explain the high-decibel hubbub, laughter and smiles at the Mayan Cafe on Louisville’s East Market Street Wednesday night (June 14)?
Forced to don blindfolds, and provided no menus or choices among the dishes and drinks they consumed over the course of three hours, nearly all the 50 guests nonetheless seemed unperturbed, unburdened. Some were downright giddy.
So here I am thinking my IdeaFestival blogger gig is one of the slackiest of slacker positions to be had in the online world when Wayne Hall emails a request that I, as a blogger on food issues, identify the causes of the world food crisis.
In a single post? I’m not sure that’s possible. And I’m certain it wouldn’t be readable.
There’s so much being written about this phenomenon, and so many competing causes being identified, how could I possibly sift through and identify the most likely culprits?
With the help of two of any writer’s best friends, of course: simplifying anecdote, and the New York Times.
He’s one of five goats born on my central Kentucky farm about a month ago. I wouldn’t want him to hear this, but he’s not the cutest of the lot. That distinction belongs to Luna, one of the females. She’s petite, light brown with silky sprays of white on her flanks, and erect ears that make her look like a tiny donkey. She’s my daughter’s pet.
Truth is, they’re all pets, the two mother goats included. My family has the luxury of keeping goats on our eleven acres just because we want to. We don’t need the milk the mothers produce and, honestly, would probably be more than a little appalled to try drinking it. That’s how insulated we are from the rougher edges of rural living.
A log of fresh goat cheese—from nearby Capriole farm perhaps—nicely sealed in plastic? Sure!
Okay, I might have been wearing a blindfold at the Idea Festival's Lights Out Dinner last week, but I wasn't blind to the possibilities it and those to come provide for parody or outright dismissal--dilettantes dining on delectables in the dark while the real world grapples with issues like the UN's warning of a coming "silent tsunami" of hunger. Worse, they open the Idea Festival up to charges of staging events that are about little more than the novelty they offer.
What, really, is the point of playing with our food?
Whenever I was asked, in the weeks leading up to the Idea Festival's Lights Out Dinner at Louisville's Asiatique, I said the purpose for a dinner with blindfolded participants was to heighten their powers to taste, smell and feel, and to learn, collectively, how we would respond to those newly sharpened powers in the presence of really good food. It was an
experiment with voluntary blindness as much as it was an invitation to let the other senses take center stage for a while.
Sounds more than a little esoteric, in hindsight. Or at least shortsighted.
The Idea Festival's Lights Out Dining series was launched to give participants a different take on the necessary--and sometimes distressingly mundane--act of eating. We hoped to awaken diners' appreciation for flavors, both subtle and bold, as well as aromas and textures, by removing their ability to see what they were eating.
We figured the absence of sight would sharpen their senses of taste and smell.
One thing we didn't reckon on, though, was the boost it also seemed to add to their vocal capacities. What a racket! As soon as the 35 guests at Louisville's Asiatique on Bardstown Road strapped on their blindfolds, the decibel level in the room shot up by a factor of ten or more.
I had expected awkward silence at first, an uncomfortable period in which the strangers seated next to one another groped for something to say while they also groped for their silverware and drinks. I had even asked Chef Peng Looi and his staff to be prepared to turn up the volume of the piped-in music, to provide a diversion should the silence become too painfully obvious.
Fat chance. Best I could tell, people struck up instant rapport, finding lots to talk and laugh about even before the first courses arrived and they got down to the serious effort of tasting, sniffing, and discussing table-to-table what the offerings were, what they included, and how they were prepared.
And pretty quickly the din was so great, and so constant, it was nearly impossible to interrupt it--even to give Chef Looi a chance to identify, after each course, the foods and cooking methods everyone was wondering about. Then the hubub would grow even louder, as individuals congratulated themselves for recognizing the fish beneath the wasabe emulsion as sea bass, or razzed their neighbors for failing to tag the key spice in the sauce draping the filet of Malaysian Sunfish as turmeric.
It went on like that for three hours. Six courses, each testifying to the chef's determination to balance sweet with savory, fire with tongue-coating silkiness, and classic European methods with Asian ingredients. (We'll be posting the menu and many photographs soon.)
For now, I'll say giving up an all-important sense was never so assuring. When I couldn't quite recall where I had set my wine glass and began feeling for it, one of the staff was there in a moment, guiding my hand. The waiters provided quiet direction as they delivered each course, too, identfiying the order Chef Looi urged us to follow, to fully appreciate the flavors and sensations they offered.
Did we taste and smell with greater intensity?
I did--but sporadically.
When intrigued by a flavor combination I'd never before encountered, like foie gras and spicy chocolate for example, I'd say yes; not being able to study the dish with my eyes made me depend more on the powers of taste and smell to explore and enjoy it. And at least a couple times my nose helped me identify a cloying element my tongue just wasn't quite getting (and my eyes never could have tagged), such as the touch of vanilla cognac added to the dessert champagne.
I found it's still possible to be drearily human, though, even in a gaggle of raucous, blindfolded gourmands, with great food at my fingertips. It's still all about paying attention. When I remembered to do that the fare was extraordinary--a treat to explore and dissect. But sometimes, even with a mask across my eyes reminding me this was a special undertaking, I'd slip into the too common mode of eating simply to eat, barely savoring what I'd just placed in my mouth in the headlong, automatic urge to place something else there.
Maybe I need to be blindfolded all the time, so I could really begin to see.
In my freelance writing life I do occasional work for a company that provides food concessions at big venues—stadiums, convention centers, places like that.
The company’s hoping to land a contract at Ellis Island, the New York landmark that was the point of entry for generations of immigrants and is now a national park.
I’m helping write their proposal, and that’s requiring a lot of research into oral histories and other documentation at the national archives. I’m trying to get a flavor, if you will, of the kinds of foods introduced to the American palate via Ellis Island, as well as immigrant impressions of unfamiliar foods they encountered when they came to our shore.
It’s fascinating stuff.
It also seems to have a lot of bearing on what I hope to do with these IFeed posts.
Think of this blog as the Idea Festival’s Ellis Island. It’s the portal for many who want to learn more about the festival and be part of it. If you look down the page you can see we’ve got tools for learning just where they are when they make contact. The clustermap shows we’re getting hits from all over the world. In the last few hours alone the site has been accessed by people in Romania, Britain, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates.
Welcome virtual immigrants. And please, tell me your food stories. I’d like to know what you eat, when you eat, how you prepare what you eat, and what it means to you. I’m hoping others are as interested as I am, and that the exchange will generate ideas for food offerings at the festival, cookbooks, and a standing, expanding, Idea Festival world food archive.
The Statue of Liberty stands near Ellis Island, of course, and in the famous Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on a plaque inside it, she exhorts the world to, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
I’m asking you to give me your tiramisu, your pork, your coddled mussels yearning for a bed of frisee...
Only you can stop me from producing more bad parody. Respond today, and give me something else to chew on.
The IdeaFestival was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and the first three were held there before Louisville became the host in 2006. Lexington’s the epicenter of fervent fan support for the University of Kentucky’s sports programs, and everyone in central Kentucky, fan or not, knows the school’s color is a vibrant blue. The place is steeped in blue: clothing, home furnishings, flags, dog sweaters, really bad art, and every marketable thing from key fobs to door mats.
If it’s blue, somebody will buy it.
Except blue food. Decades of Big Blue madness and the fiercely inventive marketing that feeds—and feeds off—the phenomenon have still not yielded much more in the way of blue foods than sickly sheetcakes and cupcakes slathered with icing made blue with food coloring. And even the most rabid fan sees blue icing for what it is—a dubious novelty, not a culinary achievement.
Fact is, nobody likes blue food. You can argue that blue corn and its progeny: blue corn chips, tortillas and cornbread, can be tasty, but in my experience, the “blue” in blue corn leans more toward the purple end of the spectrum. Blue corn ain’t really blue, and that’s what helps make it edible. Our eyes see blue food in a very bad light.
Some don’t believe giving a blue tint to the foods on their plates will cause them to eat less, but to me Yumetai’s blue glasses are just more proof of vision’s strong link to victuals. What we see colors our experience of what we want to eat, and how we taste it.
On April 17, the IdeaFestival is going to explore that link further, by severing it.
We’re going to remove sight as a factor in the dining experience, and see how the absence flavors the experience.
Want to know what happens to your sense of a fine meal when you’re not allowed to view any part of it? Come join us at Asiatique just over a week from now, and we’ll see.
IdeaFestival stalwart and food writer David Mudd has graciously agreed to contribute posts to IFblog.
David is a Louisville native who now lives on a small farm outside of
Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, where he’s suddenly raising fainting goats. He
writes about food, agriculture, and public policy and has been
published in the Washington Post, City Magazine, Rodale’s New Farm
Magazine, and the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
project’s Farmer Profile series. He was editor of a public issues magazine called the Kentucky Journal. He
has a professional culinary degree from L’ Academie De Cuisine, in
Washington, D.C, and has cooked at several celebrated Washington restaurants. He
has also helped organize the IdeaFestival’s Taste of Innovation event
for three years now, and last year launched a closing dinner event for
the Festival. That dinner was staged at
Smith-Berry Vineyards near Louisville, with nearly all elements of the
meal produced in the region and served outside at a well-appointed
table among the grapevines. He’s hoping to top that experience this
All of David's posts will be filed under "IFeed" on the blog. Welcome David!