Editor’s note: Counting down to Halloween, The Post-Star is examining “discomfort” food in a weekly Swallow Your Fears series appearing each Thursday.
In the dark, anything is possible.
Since before the dawn of civilization, humans have dreaded the blackness that engulfs the land as the sun goes down. Early man was vulnerable in the night when nocturnal beasts lurked in the shadows searching for prey.
According to modern psychological theories, fear of the dark begins during childhood, stemming from an apprehension of the unexpected. The imagination races trying to rationalize the void of visionary clues.
That panic sensation isn’t something everyone outgrows.
A recent study by psychologists at Ryerson University in Toronto revealed that nearly half of a survey of self-identified “poor sleepers” and one-quarter of “good sleepers” acknowledged a fear of the dark. The National Institute of Mental Health lists darkness as the fourth most common fear, with nearly 11 percent of the population experiencing the phobia. (The “phobia” list is topped by public speaking at 74 percent, death at 68 percent and spiders at 30.5 percent.)
Celebrated American poet Edgar Allan Poe played on humans’ fear of darkness in his classic 1845 poem “The Raven.” After hearing a tapping at his door, the poem’s narrator stares into the ebony night.
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before ...”
Ken Elms of Queensbury has learned to accept the darkness. Born with glaucoma, Elms said his vision continued to deteriorate as he aged.
“I had 16 operations done on each eye. The last operation was in 1976. I went to different doctors after that, but they told me there was nothing more they could do,” Elms said.
He has been totally blind since about 1980.
“When I first lost it, if was kind of difficult, but I adjusted quite a lot. I learned to live with it,” he said.
Since losing his vision, Elms has found that his relationship with food has changed.
“There is a difference. Now that I can’t see it, I have to taste it first,” he said. “You have to put a lot of trust in people when they cook for you.”
Eat with your eyes
Human taste buds aren’t as astute as most people think. Although we relate flavor to the tongue, people’s perception of food is actually much more complicated.
In fact, sight and smell play a more significant role in identifying food and drink than an actual sense of taste. “Taste” is really a fusion of messages sent to the brain from receptors on the tongue with cues about smell, touch and sight.
According to a report recently released during a national meeting of the American Chemical Society, researchers have found that the appearance of food and drink allow people to “see” flavors before they actually taste anything.
“Years ago, taste was a table with two legs — taste and odor,” researcher Terry E. Acree of Cornell University’s Department of Food Science said during the presentation. “Now we are beginning to understand that flavor depends on parts of the brain that involve taste, odor, touch and vision.”
Combined with emotions and past experiences, these signals create a perception of flavors. The sum total determines a person’s attitude about a food.
Without visual clues, Elms often finds meals confusing. He also can’t rely on the aroma of food.
“Part of my problem is that I lost my smell a little bit, too. That double combination does make it harder,” he said.
Unable to see or even smell what he is putting in his mouth, Elm finds that each fork of food has an element of mystery.
“I have to put it in my mouth to find out if it is something I like. If I don’t like it, then I spit it out,” he said.
He has favorite foods — including meatloaf, steak and macaroni and cheese, but even those dishes can be problematic, depending on how they are prepared.
“A cook could put different things in it, and I would have no way to know,” he said.
The Wishing Well Restaurant in Wilton has a dark side.
The popular dining spot has been known for its classic cuisine and intimate setting for generations, but owner Bob Lee enjoys challenging his staff and customers with new ideas.
“I find that our regulars — regardless of their age — like to try something different,” Lee said.
So Lee brought out the blindfolds and turned out the lights.
The restaurant has offered two “dark dinners,” and a third is planned for January. The concept, a recent culinary trend around the world, takes vision out of the dining equation. Guests wear blindfolds and sit in a dark room, sampling a succession of courses that challenge preconceived notions about food.
“So much of what a modern chef does depends on presentation,” Lee said. “Remove that from the equation, and it opens up a tremendous avenue for both the chef and the diner.”
For the special events, Lee encouraged Executive Chef Patrick Longton to push the limits of the dining experience. Lee, Longton and Joseph Armstrong, a wine consultant with Winebow, played with a variety of concepts.
“We sat down and talked about things like smells and textures. We also wanted to confuse people. For example, we’d serve an American dish, but I would walk through the room with a pan of toasted curry,” Longton said.
The restaurant’s first dark dinner had courses that toyed with perception.
A first course, focusing on “texture,” paired crispy lobster tempura with creamy lobster, sweet corn and basil risotto. Subsequent servings reflected “temperature,” “spicy and cool,” “sound,” “meat and potatoes” and “sweet.”
“One of the key components is selecting food that people can eat blindfolded. We chose a lot of finger foods,” Lee said.
Drinks were served in short rocks glasses to lesson the chance of spills.
A second dark dinner focused on global street food, and each course reflected cuisine from a different part of the world. A DJ created a soundtrack to coincide with the menu.
“We really wanted to play on all of the senses of our guests, including sound. The music gave an indication of what country they were landing in for each course,” Lee said.
Dishes included a twist on the American corn dog, British beef pies, Italian Asiago Fresco Arancini with crispy prosciutto and pomodoro sauce, Greek lamb meatballs, a Korean pork bun and a Mexican chimichanga with lobster and sweet corn.
Diners finished the meal back in the United States with a root beer float featuring Saranac soda.
Without visionary clues, the brain has a difficult time deciphering flavors.
Lee admits being bewildered during his own blind tastings.
“I was surprised at how little you know when you take away one of these senses,” he said.
Tom Thibeault, president of Adirondack Appliance in Saratoga Springs, brought his wife and family friends to the international dark dinner event.
“I wasn’t afraid. We are open-minded foodies. We’ll pretty much eat anything,” Thibeault said.
He found the exercise to be more playful than he expected.
“Everybody was all giggles. It was a lot of fun,” he said.
With the musical cues offering guidance, Thibeault felt his assessment of the dishes was fairly accurate.
“Some of the stuff was really difficult, but other things were familiar. It takes a little time,” he said.
Watching diners’ reactions during the servings was intriguing for Lee.
“Some people approached the first course with gusto, and certain guests were more reluctant. But as the evening progressed, everyone came around,” he said.
Like any adventure in the dark, it’s important to be surrounded by people you trust.
“Dark dinners are not for everyone. The guests must have a sense of adventure and be confident in the chef’s ability,” Lee said.
Thibeault found the dinner to be a worthy experiment for people who love food.
“It’s a different experience and one I think everyone should experience at least once in their life,” he said.
If you go
The Wishing Well Restaurant, 745 Saratoga Road in Wilton, will hold its next dark dinner on Jan. 10. For more information or to make reservations, call 584-7640 or go to www.wishingwellrestaurant.com.