Sunday, November 25, 2007

Eating in the dark

What do you see when you eat? Usually we see many things at once: the food, a friend, a view, a painting of a view, or maybe a fork that was supposed to have food on it but does not. Some of us read while we eat. (After decades of this habit, I’ve gotten to the point where the words on a page now have a taste of their own.) Once in a while, however, we eat in the dark, and see nothing at all.

I've eaten a number of times in near-darkness, usually when the power goes out. Once, as a child, I blindfolded myself and spent a summer afternoon stumbling around inside our farmhouse for some now-forgotten reason. Most of my memories from that experiment are hazy at best: a red bandana over my eyes, hesitant steps with my fingers outstretched, the sound of mice running behind the walls. What I do remember sharply, however, is the taste of the one thing that I managed to eat that afternoon: tart pickles from a jar. But in that experiment there was a still a bit of light filtering in between the threads of the cloth over my eyes.

Some restaurants serve food in very dim lighting. In Prague, for example, there is a restaurant called Peklo (“Hell”) that takes up part of a 12th century cellar beneath the Strahov Monastery. It is candle-lit, with vaulted ceilings, and a damp smell, possibly from the dark pool of water inside. By candlelight, food is a monochromatic ochre. The candle’s flicker makes it seem as though the food is dancing. Candlelight is preferable to moonlight, though, which cuts sharp shadows and casts a cold, unwavering light on midnight picnics.

It is one thing to eat in near darkness, and another to eat in pitch darkness. In the past ten years, a number of restaurants have opened that offer diners the chance to eat in the complete absence of light. These include unsicht-Bar in Berlin, Blindekuh (“Blind Cow”) in Berlin, Opaque in Los Angeles, and Whale Inside in Beijing.

Eating in complete darkness changes how you eat. For one thing, you are now dependent on others to tell you what you are eating, and where your food is, and where you may sit. Waiters take a more active role in your meal. They assist in getting you into your seat, and remain nearby in case you lose track of a utensil or begin to panic in the dark. At some restaurants, such as Dans le Noir in London, the waiters are themselves blind or partially blind. At others, the waiters wear night-vision goggles.

Not every dark restaurant will tell you what you are eating in advance. For example, unsicht-Bar provides descriptions that range from unhelpful (“Crispy fellows prefer to float on this intoxicated, gilded sea”) to completely inscrutable (“Multi-continental meeting of illustrious ingredients”). The visual design – and color – of the chef’s plating is now unnecessary. The ubiquitous calligraphy of sauces that decorate plates would only end up on fingers and cuffs. Tall food is no longer whimsical, but hazardous.

Having someone feed you while blindfolded may be sexy, but feeding yourself in the dark is decidedly unattractive. When no one can see you, the temptation to abandon your lost silverware and eat with your hands is too great. This could be potentially disastrous, if it’s not something you know how to do. Diners at dark restaurants are advised to dress down, as they usually end up wearing a good part of their meal.

One question that comes to mind is why anyone would want to put up with any of this. The thinking behind these restaurants varies. Some restaurants aim to build empathy for the blind. Others focus on the experience and the heightened senses. (One restaurant’s motto is “Darkness leads to truthfulness about taste.”) Not surprisingly, dark restaurants are popular places for “blind” dates. If things go badly, you could quietly sneak away while your date is still in mid-anecdote.

Seeing is important because it is how we know that the food before us is good to eat. We look not only at our food, but also at those who around us at the time. When Mani was an infant, he would stare hard at whoever was feeding him at the time. It is usually disconcerting to have someone stare at you like that, but a child’s guileless gaze is something you can fall into and get lost inside. I think that when a child does this, he or she is making an imprint of the moment, remembering who is providing good, safe food. As adults, we continue to look to others’ faces for indications of whether food is not only safe, but delicious. It is no coincidence that the parts of the brain that process facial expressions of disgust, the insula, also have a role in processing taste and generating cravings.

I think the next frontier in sensory deprivation dining is to have restaurants where you not only cannot see the food, but you cannot taste it either. They would still charge for the smell of the food, but -- as the parable goes -- you can just pay with the sound of money.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Hi! I’m thinking about ducks. Do you want to know something about ducks? The boy ones are different colors and the girl ones are brown. They love talking to geese! There is a song that I really like (“O Pato”) that has the words “quack quack quack!” and “honk honk honk!” Click here to hear a little bit of the song. I love this song. Daddy and I like to say: “Wherever we go, we always see a…duck!” Bye bye!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Mosaics and reflections

Once in a while I stumble across a confluence of different streams of thought. Here's one example. Not far from our home, in Como Park, there is a zoo with a conservatory. The conservatory is a glass enclosure that itself reminds me of different things at once: the GUM department store in Moscow, the Crystal Palace that once stood in London, the glass pavilion in the “steam-punk” film Steamboy, and the dozens of strange objects in Julia’s forthcoming book.

Inside the glass conservatory are gardens, including a tropical exhibit. The first time I took Mani to this exhibit, he found an imposing rainforest, filled with towering banana plants, fallen trees, strangler figs, murky pools, and hissing jets of steam, and so he wanted to leave as soon as possible. I insisted we take a quick look anyway. He was glad that we did, as we eventually came across a colony of leafcutter ants behind glass. For fifteen minutes the boy was entranced. A crowd of people had also gathered to watch the ants as they carted thumbnail-sized pieces of leaves into the colony. Mani abruptly -- and somewhat randomly -- announced to the crowd: “There is a Twelve helping the ants! She is doing a very good job.”

I should probably explain. In Mani’s world, numbers are invisible, sentient creatures. The odd numbers are male, and the even numbers are female. The numbers range from a One, which sleeps in its own cardboard box by his bed, to the Two, Three, and Five that are the characters in his novel, on up through the Thirteen that’s the size of a truck and the Fifty-Five that’s as big as a house, past the One Hundred and Forty Four that devours planets, and on toward a fearsome and unimaginable Infinity. (Sometimes Mani blasphemously fibs, insisting that he created everything and that in his creation, numbers are finite.)

Once in a while, though, numbers are just numbers to Mani, and not creatures that he imagines scrabbling around like the ants. He recently learned about the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, and immediately began scribbling sums on a scrap of paper. For a few days he was singing a somewhat tuneless song about the sequence, but then all but forgot about it. Only then, when I noticed its absence, did I start to think about it too.

Here’s the confluence: outside the conservatory is a narrow pool that skirts the tropical plants exhibit. Its waters reflect the light reflecting off the glass of the conservatory. On the same day that we found the leafcutter ants, I also found something I had never seen before. In this pool, among the giant water lilies, hibiscus, and papyrus, there were mosaic plants (Ludwigia sedoides), which have red and green diamond-shaped leaves floating in beautiful whorls. In each group of leaves are two sets of spirals going in opposite directions. If you count the number of spirals in each set, the numbers are usually two consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence (this is called Fibonacci phyllotaxis). So there it was: spirals, glass, mosaics, numbers, and nature, all spun together and echoing in front of me. Do I look closer, or do I step back and look from farther away?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Eating nothing

It’s really hot today so I’ve been thinking about ice cream, naturally. A common ingredient in ice cream is soy lecithin, which Mani noticed is found in most of the other things he also considers delicious. So what is soy lecithin? It is an emulsifier that stabilizes and thickens the components that would otherwise separate in foods like chocolate.

In the past decade, chefs have been experimenting with soy lecithin to make flavored foams or airs. I haven’t yet tried an air, but I have heard it described as all flavor and no food. You take a bite and there is an intense taste of, say, tea, but the substance vaporizes instantly in your mouth, leaving nothing behind. Pictured above is “white chocolate air,” a dish from Ferran Adria’s restaurant El Bulli, near Barcelona.

On a related note, I also learned that the taste of ice cream will vary depending on the condition of the emulsion. When ice cream thaws, the emulsion is compromised, and the tiny ice crystals within begin to combine into larger crystals that ruin the texture of the ice cream, making it hard, sticky, and dry. This is why a dairy’s fresh-made ice cream tastes better than any pint of premium ice cream, which has usually suffered through a range of temperatures on its journey from manufacturer to your bowl.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Even nothing is something

Is Singingbee's black background hard on your eyes? I know it takes my faulty eyes a fraction of a second to adjust before I can read the text easily. However, that little delay is important – I think it requires that the reader commit to reading the page. I only noticed this delay because I've been thinking about a painting by Ad Reinhardt at the Walker Art Center. I noticed (over several visits) that most visitors ignore the painting because it looks like not much more than a simple black square. However, when you do stop and commit to looking at it for a few seconds, you see there is more to the painting. (Here is another at the Tate Gallery.) You discover, among other things, that what you thought was black is not black.

Similarly, when astronomers look at the night sky, they are often less interested in the stars that we see, and more interested in the most obscure patches of black between the stars, which to our eyes seem empty. Only a telescope trained for days on these small patches of nothingness can capture the light of the thousands of galaxies that lie hidden there. These distant things hint at the universe’s earliest history.

None of this is to suggest that there is anything hiding in the black of Singingbee’s pages. Or is there?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The view from our porch

I just wanted to note a minor detail. I am not as enthusiastic about our apartment's porch as Julia, but there is one thing I admire about it: the cast iron railing. The metalwork is stylized but recognizable as the young tendrils and woody stems of interlocking vines. I'm somehow grateful for any instance in which something artificial makes some sort of tribute to the nature that it replaces. Not shown in this picture are the little pea tendrils in the planter that echo these vines.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


I’m reading The Name of the Rose, which takes place in the 14th century at an Italian abbey that contains a library designed as a labyrinth. So I was excited to explore a garden of forking paths not far from our house, at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. I had been imagining something like the maze at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna or maybe the tall hedges in The Shining, but instead found (after a very interesting walk through the arboretum’s gardens) an unthreatening mix of wooden doors, plastic tunnels, and easy exits. Julia became separated from us, as she had chosen one door while Mani and I chose another. We decided to look for the dead ends rather than the right-way-outs. Unexpectedly, we found Julia sitting in one nook of the maze, on a bench, reading a novel.

Mani's site

Mani has his own site now too. It contains treasure maps, important dates and numbers, and more. It's all top secret, of course.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

More website news

Now most of the other pages in the website have the new look as well! Unlike before, the site also looks OK on the mobile web.

Happy 70th birthday to Larisa! Hopefully we will see her creative work on Singingbee as well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hello and peaches

Hi i'm eating peaches and they are a little bit red and white. I hope you have a nice day. I love you everybody! - Mani