Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Food for Thought

Thanks to the January sales, I am now the proud owner of a spangling new Kenwod Chef. Old Kenneth Wood really knew what boys like when he strapped an outboard motor to a whisk. I wonder why it doesn't come with ear protectors as standard.

The preparation and consumption of food are activities which present their own set of challenges for the visually impaired person (VIP). Difficulties with the latter, from my experience, are the more challenging and, to an extent, more critical for the VIP’s self esteem.

Cooking for me and my family has never really been a problem. Armed with a good recipe book and a few helpful gadgets, such as talking scales, I can be a dab hand with my apron and rolling pin. Checking the instructions or contents can be tricky – taking a chance normally works out okay, but when it doesn’t, you know about it. My most recent disaster of this type involved serving pasta with a delicious covering of carrot soup. However, I generally find that having impaired vision doesn’t have too much of an impact when it comes to preparing a meal. Perhaps it’s because there are so many other senses that come into play. As well as tasting (vital when cooking anything with chocolate in, of course), I can check texture by feeling, sniff out whether I’m using the right herb and listen to find out whether my pan is boiling or simmering. I do have to admit to leaving a trail of destruction in my wake – there isn’t usually a cooking utensil untouched, but I put this down to being a bloke rather than anything to do with my sight. Creation completed, I usually retire, victorious at this point, glowing with the pride of a hunter-gatherer providing for his dependants, armed only with a spatula and half bottle of Shiraz, and let my wife repair the damage.

Eating food, however, is an altogether more tricky business. For a VIP, eating a meal is fraught with physical, social and emotional dangers. Struggling to eat a meal in front of others can be a humiliating, frustrating and embarrassing experience. The basic problem is similar to that suffered by the toddler who, due to a lack of fine motor control, finds it difficult to co-ordinate what he sees with what he does with his hands. For me, the problem is the other way around, but the result is often the same – spilled food, too much food in the mouth, dribbles and spills. The toddler has the advantage of low expectations, a high chair, nice plastic spoons and a bib. For the VIP, there is often only polite attempts not to notice.

Through this experience, you learn that there are ways of managing the risk. Finger buffets, for example, are a potential disaster zone, and I now gladly let someone else fill my plate for me rather than risk picking up one and a half sandwiches or putting my fingers into the salsa dip. Lighting is also key – generally people like to eat in subdued lighting, whereas I will always ask for a window seat in a restaurant, or extra candles on the table. If I have the choice, I’ve learned to be careful about what I choose to eat – there are some things that, however tasty they may be, just aren’t worth the effort. If you think of a scale with porridge at one end and lobster thermodore at the other, you’ll get my drift. I am currently at risk of becoming the world’s slowest eater, as half my forkfuls of food are all fork and no full, and I can spend a mouth-watering amount of time chasing food around my plate. Being told exactly what is on my plate and where can help, such as “sausages at 3 o’clock, chips at 7 o’clock and beans at 10 o’clock ” Unfortunately, some of the food (especially little bloody peas) inevitably ends up in a totally different time zone, but, hey, what else are table-cloths for?

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