Dining etiquette is difficult for me in the most well-lit of rooms, so one can imagine what an adventure it was for me to dine in the dark. Dining in the Dark is an annual dinner and auction that raises funds for Lighthouse of SWFL, an incredible nonprofit rehabilitation center for Southwest Florida folks living with blindness and vision impairment. Providing support to the visually impaired since 1974, Lighthouse of SWFL specializes in a variety of services, from vocational training to counseling to independent living skills and more.
This year was the eighth for the popular event, which moves from restaurant to restaurant each year, with the theme of the event corresponding to the cuisine of the eatery. This time it was Latin Night at La Trattoria Cafe Napoli, and I was nervous.
I have never been the most elegant of eaters. In fact, my dear Grandpa Jim nicknamed me Sloppy Jo (my middle name is Jo) when I was around 7 years old. My mother told me that no matter how much I tried to aim food into my mouth, I’d invariably hit my nose or my chin instead. It wasn’t so much that I had no coordination; “You just always got distracted,” she told me. And it’s true—while eating a hotdog, I’d see a toy, grab for it, and then have ketchup and mustard all down the front of my shirt. My Grandpa would laugh, “Oh, Sloppy Jo.”
I never really grew out of it. Messiness has been a signature thing for me—and again, it stems from not paying attention. Recently, I was having a lovely time at a sparkly cocktail party and sipping a glass of red wine when I noticed an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in forever walk through the door. I squealed as I put my wine down on what I thought was a cocktail table so I could go hug my friend, but the cocktail table was not a cocktail table at all. It was the arm of a white sofa. It didn’t end well.
Speaking of white, I rarely wear light colors when I know food or drink is going to be involved, as it often results in tragedy. There I am, sitting around a dinner table with friends, happily enjoying a bowl of vegetable soup when someone says something funny and I laugh so hard that my spoon misses my mouth. Oh, Sloppy Jo.
I’m used to it—and frankly my clumsiness with food doesn’t bother me in the least anymore. As an awkward teenager, it was a real handicap, especially when many a pizza date ended up with melted cheese dangling from my mouth to my plate. But, as an adult, I’d rather hug a friend, have a good laugh, or even have such a crush on a boy that I forget how to eat gracefully. Life is far too short to stress about food stains on a white blouse.
But, Dining in the Dark offered up a whole new challenge: sitting down to a five-course dinner complete with wine pairings while blindfolded.
Needless to say, I wore a cocktail dress with a floral print—reds, yellows, oranges and greens. Hopefully, I thought, if I spilled heaps of food and wine all over myself no one would notice.
It wasn’t until I got to the packed restaurant, filled with supporters for the cause, that I realized everyone else in attendance would be blindfolded, too, so who would even see? This could be the perfect dinner experience for someone with a nickname like Sloppy Jo.
We drank, we had hors d’oeuvres, we bid on silent auction items, and we were merry. By the time it came to sit down to dinner, I was actually feeling confident. After all, because I would be blindfolded, for once I wouldn’t be distracted. Maybe this would be a success and the Sloppy Jo in me would finally be tamed.
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Lighthouse of SWFL showed us a helpful video before dinner—we were to use our fingers at the edge of the table to feel for utensils, plate and wine glasses. As long as I concentrated and paid close attention, I didn’t do too badly. But, if I got deep in conversation with my tablemates and took my hands off the table, I had to start all over again to get my bearings. It was humbling, as several blind folks from the Lighthouse were there that evening and breezed right through it—but then again, that’s their normal. So many people with visual impairment have never experienced the joy of seeing an old friend entering a room or gazed into the eyes of a date over pizza. Our first course was quiet as the enormity of what it would truly be like never to see really hit us.
The first course, by the way, was a delicious empanada that I did a fairly decent job of eating with a knife and fork until about halfway through. I took a quick peek under my blindfold to see that everyone at our table was diligently struggling with their utensils. I picked up the whole thing like a Hot Pocket and sneaked a couple of illegal bites by hand.
Thank goodness the second course was a creamy polenta—it’s much easier to eat while blindfolded when only a spoon is required. However, as each course and each new glass of wine was delivered, I’ll admit that many of us got a bit lazy as blindfolds were pushed to the top of heads. I stayed as studious as I could, but when course No. 5, a tender slab of yummy pork, arrived, trying to cut it with my knife and hold it still with my fork became frustrating. And because so many guests had discarded their blindfolds, there was no way for me to take a shortcut by picking it up and eating it. Fortunately, dessert was flan—a walk in the park with just a spoon.
At the end of the night, we were once again humbled as a young blind man performed a beautiful tango with a blindfolded young woman, proving that nothing is impossible with concentration and talent.
My dining in the dark adventure ended on a high note. I was amazed to look down at my flowered dress to see that there were no wine stains, traces of empanada or even creamy polenta. Sloppy Jo redeemed herself—and I could sense that my Grandpa was smiling down on me.