Making food accessible through touch

Foodie culture is about visuals. It’s not a coincidence that some of the earliest blogs heavy on the photos were food blogs, and that images of food circulate wildly across the internet. People like painstakingly chronicling every step of a recipe and presenting the finished product in a flawless, beautiful way. Plating is an ancient art form. Deep visual aesthetics are wound in our relationship with food, from glossy full-colour cookbooks to tiny models of food in Japanese restaurants. When sighted people think about food culture, they usually visualise food culture.

Blind and low vision people are excluded from that cultural milieu in the minds of people who think about food, just as they are pushed out of society in general. People with vision impairments are, like other disabled people, considered lesser. They live, sighted people reason, with half lives, deprived of all that the wide world of vision has to offer. Or they have magical superpowers along the axes of their other senses. People are perennially amazed when they find out that lots of blind and low vision people are actually very interested in aesthetics, including photographers, people into makeup, artists, and others. There are lots of ways to interact with highly visual environments.

But food culture remains so persistently visual that sighted people have a hard time imagining how people with visual impairments cook, let alone appreciate formally plated and presented food, or cookbooks, or beautiful markets filled with an array of stalls covered in colourful foods. All of these things, for sighted people, revolve around sights: Richly red bell peppers, eying a measuring cup, opening a book to feast your eyes on a recipe before plunging in to start making it.

These assessments of what matters, and how people relate, are based in a limited understanding of human experience. Blind and low vision people are perfectly capable of cooking food, for starters, because if they weren’t, they would starve. Lots of them use a variety of tricks to get around safely and effectively in the kitchen, and like sighted people, they range from completely inept cooks to extremely experienced and talented chefs (like, say, Christine Ha). Those who are bad in the kitchen aren’t bad in the kitchen because they’re blind — they’re bad in the kitchen because they never had a chance to learn how to cook, because they rarely do it for themselves, for any number of other reasons. Some may also be contending with the fact that no one bothered to teach them because they were blind or low vision and the people around them assumed that they would be incapable of using a kitchen.

When it comes to the experience of food prepared and presented by others, blind and low vision people have lots of ways to interact with food, just like everyone else. After all, if food was just visual, its aroma, flavour, mouthfeel, and other characteristics wouldn’t matter. We could print pretty pictures on calorie blocks and chow down whenever we were hungry. Since calorie blocks generally taste terrible, we know that food is about much more than what it looks like.

Food is about how it smells, and how the smell evolves. It is about how the food tastes on the palate, about the lingering aftertaste, about secondary flavors. It is about how it feels in the mouth. If I describe a lemon to you, you may feel your mouth inadvertently water slightly in anticipation of the sourness. When you hold a lemon, the cool, crisp fruit, you can feel the faint divots in the skin, smell the citrus from where your fingers bruise it. Slice it open and the spray of lemon oil will dot your hands, the juice will trickle out over your cutting board. These are sensations that aren’t related to sight — just as the experience of driving your fork into a piece of lemon meringue pie, hearing the crisp crackle as it cuts through the meringue and feeling the smooth firmness of the filling and hearing the slight snap of the crust is all about sound, and feeling, and texture.

I was reading recently about a group that does touch tours of Philadelphia, taking blind and low vision people on a tour of the city that revolves around touch, and auditory descriptions, and taste, and other senses. It’s something that some people might think of as an ‘oddly enough’ or ‘gosh, they really are just like us!’ But to me, it speaks to something deeper, to recognising that blind and low vision people have a right to full social inclusion and that it should be radical and rich, that they should be accommodated, that a world which welcomes them is a more just one.

Getting het up over being able to feel some salami might seem kind of ridiculous, but for people who are used to being cut out of tours and treated like their interest in the attractions of a region is ridiculous because they can’t see, it’s important. It’s another act of inclusion in a culture that expects blind and low vision people to stay at home, and objectifies them when they enter the outside world, like they are freakish and fascinating for trying to do ordinary things like getting the mail and going to work. Touch tours integrate participants seamlessly into society, making it clear that they belong there alongside everyone else, and the value of that should not be discounted.

Image: Michael Stern, Flickr