Have you ever watched a blind man eat a cheeseburger?
Before I skipped town for the holidays, my wife and I tried out a new sandwich shop down in the Ballard Blocks. After ordering and sipping at our iced teas, I noticed that the man next to me, distractedly chatting away with his family, had a folded white cane by his side. The waitress set down his gourmet burger, including sweet potato fries with aioli on the side. Out of the corner of my eye, I couldn't help but watch as he ate.
First, he patted with his left hand to find the top of the burger. He used his right hand to enclose the bun and patty. Slowly, he brought it to his mouth for a bite. Freeing up his right hand, he patted the plate for fries and ate three. Resting the sandwich, he then fumbled a bit before acquiring his beer and taking a healthy sip. The worried expression that had consumed most of his face during those first moments of eating had turned into a smile of deep satisfaction.
Between the beer, the burger, and the fries, he was continually reacquiring the position of each object in relation to his hands and his mouth. As he grew comfortable with the position and taste of each thing, he started to become more adventurous. Those first savored bites turned into a messy ballet. He began dipping the burger into the aioli for the fries, which required holding the stainless-steel ramekin. He also couldn't control how much of the sauce ended up on the burger (which ended up daubing his chin). As he finished the fries, he moved his hand around the plate in a clockwise motion to locate those last stray, delicious tubers. And he carefully managed how much was left in his pint of beer, so he could chase the last bite of the burger with a healthy swig.
As our waitress left our burgers in front of us, I couldn't help but reflect on how I would eat my impending meal, and what elements truly composed it.
We could talk here about the latent usability of the cheeseburger, but that's an easy argument to wager. If you suffer from a visual disability, of course it will cost you more time to fulfill the same interactions over the course of a meal. We've felt the very same feeling in using a poorly architected website, where we fumble about for minutes for what seems, in our minds, to be a very simple goal: match the idea in your head to what's on the screen. You need the food in your hand before you can put it in your mouth.
Since I could see all of the ingredients on the plate before me—and understood how they all fit together into a set of graspable objects—I could plan out at some level of detail how I would eat them, from first to last bite. It took about twelve minutes for the blind man to eat his burger, while I could make mine vanish more quickly.
Those are nice things, if I care about being more efficient, not getting ketchup on my sleeve, or admiring how the dark diagonal burn marks demonstrating how our veggie-burgers had been char-grilled.
Since I can see the cheeseburger, there must be some added meaning to the food that changes my perception of how it tastes. There's also the notion that slowing down the eating process, whether through self-will or eating in pitch darkness a la Dans le Noir, causes us to appreciate the nuances of what we taste. That environment may force you to acknowledge taste without the influence of sight, but how I understand the notion of "cheeseburger" or "fries" in that environment, as I consume them, is no better or worse than the blind man as he reaches for what comprises his lunchtime meal. Even if he and I are splitting the same cheeseburger, it will never be the same cheeseburger.