October 14, 2008
A few months ago, I received an unusual email from an American reader of Chocolate & Zucchini, David E. Price, a former geologist and now computer programmer who goes to graduate school in Salt Lake City, and is an enthusiastic cook.
David explained that he had purchased copies of my books but that -- and here comes the unusual part -- because he was blind, he was wondering if there was a computer-readable version he could have access to: he was otherwise going to scan the pages and run them through a character recognition program, but he worried that the mix of French and English terms, as well as the fractions in the measurements, might make the resulting recipes inaccurate.
An arrangement was found with my publisher, and once that was taken care of, David and I continued our email conversation. In particular, I asked him about the accessibility of C&Z, and whether there was anything I could change to make it easier for the blind to read; there was, and I altered the code accordingly*.
And then, although I was a little hesitant to raise the topic, I had to admit I was curious to learn about the practicalities of cooking without vision. I had never really stopped to wonder if and how it was possible, and I was admirative, to say the least: it certainly took skill, perseverance, and a great love of food to cook and bake without relying on your eyes.
It was a thought-provoking exchange and I was sure other cooks would feel the same way, so I asked David if he would submit himself to a Q&A about the challenges he faces in the kitchen every day. His answers are below; thank you, David, for inviting us into your kitchen.
* If you'd like to learn more about this, read the page David put together about web accessibility.
Please tell us a few words about yourself -- your age, place of living, occupation?
I am forty-four years old and I live in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. I am currently back in graduate school in computer science, but before I lost most of my vision, I was a geologist.
Would you mind telling us at what age you lost your sight?
I lost my sight due to two optic nerve tumors. Fortunately, these tumors were benign, but I lost the vision in my left eye when I was twelve years old, and most of the vision in my right eye when I was twenty-eight.
You are obviously a passionate cook and baker. Were you always that way? How has the loss of your sight affected you as a cook, and as an eater?
I got into cooking when I was about eight or nine years old. It was driven by the fact that I loved chocolate chip cookies and the best way to get them was to make them myself. Of course, it also gave me control over distribution of the cookies, so I always got more than my two older brothers -- small victories are important when you are the youngest. My baking expanded from cookies to cakes and brownies, but after finishing college and leaving behind the dubious pleasures of dining hall cuisine, my interest in cooking broadened from just the treats to include cooking to eat, then cooking to eat better.
As far as I know, losing my vision hasn't affected my approach to cooking or eating that much. It has merely changed the mechanics. The crucial thing that has changed when I am cooking is that I am now much more deliberate in every action. I also tend to prepare all of the ingredients before I begin cooking. This means that cooking now takes much longer than it did before vision loss.
Eating with little or no vision brings a number of challenges. The first is knowing where the various parts of the meal are on the plate. In the US, the convention is to describe the contents of the plate using the positions on an analog clock. This description always runs clockwise, and if there is something in the center of the plate, it is described last. Thus, I might hear that "the chicken is from 5 to 8, the vegetables are from 9 to 12, and the salad is from 1 to 4."
This sort of description can be used with other objects on the dinner table. For instance, I might be told that the salt and pepper are above the plate at eleven o'clock. Similarly, if the salad bowl is being passed around the table, you might hand it to a blind person and tell him that it is the salad and the salad tongs are at two o'clock. Finally, it is always a good idea to tell someone who is blind that you are refilling their glass. Many a spill has been caused by someone refilling a glass and the person with vision loss being surprised as they tip the glass to drink from it.
The fact that you can cook and bake without seeing is a cause for wonder to the vast majority of sighted people, I'm sure. Can you tell us a little bit about the practicalities? Do you have a special way to label and/or organize your ingredients? How do you test food for doneness? How do you plate it? How do you follow recipes while in the kitchen?
There are many techniques that the blind can use while cooking. Here are a few of the ones that I use:
- I use Braille labels to organize most of my ingredients. For instance, all of my spices have Braille numbers on the lids, and I refer to a Braille list that indicates which numbers go with which spices. I have created magnetic Dymo labels in Braille for canned goods, and create normal Dymo tape Braille labels for other goods.
- There are techniques for measuring liquids. When measuring large quantities of liquids (1/4 cup or more), I use a "spill pan" under the measuring cup -- in my case, a small pie pan that I clean after every spill. If I overfill the measuring cup, the excess in the spill pan can be poured back into the original container. For measuring small amounts of liquids (teaspoons or tablespoons) I use a "dipping" spoon. A dipping spoon is a normal metal measuring spoon with a handle that has been bent 90 degrees just above the bowl of the spoon. This way, the handle can be held vertically and the bowl of the spoon dipped into the liquid, filled, and then moved to its destination. I also have a talking kitchen scale that weighs in pounds/ounces or grams.
- When working with knives, there are no special techniques -- just basic knife safety. Of course, just as for every cook, it is very important to keep those knives as sharp as possible so that cutting and slicing go easily. For some reason, my desire for extremely sharp knives seems to astonish people.
- When working on the stovetop, the principal issue is keeping the pan centered over the burner. It is very easy for that pan to wander off center, so the blind cook needs to develop an awareness of the pan's location and a sense of how to adjust the position of the pan on the burner, depending on how the food is cooking.
I like to use gas burners, and when I was just starting out in a cooking class for the blind at the rehabilitation training center, I was cooking with a small saucepan. It drifted off center and soon the oven mitt I was wearing caught fire. Fortunately, oven mitts don't burn very well, so I just walked over to the sink and ran the mitt under the tap water to put out the fire -- it certainly amused everyone else in the class.
Another issue the blind must keep in mind is awareness of what burners are in use and what types of pots are on each of them. Another of my early experiences in that cooking class was moving a large pot from one burner to another and forgetting about the other large pot on the stove. I nearly dropped the pot I was holding when it collided with the other one. This definitely would not have amused the rest of the class, as it was part of their lunch.
- Oven mitts are strongly recommended when using the oven. It is just too easy to inadvertently touch something hot, so you need to protect your hands. When I remove something from the oven, it is done very deliberately. First, I find and pull out the rack. Then I start from each side of the rack and move towards the center until I find the pan. From there, getting the pan out of the oven is easy.
Most of the time, I test for doneness in the normal fashion, by tasting. For baked goods, I'll also insert the toothpick or sharp knife to test for doneness. However, for baked goods that I can't test using the toothpick or knife, I will test by pressing my fingers against the surface to determine its consistency. For instance, I still like to make chocolate chip cookies from time to time, and the only way I have to test them is to press my fingers on the surface of a few cookies. For my recipe, if the cookies are firm but slightly yielding, they are done. Of course, this has to be done very carefully -- I don't want to press on that cookie sheet.
- Roasts also pose a problem for the blind cook. There are talking instant-read thermometers, but I am never sure that I am getting the probe inserted into the correct part of the roast. However, I found a wireless thermometer, actually marketed for barbecues, that I can insert into the meat before cooking. This thermometer will talk and notify me when the roast is five degrees short of done and again when done. I've never had a problem with a roast since buying this thermometer.
- There aren't really any special techniques for placing servings onto a plate. I will admit that I'm not very artistic at arranging food on a plate so, when I'm hosting a dinner party, I tend to get assistance from one of my sighted friends.
- I have two methods for following recipes while cooking. I usually follow the recipe using my computer**. In my apartment, my computer lives in a room a few short steps from the kitchen. It is very easy to step over, read the next instruction, and step back into the kitchen to perform the task. In other kitchens, I set up my laptop in a safe spot. However, if I can't use my computer, I record the recipe on a portable recorder and carry that around in the kitchen.
I imagine you keep a collection of recipes/cookbooks. How are they organized, so you can browse and access them easily?
I keep my recipes on my computer. They are divided into the usual sorts of categories, such as soups, salads, beef, poultry, fish, vegetables, etc. I also have a shelf of cookbooks. Sadly, they are poorly organized, and only a few have Braille labels on the spines. Of course, the trick is getting the recipes from the cookbooks into my computer.
When I first buy a new cookbook, I generally use my computer and a flat-bed scanner to scan an image of the index. I then use a program that performs optical character recognition (OCR) -- it converts the picture of the page into a computer file containing the characters, numbers, and punctuation.
Generally, I use the index to pick out the recipe I want to use, and then I will scan and perform OCR on the page(s) containing the recipe. If I like many of the recipes, I tend to scan the entire cookbook -- no small task. Sadly, OCR isn't as accurate as one might hope when processing recipes, particularly in the ingredient lists. Therefore, I generally have to spend time correcting the recipe before I can get down to the task of cooking -- and I haven't yet finished correcting any of the books that I have scanned.
What would you say is the biggest challenge a blind cook has to overcome?
I believe that this will vary from cook to cook. There are some techniques that I find difficult to master without vision, such as making a decent (not even good) omelet -- mine generally end up more like scrambled eggs than an omelet (sigh). I also have troubles turning over a fish fillet while broiling or grilling it: it tends to end up in two pieces.
Every blind cook I know is still sorting out a group of techniques that cause them problems, but we do generally find solutions. For instance, when I make Alsatian onion tart (tarte à l'oignon d'Alsace), I use a springform pan. The wall of the pan allows me to spread the filling out evenly over the crust without spilling and, when it has finished baking, I can remove the wall and easily slide the tart onto a plate.
On a more general note, I think we all agree that one of our biggest problems is access to cookbooks. The internet is a wonderful resource when you know what you want to cook, but it is slow to browse through. One wonderful thing about cookbooks is the ability to flip back and forth when putting together a menu: "This looks good. What can I serve with it?"
Is there anything recipe writers can do to address the blind cook's needs?
The crucial thing that is problematic for the blind cook is the visual indication that the recipe has progressed to a certain point and the next step can continue. Instructions like "stir until the sauce clarifies" are difficult for the blind. Thus, including any indication that call upon the other senses, such as texture or aroma, can really be useful. Also, time estimates to reach that point can help. For instance, "stir the sauce for approximately 30 seconds, until it clarifies, thickens, and the spices become fragrant" is much more usable for the blind cook.
There is one other thing that leaps to mind that would be very useful for me. However, I don't know that sighted cooks would like it. When I'm working with a new recipe, I always go through the instructions and add the quantities for each ingredient in front of the ingredient name. For instance, the instruction "Add the ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, and cayenne" becomes "Add the 1 tablespoon ground cumin, 2 tablespoons coriander, 1 tablespoon turmeric, and 1 teaspoon cayenne." Having the quantities in the instructions means that I don't have to scroll back up to find out the quantity for each ingredient, then scroll back down to the instructions again. However, I don't know if the sighted cook would want that much clutter in the instructions.
What does Plymouth [David's guide dog], think about your love of food -- is he a gourmand, too?
Plymouth is definitely a food-oriented dog. Being a labrador retriever, he can't be any other way -- he has the labrador gene. I've trained him to stay out of the kitchen when I'm cooking. Having a dog underfoot while carrying knives or pots is just too risky. Of course, the instant I've finished cooking and left the kitchen, Plymouth is on his way in to see if I dropped anything that I failed to clean up.
Is there any other topic you'd like to raise?
Just a few things to guide those who might find themselves in a blind person's kitchen:
- A blind person's kitchen has to be well-organized. If something is not put back into the correct place, it is lost and will take a long time to find. If you are helping in a blind person's kitchen, don't put anything away unless you know exactly where it belongs.
- If you are opening a drawer, cupboard door, or the dishwasher, tell the blind person you are doing so. How can I put this delicately... the blind won't see it and can easily run into it.
- Always place things on the counters, especially glassware, well back from the edge. Anything near the edge stands a good chance of getting knocked off the counter or into the sink.
- Never, ever place anything on the stovetop without telling the blind cook. I once had a friend helping to clean up who accidentally left a towel on the stovetop. When I put a pot on the stovetop and started to cook the next day, I suddenly had a little, unexpected bonfire on the stovetop.
** The blind access computers through a software program called a screen reader. These programs keep track of what is happening on the computer and send output to the blind user. The output comes in two forms: a Braille display, or through speech synthesis. For example, as I am typing my answers to this Q&A, I hear each word I type spoken aloud. When I review what I have written, I hear the content that I am crossing spoken aloud. If I am navigating by lines, I hear lines of text spoken. If I am moving by word or character, I hear only that word or character.
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