Last week, I posted about a struggling blind cook This week, I want to answer some common questions about how we cook for ourselves and our families.
When I graduated from college ten years ago, I knew how to cook a handful of things, and survived on the occasional home-cooked meal, but mostly frozen dinners and takeout. After graduation I spent seven months at the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB), a specialized training center for learning nonvisual ways to do things. Thanks to the challenging center assignments, and my own experiences after graduation, I’m a functional cook. I’m definitely not a gourmet, and don’t love baking (or even really like it), but I can prepare a variety of meals. Here I want to share some stories and answer some questions. Although the main focus is on what I’ve learned as a blind person, I will also feature some kitchen devices that can help people with a variety of disabilities
Q: Won’t you burn yourself? That knife is too sharp for you!
A: While I have not read a scientific study on the topic, I am fairly confident that the majority of kitchen accidents happen to people without disabilities. An accident usually results from a lapse in awareness. Sight isn’t the only way, or even always the best way, to be aware of dangers. I can feel heat rising from a burner from a safe distance. I use oven mitts, and when holding an item on a cutting board, I keep my hand a safe distance from the knife in my other hand. If something doesn’t sound or smell right, I’ll investigate. Keeping the stove and surrounding areas uncluttered is a key to ensuring safety, whether you can see the clutter or not.
About five years ago I purchased a set of super-sharp chef’s knives. My efficiency in the kitchen doubled. And, I was making quick, clean cuts; much safer than struggling to force a dull knife through a potato or a piece of meat. For those who have difficulty using conventional knives, there are a variety of manual and electric choppers on the market, which can make ingredient preparation much less physically taxing.
Q: But how do you know when the food is done?
A: When I began my course at LCB, my first assignment was to make scrambled eggs. I’d made them before, but only in the microwave (which isn’t really “scrambled”). My instructor, Merilyn, had been teaching there for nearly 25 years. She isn’t blind, but she had learned to cook a multi-course meal under blindfold.
After I got my eggs in the frying pan, Merilyn showed me how to hold the spoon vertically so I could clearly feel what was underneath. Then, she went off to work with another student. This was new to me, since all my previous cooking lessons had come from people standing right behind me, telling me when to turn off the burner.
After a few minutes alone with the eggs, I could feel them harden in the pan, and they became difficult to stir. I turned off the stove and waited for Merilyn to return.
She asked me, “So, are your eggs ready?”
“What do you think?”
I poked the eggs with the spoon, and they seemed about the right texture. “I guess so,” I said tentatively.
“Why don’t you take a taste?” Merilyn suggested.
I did, and it wasn’t the best scrambled eggs I’d ever had, but not the worst either. It was one of the first times I was encouraged to fully trust my own senses without outside verification. When our educational system tends to put so much weight on all the deficits of blindness, the abilities we do have can be forgotten.
So, how do I know? Times given in recipes are a good starting point. I use my phone clock to keep time, or if the timing doesn’t need to be so precise, I’ll play music in the kitchen, giving me a general sense of how much time has passed. With many foods, doneness has multiple clues. For example, when raw ground meat is first placed in a pan, it will feel soft and slippery, and sizzle loudly. As the meat cooks, the sizzling will subside, the meat will resist tugging by a spatula, and often a characteristic smell will be detectable. With some foods, like pasta, the best way to check is with a taste test. And, talking thermometers are commercially available for those times when a precise temperature matters.
Q: How do you find things in the kitchen? What if something gets moved out of place?
A: At LCB, we used an industrial-sized kitchen. Many staple items, like flour and spices, were labeled in braille, but sometimes the labels came off. One day when I was making oatmeal cookies, I needed to add some vanilla extract. I found a bottle in the place where vanilla was usually stored. It was the right size and shape to be a vanilla bottle, although it had no braille label. I took a sniff, and it didn’t quite smell like vanilla, but my sense of smell has never been very reliable. So I put a teaspoon in, and started mixing my cookie dough with the stand mixer.
Suddenly, Merilyn tapped me on the shoulder. I turned off the mixer and asked what was up, but she was laughing so hard that she was literally speechless. When she finally settled down, Merilyn informed me that I had dyed my cookie dough green by adding green food coloring instead of vanilla! For the rest of the week, I was the butt of jokes about my secret Irish heritage.
Such mistakes have happened to the most organized among us, but they needn’t be a regular occurrence. There are as many nonvisual organizational systems as there are blind cooks. I like to make braille labels for condiments and spices by using a product called a Dymo braille label maker. This handheld device has a letter wheel with both print and braille letters on it. The user embosses braille letters onto a piece of tape by turning the wheel and squeezing the handle, and then cuts off the adhesive label and places it on the container. Some people prefer to make reusable braille labels on index cards and affix them with rubber bands. There are also modern apps that will read bar codes, though with varying degrees of accuracy, and a device called a Pen Friend allows the user to make audio-recorded labels. Some food containers can be distinguished by size, shape, or the sound it makes when shaken (rattling, sloshing, etc.) Identifying foods stored in Tupperware containers can be more difficult for us than it is for sighted people who can simply peer inside, but such containers can be labeled, or similar foods placed on the same shelf in the fridge. Although nonvisual food organization may seem complicated, it quickly becomes second nature.
Q: A blind person is moving into my home. How do I adapt the kitchen?
A: Our kitchen at home only contains one modification: We’ve put “bump dots” on the controls of our oven and microwave. Bump dots are clear adhesive dots of differing shapes and sizes, and I use them to mark the important buttons on the oven and microwave. A stove’s controls are usually simple enough not to require any marking. Other than that, I use standard kitchen equipment and utensils.
There are, however, some devices that can make cooking easier for everyone, including people with disabilities. Most of these devices are just regular cooking aids and appliances on the mainstream market, so they are not overpriced, and they are designed to be helpful to everyone. For example:
- I love my crockpot, where I can mix up ingredients in the morning and let it simmer all day. Crockpots can make life easier for beginning cooks, and people who find it physically challenging to stand over a pot on the stove.
- A George Foreman grill will cook meat on both sides at once without needing to flip it over.
- Oxo International makes tools designed to be easy to hold and use. I love their can opener, which has a large ring that I can line up smoothly with the can. They also make peelers and other hand tools that are comfortable and easy to grasp.
- Nested measuring cups and spoons allow for precise measuring without any tactile markings.
- An ordinary funnel makes it much easier to pour liquid from a large container into a smaller one without precise aiming. I will also pour dry ingredients like rice or flour from their packaging into a large container so a measuring cup can be dipped in.
- Cooking oil can be hard to feel. However, if it’s stored in a squeeze bottle, you can pour it out a teaspoon at a time.
Q: Do you need to go to a specialized center to be a competent cook?
A: Absolutely not. Some of the best blind cooks I’ve met have never attended a center. Centers aren’t the right fit for everyone, and some of us just don’t have the time, or other disabilities or health issues can get in the way. But there are other ways to reap the benefits I got from LCB.
I enjoyed my time at LCB, and got a good foundation, but most of my real learning came from practice after I got home. Generally, it can be helpful to start with a few lessons from a good teacher, and then practice on your own. The teacher can be disabled or not. It helps if they know about some disability-specific techniques, but really, the most important quality of a good teacher is that they expect you to succeed. Once you have mastered basic concepts, practicing will let you discover the particular adaptations that work well for you personally. There were some things I was taught that just never clicked, and other tricks I discovered on my own.
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