Eating Authors: Peter Darbyshire

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Peter Darbyshire

If you’re reading this around the time it posts on Monday morning, then in theory I am back home and liking sleeping in after what I anticipate (given that I am writing this a few days in advance) will be an insanely glorious weekend spent at Boskone 52. But this is only a theory because I’m flying to and from Boston and if you’ve been keeping an eye on their weather of late, you already know that they’ve been experimenting with snow and for all I know I won’t be able to fly back when/as planned. I mention this because the only other time I flew in and out of Boston, my plane was grounded at Logan and I had to stay an extra day. This greatly upset the nuns for whom I was working at the time, but that’s another story.

But nevermind about that. You didn’t come here to read about nuns and my adventures teaching at a small liberal arts college for women (but oh, the stories I could tell). No, indeed. You’re here to read about this week’s guest, Peter Darbyshire. He’s actually two authors in one. He’s written such works as Please (which won Canada’s ReLit Award) and the acclaimed The Warhol Gang, but under the name Peter Roman he writes supernatural thrillers, notably his The Book of Cross series, which began with The Mona Lisa Sacrifice and has a sequel The Dead Hamlets, the latter coming out tomorrow.

LMS: Welcome, Peter. Please, tell me about your most memorable meal.

PD: My most memorable meal ever was one I couldn’t see.

My wife surprised me a while back by taking me out to a Vancouver restaurant called Dark Table. It’s a place where you eat in a complete blackout and the wait staff are blind. I was not excited by this idea — why, those sneaky restauranteurs could be feeding my anything! But I decided to go along with it anyway. It was date night, after all, which meant I didn’t really have a choice.

The Dead Hamlets

We drove to the restaurant and met our waiter outside, in a patio full of comforting lights. We were given a menu with a handful of dishes, but of course we ordered the “surprise of the day.” The whole point was to experience the unknown. The waiter gave us a brief talk about what to expect inside the restaurant, then had us put our hands on his shoulders so he could guide us to our table. Then he led us into the restaurant and a whole new world.

As it turned out, the waiter’s talk did nothing to prepare us for stepping into the void. I understood that the restaurant was going to be dark inside, but I didn’t understand what that darkness meant. I couldn’t see a single thing, and I instantly lost any sense of where I was. I couldn’t remember the last time that I’d been in such utter darkness. Even during the frequent power blackouts where I live, I still have sources of light — the ambient light from the moon or stars, or even my iPhone flashlight in a pinch. But inside Dark Table, it wasn’t just dark — it was nothing at all.

Our waiter guided us to our table and helped us sit down. We felt our way around the table to know where it began and ended, and where our utensils were. My wife and I held hands across the table — the only way we could really be sure the other person was there! We engaged in small talk while we waited for our meals, but I was distracted by the murmur of conversations at tables around us.

Then it happened. I began to feel panic rising within me. It was a strange mix of claustrophobia and the fight or flight reflex. I wanted to leap to my feet and run from the restaurant, to return to the world I knew — except I didn’t even know which way was out! It was a strange case of sensory overload, except that most of my senses were deprived of any information. It was terrifying.

Please

I managed to keep myself seated in my chair, even as I felt I was becoming disconnected from the world. In the past, I’d sometimes imagined what it would be like to go blind. I had never imagined it would be like this. And I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to feel this way all the time.

But then a strange thing happened. My mind started to adjust. I felt like my hearing was sharpening as I sat there. I began to get a sense of the shape and size of the room simply by listening to the conversations around us. I could tell there was only one table to our left and one table between us and the wall behind my wife. I could hear the waiters passing by on the right, so I knew there was an open walkway there. I could hear layers of conversations behind me, so I knew there were rows of tables there. And I began to calm down as my other senses heightened.

I grew even calmer when the meal arrived. The waiter put our dishes in front of us, and we clumsily impaled things with our forks and sampled them. There was no rice or fine strands of pasta here, no tabouleh or wafers of delicately carved vegetables in sauce. Everything was cut into chunks or other large shapes, easy to handle by feel alone.

So what did we eat? I have no idea. We didn’t know during the meal, which made eating an incredibly sensual experience (no, not sensual that way). I would put something in my mouth without knowing what it was, and try to figure it out by texture and flavour. I had some basic ideas — OK, this is a salad, and this is a gnocchi of some sort — but I couldn’t figure it out any more than that. Everything was a mystery and a revelation at the same time. It was less a meal and more a ritual that I shared with my wife.

We found out afterward what we ate, but I honestly don’t remember any of it. The exact contents of what we’d consumed didn’t matter. It was the experience of eating and revelling in the taste of the unknown that stuck with me. I doubt it’s a meal I’ll ever forget.

The Mona Lisa Sacrifice

When we were done, we went back out to the patio and I had to sit down for a moment. It was night out now — the time of day I usually associate with darkness. But I was suddenly overwhelmed by all the lights from the cars passing outside and the neighbouring businesses. My senses, which had been overwhelmed by the darkness inside the restaurant before adjusting, were now overwhelmed by the light and the incredible amount of visual stimuli that was my everyday world. I could barely even speak. We slowly walked back to our car, parked a couple of blocks over, and soaked in the world, which was so shiny and new. Once in the car, I had to sit for another twenty minutes or so before I was able to drive. And once I did start the engine, I drove slowly and carefully. There was so much of the world to take in.

I think about that meal from time to time, and I tell all my friends they should try it. I’ve been wanting to go back lately, but I’ve got a newborn baby and a four-year-old, so it’s hard to get out. I’m thinking about hosting a blackout dinner at home for our friends and family, so I can remember what it feels like to experience the world from such an alien perspective.

I’ve had better meals than the one at Dark Table in the past, and I’ll likely have better meals in the future. But I don’t think I’ll ever have a more memorable meal than the meal I never saw.

Wow! Thanks, Peter. You’ve given me something that I must experience. Just… wow.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

#SFWApro

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