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Posted at 12:04 AM ET, 12/20/2010

"Dining in the Dark" fundraiser for the blind: A new take on finger food

By The Reliable Source

Northrop Grumman vice president Bill Carty and his guide dog, Bruce, at Thursday's "Dining in the Dark" fundraiser. (Ryan T. Gould)

The boring Washington fundraiser -- chicken dinner, awards, blah-blah-blah speeches -- can be a lot of fun when you turn off the lights. To wit: the second annual "Dining in the Dark" dinner hosted by the Foundation Fighting Blindness, which transformed the same-old-same-old benefit by plunging guests into complete darkness.

Thursday's party for 200 at the Tysons Ritz-Carlton raised $300,000 by melding the culinary concept of eating without lights -- developed in Europe about 10 years ago -- with the cause of the night: preventing and curing blindness.

"What I love about it is that you're not distracted visually at all," said dinner co-chair Jody Kelly, who is legally blind. "You just totally focus on your other senses. They just take over. It becomes so intimate."

Guests were ushered into the illuminated ballroom, where they ate salads while awards were given to Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush and the National Institutes of Health's Ignacio Rodriguez. (Fewer speeches than expected: Reps. Pete Sessions and Jim Moran were stuck on the Hill voting on the tax bill.) Then the countdown "3... 2...1.‚ÄČ.." and the lights went out.

Really out. Organizers taped over cracks around the doors, and the fire marshal gave permission for exit signs to be covered during the 30-minute blackout. When the blue glow of a BlackBerry or cellphone appeared, the high-spirited crowd hooted, "Cheaters!" and it quickly disappeared. (New Yorkers, confided a foundation exec, are the worst: They can't last even a half-hour without checking.)

Visually-impaired servers training for the "Dining in the Dark" dinner Thursday night. (Ryan T. Gould)

While staffers strolled around the ballroom in night-vision goggles, visually impaired servers -- trained in table-waiting earlier in the day -- navigated rope lines to serve the entree, which was kept a secret from the guests. You guessed it: chicken. And potato croquette, sauteed mushrooms with pasta and baby vegetables. Some folks ate with forks, some even used a knife, but plenty of diners decided that all food was finger food.

The lights came back and the decibel level went from really loud to a happy buzz. Guests "compensate," explained Benjamin Uphues, who brought the concept of dining in the dark to the United States from Germany. "They think because they can't see they have to speak up louder. There's no more visual communication left, so it's just chatter, chatter, chatter."

Uphues has two dark restaurants in California, and sets up fundraisers across the country. And for the record, he said, fingers are just fine: "That's a good trick. That's what I do."

By The Reliable Source  | December 20, 2010; 12:04 AM ET
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