Dishing up Something Special

Sunday brunch at the Casa Marina Hotel is an impressive sensory affair. As you ascend the front steps and enter the lobby, the smell of salt-infused wood greets you. The hotel is so close to the beach that the smell of the sea has permeated every room. You know that the dining room is on your left, because tantalizing aromas waft out in heavy, warm gusts. You can hear the clink of serving utensils, the splash of ice water pouring into petite glass goblets, and the satisfying pop of champagne corks.

We are ushered into the large, sunny dining room, where light from the copious windows spills onto the white tablecloths and reflects off the metal dish covers along the buffet. To cope with the brightness of the room, I wear my sunglasses as usual, but I’ve added a sand-colored cloche hat, trimmed on one side with flowers made from coiled silk ribbon. The hat’s bell shape and wire-lined brim cut just enough of the glare, so that I can remove my sunglasses when we reach our table.

As I pull out my chair, dark against the white of the tablecloth, I assess the table before me. I can barely make out the slim shapes of two forks, a knife, and a spoon on either side of my folded napkin. I cannot see the napkin, because it camouflages perfectly with the tablecloth. Instead, I see a lumpy something in the middle of my place setting, and I guess (rightly) that it is the napkin. Just beyond my silverware stands an invisible glass of water – a clear glass holding a clear liquid atop a white tablecloth in a bright room is a recipe for invisibility. Once I’m seated, I cautiously feel for the glass. I want to know where it is so that I don’t spill it.

The server asks for my drink order and I request coffee. By this time, the buffet is now open – the newly-available food made audible by the metallic clang of dish covers sliding away and the creaking of chair legs dragging across the floor as other patrons leave their tables. The buffet architecture is always the same, though the food on offer may be arranged differently. At the end farthest from the initial entrance into the dining room, a chef stands making omelettes to order. Next to the omelettes stands a carving station for prime rib. Just beyond these two specialty areas, a series of long tables bisects the dining room. Placed end-to-end, they hold a spectrum of food starting with breakfast dishes (grits, hash browns, sausage, bacon, waffles, biscuits and gravy, and eggs benedict), morphing into richer, heavier entrees (baked queen snapper, seafood with rice, mashed potatoes, and sauteed veggies),  and fading to light, cold foods like fresh fruit, shrimp salad, pasta salad, three-bean salad, and boiled shrimp. The last section of the buffet, a table offering a wide selection of desserts, stands apart.

I begin at the omelette station, where the chef obligingly tells me all the ingredients he has to offer. I appreciate this courtesy because I can barely distinguish the ingredients on display. While I could easily ask, “Do you have mushrooms?” and receive an answer, his willingness to read off the list of ingredients makes the whole process much more efficient. After I request an omelette with cheese, bacon, and mushrooms, he assures me that I don’t have to stand and wait for it. He will bring it to my table – a kindness I did not expect.

When I return to my table after a trip along the buffet for some blackberries, raspberries, and cantaloupe, I immediately notice that our server has brought my coffee. Situated in its pale cup atop an equally pale saucer, the black liquid stands out against the whiteness of the table. I hesitate to add cream to the coffee, knowing that the cream will make the beverage lighter and more difficult to see. The cream itself is not easy to distinguish; it comes in a tiny silver pitcher that is hard to spot on the bright table. I add it to my coffee slowly – so that I won’t spill it and I can see how much I’m adding. I am able to judge the quantity of cream because it contrasts easily with the blackness of the coffee and I can monitor the decreasing weight of the tiny pitcher.

So far, the berries are the smartest visual choice I’ve made. Because of their dark color and manageable size, they are easy to spot and spear with a fork – which means that they don’t give me the kind of trouble that lettuce does. When it comes to desserts, I make another smart visual (not nutritious) choice – a dense chocolate cake with dark chocolate icing. It contrasts nicely with the pale plate and the silver fork, which means I’m less likely to spear a bite that’s too big to handle.

Normally, two champagne drinks come with the brunch, and you have your choice of a mimosa (orange juice and champagne – lovely pale orange color) or a poinsettia (cranberry juice and champagne – an even lovelier dark red color). Today I abstain, but, when I’m in the mood for something bubbly, I prefer the poinsettia for the same reasons as the coffee, the blackberries, and the chocolate cake. In its slender, nearly-invisible glass flute, the red liquid is easy to find on the white table.

However, I cannot always rely on the visual discernibility of my food. Though I enjoy red grapes, brown bread, and spinach for their flavor as well as their visual convenience, I prefer white wine to red, white sauces on pasta, and white pizza. Luckily, the white pizza at my favorite pizza restaurant comes on a bright silver tray, but white wine, served in clear glasses, is consistently hard to spot.

Maybe I will invent a new type of wine charm for the blind with bright red beads and braille tags that identify the kind of wine in the glass (sb for sauvignon blanc, r for riesling, pg for pinot grigio, pn for pinot noir). The charm could fan out across the bottom of the glass and snake up the stem, which is usually the trickiest thing to spot. While I’m creating, I’ll come up with a book of tips on entertaining guests with low vision. First, I’ll completely do away with white table linen and clear glasses. Glasses will be frosted, if served on a dark tablecloth, or tinted green, red, or dark blue, if served on a pale tablecloth. For the stubborn hosts and hostesses who cling to their pristine white tablecloths, I’ll insist on colored runners and bold napkins. Napkins in dark reds, purples, and blues will contrast especially with the silverware. I’ll suggest that the place settings follow a few simple rules of consistency: forks on the left, knife and spoon on the right, and water glass placed just above the knife – instead of floating out in limbo. I’ll ask for dishes in contrasting colors: serve the alfredo on dark plates and the cream-based soups in dark bowls. Serve the chocolate mousse in white, yellow, or powder blue ramekins.

Most importantly, I’ll insist upon a tactic I regularly employ: The Buffet Buddy. When I am in a buffet line, like the brunch of today, I take someone with me – not just anyone, but someone whose descriptions are reliable and informative. It’s not helpful to be traveling a buffet with a companion who says things like, “Um they’ve got this green stuff in a bowl…” I want a companion who knows food and can describe what he or she is seeing: “It looks like some kind of salad with raisins, pine nuts, spinach, and crumbled blue cheese.” It’s infinitely preferable to have a buffet guide who is also a foodie.

I am lucky to have a large supply of competent buffet companions in my life. They’ve helped me navigate countless self-serve situations, from the mysterious lanes of the potluck dinner party to the well-ordered tureens of the Casa Marina.

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