Taught to be fearless in the kitchen by watching Julia Child on television back in the 1960s, Priscilla Elfrey is no slouch when it comes to cooking, from classic French cheese souffles to West Indian callalloo, and she especially loves preparing the pasta dishes that she fell in love with while traveling across Italy alone when she was 60. But when she was recently declared legally blind as a result of macular degeneration, she switched from boiling handmade pasta to pan-frying gnocchi.
“I have very poor depth perception,” she explains. “I’m concerned I might accidentally put my hand into a pot of boiling water — so we don’t really eat spaghetti anymore.”
Priscilla Elfrey is my mother, and on a recent visit back home to Cocoa Beach, Fla., I was surprised to find out that she’s no longer boiling pasta. Watching my mom — who raised me on a well-worn edition of Larousse Gastronomique — make any concessions in the kitchen was startling, but this is a woman with enough technical know-how to still turn out delicious meals. It’s certainly not a disappointment to find freshly pan-fried gnocchi on the plate.
But for many people without good vision, navigating a kitchen can be a daunting prospect that can dramatically affect daily living. According to Brandon Cox, former senior director of rehabilitation services at Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, or CLB, people who can feed themselves have better chances of staying healthy and succeeding in other ways, whether it’s traveling alone to medical appointments or finding meaningful employment. “Our goal is to create taxpayers,” he says.
Considering that 70 percent of working-age blind adults are unemployed, that is potentially a lot of taxpayers.
The National Federation of the Blind estimates that as many as 10 million Americans are blind or visually impaired. That number is expected to double over the next 30 years as baby boomers age.
Organizations such as CLB, which serves people in the Washington area, are trying to help with hands-on courses that get people with low vision back into the kitchen through a combination of commonsense techniques and cookware designed to help with once-ordinary tasks that have become tricky, such as mixing cookie dough and boiling pasta.
Alvon Smith, a 57-year-old District resident with vision loss resulting from diabetes, was encouraged by his doctor to sign up for a two-week CLB class in December. By the eighth day he was pulling a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies out of the oven, the first cookies he’d ever baked.
Smith refers to baking as a “woman thing,” but his teacher, Karen Levin, chides him gently as she nibbles on a sample still warm from the oven: “You can say that if you like, Smitty, but those are some good cookies.”
Levin knows that those cookies represent much more than just a tasty snack as she guides Smith — who lives in a world of light and shadow — through the various steps of baking, from spooning dry ingredients into brightly colored measuring cups to spacing dollops of dough onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
As a vision rehabilitation therapist, it’s Levin’s job to help people who have become visually impaired feel that they have better control over their lives even while living with a disability. Based at an apartment in the Fort Totten neighborhood, she and colleague Dean Stonecipher shepherd clients through the CLB’s Foundations of Adjustment to Blindness (FAB) program, teaching such skills as housecleaning and navigating the Metro system.
Cooking and grocery shopping are important features of the course. “Vision loss,” Stonecipher says, “is adjusting to a major life loss. People become isolated within their homes and within their communities. We want to go from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can.’ ” For even a person who was once an accomplished cook, a simple task such as making — and pouring —a cup of coffee can present a range of difficulties, from measuring the beans and getting them ground and into a filter to adding cream and sugar to the cup.
Each morning during the most recent course, clients arrived — most by Metro — and helped get coffee ready for the group. Then Levin laid out the menu for lunch and assigned tasks.
On the first day, they started with making simple sandwiches while she introduced them to the kitchen, which Levin has organized to be more accessible to people with vision loss. Cabinet shelves are labeled in Braille — in this group, only one person,Gloria Cooper, was learning Braille — and utensils, serving dishes and pots and pans are grouped together to make them easier to locate. The key is keeping items in the same place all the time: Memory is the tool most used by those with low vision.
Cooper, 62, lost her vision in 2002 after a series of strokes. “I cried for 48 hours straight,” she says while chopping broccoli under Levin’s watchful eye. Today she’ll make steamed broccoli with shredded cheddar cheese, while Smith is responsible for oven-baked barbecue chicken — and those cookies. James Roane, a 79-year-old from Silver Spring with macular degeneration, will take on a wild rice pilaf.
“So much of the time, we’re teaching our clients about communication,” Levin says. “You have to tell your family to keep all the stuff on the counter and in the fridge in the same place, not move things around.”
She and Stonecipher are also training clients to ask for help — by, for example, going to the customer service counter at the supermarket.
Smith learned from Levin not to just ask for help, but to be specific.
“Before this class,” he says, “I would have gone to the store and just asked for eggs and milk, and I would have bought whatever they gave me. Now I know to say that I want 12 medium eggs, and I want the ones that are on sale. It makes me feel like I have more control.”
As Cooper grates cheese, it’s clear that she revels at being in the kitchen again. “I miss cooking,” she laughs, “because I’m a health nut! I like to know what I’m putting on my plate.”
Most visually impaired people see shadowy shapes and little or no color, so they benefit from kitchen equipment that provides sharp contrast, such as a cutting board that is black on one side — a perfect backdrop for slicing onions — and white on the other — which could be just right for chopping carrots.
“There are a lot of simple tools that can make cooking much easier,” Levin says, and the Fort Totten apartment’s kitchen includes many of them, including oversized black-and-white timers, serrated plastic knives and cut-resistant gloves.
Levin spends considerable time teaching kitchen safety tips such as keeping fingertips curled away from the knife, using elbow-length oven mitts and attaching heat-resistant fabric strips to the edges of oven racks to help prevent burns. The oven itself is preset to 350 degrees: Clients can easily adjust the controls up or down to get to an intended temperature.
Perhaps no one is more familiar with such tools and techniques than Christine Ha, a best-selling cookbook author and winner of the “MasterChef” television competition in 2012 — who happens to be blind. Modern appliances, she says, with smooth touch-screen surfaces, can pose real difficulties for the visually impaired, requiring tweaks such as attaching small adhesive dots to help identify “on” and “off” buttons and temperature controls.
Ha’s success in the kitchen is inextricably linked to her other senses: “You can hear when a pan is hot enough by the sizzle,” she says, “you can smell when the garlic in the pan goes from raw to fragrant to burnt, you can feel when vegetables are becoming tender over the fire, and you definitely should taste your food as you cook to properly season.”
Levin gave Smith the same advice when he told her about the one dish he used to enjoy making, spaghetti with meat sauce. “How do I know if the meat’s cooked?” he asked on the first day of class.
Levin told Smith that he would need to use a fork to press the meat as it cooked, measuring how the texture changes, and also rely on his sense of smell. “By the end of this program, you’ll be able to make your spaghetti,” she assured him.
“Still slimy,” he declares on Day 8, testing the barbecued chicken with a fork.
Back from an outing on Metro with Stonecipher, Roane shoos everyone aside as he starts to prepare the pilaf. “You all got to get out of the way now, ’cause I’m getting ready to roll,” he chuckles.
“The tough thing about our jobs is [that] we don’t have a lot of time to be kind,” Stonecipher says, “so we can be sort of strict, just to keep everyone moving along. But I really enjoy watching them grow in confidence. You can see it in their smiles.”
You can also see it on their plates.
At graduation on the final day, each client prepared favorite dishes to share with family and friends. Cooper made a green bean casserole and baked potatoes, while Roane offered up meatballs and garlic bread.
And Smith must have caught the baking bug, because he made brownies for dessert — preceded by his spaghetti with meat sauce.