Future Reflections                                                                         Spring/Summer 2003

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Her Culinary Vision

by Kitty Crider

Reprinted from the Austin American Statesman, April 24, 2002.

Editor’s Note: One of the first things I learned about blindness some 25 years ago, was that it is no barrier to competency in the kitchen. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of sampling the culinary products of some outstanding blind cooks; fresh home-baked bread from the kitchen of the Braille Monitor editor, Barbara Pierce; creamy pumpkin soup, created and prepared by caterer and chef, Marie Cobb; heavenly pound cake prepared from scratch by nutritionist Lynn Bailiff; and juicy, tender steaks grilled by NFB President, Dr. Marc Maurer. The author of this article does not have my advantage, so sometimes she gets a little carried away in her amazement that a blind woman can safely navigate the hazards of a commercial kitchen. Despite that, I think the following article will give parents who have been reluctant to let their blind kids into the kitchen a little “food for thought.” This article will also whet the appetite for the next course (oops, I mean article)—“Cooking Madness”—a reprint of a classic written by Carol Castellano. But first, here is Ms. Crider’s description of how one blind woman manages in the kitchen as she learns the finer points of the culinary arts in cooking school:

It’s fascinating to watch Juliana Cumbo’s hands as she cooks. She flattens a ball of pie dough with her fingers on the shiny stainless steel kitchen countertop at a local chefs’ school and reaches for a rolling pin. Using sure strokes, she rolls one direction, then another, lifting the dough and turning it about ninety degrees—a pastry chef’s trick to assure symmetry. With her nimble fingers—nails clipped short and unpolished—she touches the dough more than most, but delicately. She fits it into the waiting pie pan and starts on the apples for the filling.

With a huge chef’s knife, she cuts the apples into halves, then quarters and cores them. Placing the apples face down on the cutting board, she slices with sure, steady cuts, moving her fingers back carefully each time to avoid injury. She’s not the fastest or flashiest of the aspiring chefs in the kitchen, but she is smart and one of the most dedicated.

“Where’s the cinnamon?” she asks a colleague as she tosses the apples into a stainless steel bowl. “On the supply rack at the back of the room, second shelf, second jar from the left,” answers the class instructor. Slowly but deliberately, the student in a white coat walks to the shelf and retrieves the spices. With a measuring spoon, she scoops the correct amount, levels it off and adds it to the filling. She consults her stained recipe and continues with the pie.

“Juliana, freeze!” shouts a fellow student, coming through with a hot dish.

She remains motionless until the danger has passed. Commercial kitchens are fraught with peril: slippery spills on the floor, hot ovens, steam, knives, bubbling oil, fellow cooks darting abruptly in fast-paced momentum. It’s a threatening environment for a veteran, let alone a novice. Especially someone who is blind.

Unlike most aspiring chefs, Cumbo, twenty-five, cannot see a pot boiling over, a soaring flame or a pointed knife. Yet she cooks confidently. Outside the kitchen door, her harnessed guide dog Xylo, a golden retriever, waits patiently while his curly brown-haired owner cooks.

By age ten, Cumbo had lost sight in her hazel eyes to a genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa. She can see only natural light. Objects aren’t just blurry. They are gone. While the loss may slow down this determined woman, it does not keep her from pursuing her interests, even if it means taking public transportation to a six a.m. professional cooking class across town. With a depth of patience, she handles it all calmly. When people ask her what it’s like being blind, she replies, “Sometimes it’s inconvenient.” She adds, “Intellectually I know it doesn’t do any good to get frustrated. I just figure it out.”

When she’s shopping for groceries, she goes to the customer service desk at the store and requests a clerk to walk the aisles with her to help in selecting the items on her list. For deep-frying or draining pasta from large pots of boiling water, she requests assistance. For the apple pie recipe, she asks someone to read it on tape so she can transcribe it into Braille and take the punched heavy paper to class.

“How do you get people to read for you?” a fellow blind student asked her on a trip to California during her spring break. “I feed them,” says Cumbo. “When they come over

to read, I cook for them. I make it a win-win situation for both people.

“I never expect people to do anything for me, but it’s nice when they do,” she says with a smile. She prefers to do as much on her own as possible. In chefs’ school, she retrieves supplies just like everyone else. She uses sharp knives. She bakes in hot ovens, testing the doneness of cakes with a toothpick and feel, not by observing its color.

She says she is adamant about mise en place, the professional culinary practice of having all ingredients ready, prepped and measured before beginning cooking. It assures success. Because she is not as fast as some of the other students, she may be assigned only two recipes to cook instead of three in a given lab time. But she’s always prepared, observes instructor R.J. Smith.

“I’m a perfectionist,” admits Cumbo. “I work hard to be on time and prepared. I already have a handicap.” Cumbo realizes that without sight, there are some cooking skills she cannot master, such as French-carved vegetables and elaborate wedding cake decoration. That’s all right, she says. Her goal is not to work daily in a professional kitchen but to teach people how to cook and eat healthfully. She wants to obtain a master’s degree in nutrition from the University of Texas, to which she has been accepted.

“I’m really excited about it. But I know it will be really challenging. I know those biology and chemistry labs will be just like working in a kitchen. I know I will need assistance to pour acids and handle bottles of chemicals. But I can do other things.”

She believes if she plans to teach others how to cook well, she needs to be good at it, too. That’s why she has been studying professional cooking—classes such as American cuisine, baking, food yields, and meat preparation—at Austin Community College. She will earn her basic culinary arts degree in May.

Chef classes aren’t the same as cooking at home. Commercial kitchens are noisy, she notes, and that makes it more difficult. She relies on hearing: the sizzle of oil in a pan, the sound of a liquid as it pours, the hollow tap of a loaf of baked bread. She trusts her sense of smell. Her nose discerns the roasting progress of meat or veggies, and she can brown beef bones for stock. With a sniff, she can tell whether oil in a pan is getting too hot, identify spices or ascertain that sliced onions are caramelizing nicely.

She also judges doneness by touch. “I was making swordfish steak. I had to check that they were done by picking them up with a fork and touching with my hand to feel the texture.” But she shrugs off the notion that blind people have an acute sense of smell or hearing or touch. “Everyone has the same hardware. It’s all in how it’s used. Blind people use their senses more. They relate to the world differently because they don’t have sight.”

Becoming blind is an adjustment for the sighted as well as the sightless. When Cumbo lost her sight in the ‘80s, her mother deemed the kitchen off-limits to her. But Cumbo didn’t agree. Everyone in her family is a good cook, and she saw no reason why she couldn’t be one as well.

“My mom used to freak out when she would see me with knives and hot water and such.” Now Mom lets Cumbo cook a birthday dinner for her. Cumbo credits her younger sister Alicia, now living in North Carolina, with bridging the gap. “Alicia read recipes to me. She explained it to me without doing it for me.”

That’s the way Cumbo wants it, even if she occasionally makes mistakes. Like most cooks, she’s had her share of mishaps, and she’s quick to regale a listener about the time she tried to make refried beans but did not realize they needed to be cooked first. On another occasion she ignorantly put tinfoil in the microwave oven. But only once. She’s caught her hair in a mixer. And she’s set a couple of kitchen towels on fire because she did not realize that someone had left them on the burners. None of this discourages the petite woman who is so friendly and matter-of-fact about her handicap that she puts others at ease. She forges ahead fearlessly in the kitchen or in life. (After graduating from high school in California, she chose to attend college thousands of miles away in Virginia.)

Independent? “Oh, yeah!” says her husband, Jeremy, a graduate music student at UT. They met at Virginia Commonwealth University, where Juliana received a bachelor of music in classical guitar, magna cum laude. “I thought Jeremy had a great (speaking) voice,” Cumbo says. And he thought “she was cute.” They have been married nearly two years.

Sometimes they cook together—paella and carrot cake from scratch—and sometimes for each other. She’s made him an Italian pasta dish and chocolate decadent cake. He’s prepared salmon and artichokes for her. In their small galley-style apartment kitchen, Jeremy seems to sense when she needs cooking assistance and when to let her solo. As she sliced and roasted eggplant, zucchini and red peppers for a Moroccan couscous dish, she said there is no special order to the food in her fridge. She identifies contents as good or bad by smell and feel (slimy or not). “If I have to dig in and feel the container or smell it, I don’t forget about leftovers.”

Casually dressed in jeans, a purple cotton knit top, and a beaded belt; she pulls a bottle of olive oil out of the pantry to brush on the vegetables, explaining that it is a new bottle. That’s significant because it will pour out quickly and she will need to be extra careful. Not wasting ingredients—that’s one of the hardest parts of cooking blind, she confesses. Cumbo places the pan of prepped veggies in the oven and turns on the oven. To guide her, the arrow on the dial is marked with a large Braille dot. If she turns it 180 degrees, she knows that is 350 degrees Fahrenheit on her stove. She adjusts the knob a little more to reach 425 degrees, approximately. (Her microwave oven has Braille tape added to the electronic keypad.)

A small rug in the middle of the floor catches any spills, and it marks where the center of the kitchen is for her. Any food dropped on the floor is fair game for Xylo. Jeremy pops into the kitchen and asks if she wants him to read the directions to her from the package of couscous. That’s another drawback of sightless cooking—the inability to read directions, labels, or printed cookbooks. She accepts his offer and then measures out the water to cook the couscous by filling the cup to what she thinks is right and checking it with Jeremy.

“In baking class, I got really good at cutting an ounce of butter,” she says with a smile. When fellow classmates asked how, she explained that it was about as wide as her index finger. She acknowledges that she could get talking digital scales for her kitchen, but has not yet. “It’s a matter of money. Students think like that.”

As she’s talking, she is also listening to the pot of water on the stove, waiting for it to boil. She sorts through her spoon drawer to locate the strainer. She cuts and squeezes a fresh lemon through the strainer to catch the seeds. The juice will flavor the couscous. She’s starting to hear the roasting veggies sizzle—she didn’t set a timer—it was all hearing, smelling and instinct. “Let me check those veggies. They are sounding crispy.” She pulls the hot pan out of the oven and stabs the veggies with a fork. They pierce easily. Pronouncing them ready, she chops and adds them to the bowl with the lemon juice, seasoning and the couscous. With a clean spoon, she tastes: “Yummy. That’s good. A little more lemon pepper and it will be done.”

Their kitchen is stocked simply but with a few extras: a food processor, a blender, a crock-pot, a waffle maker, a juicer (a cherished Christmas present from Jeremy), an espresso machine, a toaster oven, a wooden chopping block, a carousel with spices. Not many cookbooks.

She says there are lots of cookbooks in Braille, but not ones she considers cooks’ cookbooks. So she gets most of her recipes via her computer with its voice synthesizer. She prints them out in Braille or has someone read them to her. Her computer directory of recipes reads like an international cookbook: curry, carne guisada, blackened fish, paella.

“I totally watch the Food Network all the time,” she says in her soft-spoken voice. She listens carefully to the television cooking show to visualize what they are doing. Then she figures out ways to accomplish the recipe sightless, such as using her oven rack as a stencil for raviolis or petit fours.

She’s good at that—setting a goal and then devising a way to achieve it. And it’s not always about food. After her first year of college, she flew from the East Coast to Los Angeles, where she spent two months in a Spanish-speaking convent so she could learn to read Braille music. Several years later she became a disc jockey for KMFA in Austin. Now, she teaches music part-time at the Texas School for the Blind while she tackles the world of food.

Carefully. Cheerfully. Positively.
Watch her hands.
Watch her determination.
Watch her succeed again.
Blind, yes. But she definitely has a vision for her life.

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