“If beef is your idea of ‘real food for real people’ you'd better live real close to a real good hospital.” - Neal Barnard, M.D.
At the pain of being considered one-tracked today, I am continuing on the health/sickness theme I initiated a couple of days ago with my friend’s diagnosis of cancer. I will consider hospital food for Food Friday, something that will make some people cringe, I am sure. Hospitals do not have a good culinary reputation, the idea being that sick people should have wholesome, plain, healthful food that should help them on the road to recovery. Most patients’ experience of hospital food is of rows of bowls of dun-coloured tasteless fluids that pass off as soup, greyish glop sitting on plates with some wilted vegetables for main course and unidentifiable bright neon-coloured glutinous sticky messes that masquerade as “dessert”.
Gourmet cooking is not for the hospital menu, I agree. The place is not a resort and God forbid that anyone should enjoy their stay there. However, the “wholesome, plain, healthful” descriptor has been much used in the past to hide a multitude of culinary sins. Bread that tastes like mushy cardboard and vegetables that have lost colour, texture and taste do not pass muster. Meat and fish that have been cooked to death until they are the consistency of vulcanised rubber or chopped bits of rope (depends on the recipe!) do not tempt the epicurean palate by any stretch of the imagination.
Visiting the hospital (admittedly a private one) nowadays, however, left me somewhat surprised. Hospital food has come a long way since my memories of it the last time I had to sample it (and that was decades ago). First, there is a menu. Not an à la carte one, but at least a menu where there are several options, allowing for a difference in people’s tastes and preferences. It was surprising to read descriptions that vied with those of restaurant menus, such as: “Succulent, pan-seared fillet steak cooked to perfection with your choice of crisp salad or steamed garden vegetables served with jus and béarnaise sauce on the side”. The remainder of the menu was in the same tenor and I was visualising gastronomic delights served in an elegant manner, with perhaps even a single rose in a vase and a candle in a silver candelabrum.
In addition, it was heartening to see that many meals had several symbols following the description of the dish, indicating “heart-friendly”, “vegetarian-compliant”, “kosher and halal-approved”, “diabetic-recommended” and various other indicators of the foods’ qualities. This was certainly an advance on “hospital glop” and I was once again impressed.
Call me naïve… When I saw the meal arrive, my jaw dropped. Firstly the china was not china but horrible plastic that immediately put one off the food – add to that plastic glasses, that I personally detest drinking out of. The meal looked worse than I imagined, certainly no restaurant would serve that sort of meal and hope to remain open for a week afterwards. It was, however, better than the traditional glop one associates with hospitals. The vegetables were actually recognisable and the meat was edible, or so my friend said. The soup was very nice and the dessert was actually delicious (never mind the plastic bowl it was served in).
Logistically, it must hell on earth trying to cater for hospital meals. There are many factors to consider, the most obvious being the multitude of dietary restrictions that are of necessity forced upon the patients by their impending procedure or existing disease. Numerous food allergies to be noted and catered for. A variety of religious and dietary preferences that must be accommodated. Add to that the sheer numbers of meals that must be prepared, delivered and served within a short period of time, as well as factors that relate to budgeting and availability of foods at the time of preparation.
Nutritionally, hospital meals do provide the basics and the hospital is equipped of course with staff dieticians. How far they do indeed contribute to the planning of hospital meals and to what extent do they quality control the finished meals is debatable. The only consolation perhaps is that for the majority of patients, hospital stays are relatively short and the diet of hospital food is an attendant misfortune of the disease one suffers from. Maybe it is just as well. For many people gastronomic indiscretion may have contributed to or directly caused their disease. It is only fair that they should be chastened by plentiful servings of “glop”.