I'm trying to keep my business, my triplets, and my waistline under control. I excel at one of those, fail at another one of those, and one is a work in progress. Which is which is day dependant.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Food Behind Bars

The first thing I noticed about hospital food is that they feed you. ALL the time. There are usually three meals a day, plus three snacks (morning, afternoon, before bed), and then someone is ALWAYS offering you a cup of tea or coffee. There are also food Nazis, also known as "catering assistants" who will HOUND you if you don't fill in the little menu form before 9am. Seriously. They will stop at nothing to get that menu - even chase you down the hallway, or barge in on you while you're half naked and wondering how to maneuver on a bra when you can't really twist in any direction.

I do believe in the healing nature of food - consider the medicinal properties of chicken soup, the antioxidant properties of various vegetables, the healing pastes made from roots or fruit, and so on. With that in mind, I freely admit that one of the highlights of my day was filling out my daily menu (with requisite mini golf pencil)- and guessing (hoping?) that what I picked would appear anything like I expected it to.

In Hospital #1 (big, private, loads of people, multi-story joint) - the food was horrible. By horrible I mean, I was lucky if I could stomach more than one bite of anything other than breakfast and possibly lunch. I ate a lot of dry biscuits and drank an oceans worth of tea. They do get bonus points, though - for always having matching crockery (a pleasant dusty rose colour) and cutesy place mat, and having really interesting choices on the menu. Sadly, they lose points for taste, flavour, presentation, and the disappointment factor - every time I ordered something vaguely interesting-sounding, it would both look and taste...well, something akin to spew. Case in point:

These are supposed to be vegetarian rice paper rolls with a dipping sauce. Goodness gracious. They LOOK okay, right? But look closer. The damn things were so soggy and wet (notice the pool of liquid around them) that I needed a fork and knife to eat them. The dipping sauce was not only grey, with strange green things in it, but actually congealed around the little silver patty pan. What the hell was in that dipping sauce which caused it to congeal?! It took one bite (sans sauce) to decide this was not for me. Actually, not for any human. Or animal, for that mater. Several dodgy meals later and I decided to stick to things they could not possibly ruin. Or so I thought.

Then began the "week of a thousand roasts" where all I would order was meat with various veg. Curly parsley was always the garnish of choice, and sadly was most often the most edible part of the meal. Henceforth a whole lot of shoe leather swimming in mystery sauce with various sad, cold, wwwaaayyyy overcooked things they called "vegetables":

That scary fried disk thingie is supposed to be a sweet corn roesti. It's actually a hockey puck for playing in the hallway with a IV pole as a stick.

I tried a fried item (potato wedges) - how can you ruin that? Trust me, it's possible.

Mystery sauce, and mystery roast. I think it was meant to be beef, but sadly not from any cow I've ever met. Note the serving sizes seem to be getting smaller (funny, I didn't really mind...)

I did, on occasion, find something edible (and not just the parsley):
This was chicken drumsticks in mystery sauce. As chicken is cooked well done anyway (well done being the chef's strong point), they were onto a winner with this one! I could eat it without sharpening my incisors first (although the mashed potato was, well, made from the pillows of previous patients and the corn did require me to get my file out and start sharpening.)
This was a pretty decent (decent = eat without hurling) Shepherd's Pie - again, you can't really "leatherise" minced meat (I won't call it beef, because really - who knows?) Sadly the vegetables were .... ummm... yeah. GREAT parsley though!

So in Hospital #1, it was a culinary wasteland. I kept asking for fresh fruit and thus ate an orange twice a day for nine days - finally, something which did not involve a parsley garnish and could not be wrecked by cooking! Have I mentioned that I don't really like oranges? I once got an apple and nearly had a massive coronary right there on the spot. Good thing I was in a hospital, as they could revive me with a waft of parsley under my nose.

For a foodie like me, can you imagine the disappointment of looking forward to a meal - only to be confronted with - well, the pictures speak for themselves. I didn't ever order dessert other than diabetic jell-o, and yet this too they managed to foul up. For 9 days, twice a day, I had GREEN jello. Clearly, there was a Blue Light Special on green. No other colour. It *might* have been okay if it was LIME flavoured jello. Sadly, it was dish washing liquid flavour - easy to see why it made it to the sale bin, really. I understand that hospitals are full of sick, often old people. I also understand that it's hospital catering which severely hinders their getting better. I cannot find the nutritional value in food cooked to above 400 degrees (Celsius). Surely the vitamins and potential goodness need to STAY in the food to be of some use to the old and infirm? Clearly not. On my very last night, there was a small glimmer of hope for this big house. Yes, friends, I was brave enough to order a dessert which I figured even a hospital catering team was incapable of wrecking. I ordered the "fresh fruit" pavlova:

I have never in my life been so grateful for commercial meringue base, just-add-water cream, three tinned blueberries, and a lone wedge of strawberry. This small dessert was a beacon of light in what was otherwise a very dark few days of eating. I slowly, carefully, joyfully savoured every last commercial, chemical-laden bite. I think I even swooned (which then required some morphine to combat the severe swoon-induced back pain, after which I didn't care much about anything really.)

Hospital #2 was also a private hospital, but with only 60 beds, and, as the cleaners assured me, a "real chef" cooking food "fresh every day." I had hope at last! I might get a flavour of jello which wasn't dishwasher flavour! I might see a meat in a colour other than dark brown! I might - wait for it - get to eat something other than parsley! Readers, Hospital #2 didn't disappoint. To highlight the good points - the food was actually GOOD. As in, edible, dare I say it tasty!, and seasoned. The vegetables were fresh, cooked well, and clearly of good quality, as was the fruit. The bad points were that the crockery never matched and thus every meal was eaten in 1970's retro ambiance, the custard was nothing more than flavourless yellow snot, and they would often offer mains for which the sides/veg didn't match. For example, there was an offer of butter chicken but the optional sides were a side salad, parsley potatoes, and some other vague Anglo veg. While the menu was not as adventurous as Hospital #1, the meals offered were nice to eat, offered a decent variety, and there wasn't a parsley sprig in sight. I actually looked forward to my meals. Now I will say it didn't exactly start off with a bang:

So this was spinach and ricotta cannelloni with what I think was meant to be ratatouille, plus a bowl of leek and corn soup. Hmmm. Not so great on aesthetics, and I only found TWO kernels of corn at the bottom of the soup bowl. Seriously. I didn't hold out any hope, except my mood was buoyed by the distinct lack of an orange and the addition of - watermelon! Thank you God!

See? Aesthetically speaking this is a total train wreck. Taste wise? It rocked. I'm happy to say, though, that the food improved from there on. They never really grasped the concept of appealing presentation, though:

This was Hospital #2's version of Shepherd's pie. As you can see, much bigger and nicer overall. Those butter beans were cooked well, the rice was fine (it was my fall-back dinner option if the pie just was horrid). Also, check out the serving sizes! This was what they consider a "standard" meal, even though they offered larger and smaller options. Check out the (real) mashed potato on top! Someone in that kitchen can even - dare I say it - use a piping bag!

Again a sad loss on the visual impact of this - a chickpea and vegetable "stew" with a new potato. However it tasted nice, the vegetables were actually a bright colour (not achieved chemically) and the potato was not only cuttable with a knife, it didn't disintegrate into dust and blow away when I cut into it.

The best part about this? Look carefully in the upper left hand corner of this picture. That, my friends, is RED Jello. What's more, it tasted like RED. Okay, chemical red (I'm guessing it was meant to be something "-berry") but still. It wasn't GREEN. In fact, I never had a single serving of green Jello for the entire week I was there. To add more points for this hospital, all three snacks were served fresh off a wandering trolley, with the catering assistants offering a whole range of goodies to eat and drink. The morning option always had a fresh baked item - cake, cookie, a scone - and the few I tried were pretty okay.

I did some investigation on the custard issue, because I ordered it every day and it tasted like shit every day (I know, I'm glutton for punshment). How could they score so many goals on the big stuff, but destroy the easy stuff? Turns out it's made fresh every day by a different person, and how sweet it is and the texture depends on how closely the person making it follows the dietitian's recipe about the amount of milk and sugar in it. So this one, I'm blaming on the dietitian and her crap recipe.

So that's the hospital food round up. A few hits, a whole lot (!!) of misses, and something worth blogging about. While I understand the need for simple, cost effective food - which meets a whole lot of different dietary needs - the above examples show how it can be done well, and how it can be done to a degree no human should have to suffer. I mean, really - we're in the hospital people. We're already miserable. I see no need to increase our suffering SIX times a day. That's just human cruelty, that is.

I ever need to go to hospital again, I'm sneaking in my own boxes of Jello.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention the kick-ass custard at Cabrini - although, if I remember rightly it was Paul's straight from the carton and was yummy!!