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Hospital food: the good, the bad and the ugly

Hospital food is much maligned and rightly so. It is usually bland, overcooked and just this side of inedible. This has only become worse over the years as hospitals economize by decreasing staff and outsourcing catering to lower the number of unionized employees in the kitchen. As a medical student, the cafeteria lunches and dinners outside the white table-clothed private staff dining room was usually some horrible variation of mystery meat in cream sauce. Breakfast was better. We would hurry through our morning rounds so that we could hit the cafeteria to reinforce ourselves with the oatmeal “parritch” that our chief resident insisted would keep us standing during a long day in the OR.

 There were a few bright spots in the cafeteria food. The midnight meals served in the two hospitals where I worked during my internship were a time of conviviality where all those on the night shift would meet in the cafeteria to chat, gossip and consult. At the old Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Montreal, Jimmy, the night chef, would serve up hamburgers, hotdogs, grilled cheese and fries. There was no pretence of healthy food, just the holy trinity of fat, salt and sweet craved by people up after midnight.

Mostly, however, it was the hospital coffee shops and gift shops that I loved and still continue to love. It was in the coffee shops of the Montreal General and Royal Victoria Hospitals that I learned about some of the British style foods which I had never eaten before. Even though both hospital coffee shops were very much in the “waspy food” mode, they were quite distinct. The MGH was like an idealized 1950-early sixties kitchen. It was decorated in tones of pale yellow, green and aqua. There, elegant ladies with diamond encrusted fingers garbed in aqua-coloured Volunteer smocks, handed out crustless sandwiches cut into triangles adorned with sweet gherkins. This was a sandwich style I had never experienced before, having been brought up on large, messy, smoked meat or salami sandwiches on rye, and dill pickles. My favorite treat at the MGH were the Empire Biscuits. Served with a good, strong, cup of tea, these were two delicate shortbread biscuits glued together with raspberry jam, covered with an almond glaze. They were the perfect pick-me-up before doing our afternoon admissions.

The Ross Coffee Shop, in the Gothic pile of the old Royal Victoria Hospital, was a very different style of café. It was staffed by large motherly ladies, many of whom had Irish or Scottish accents. It served more full meals, such as chicken pot pie or hamburger steak with mashed potatoes, peas and gravy. When I did Obstetrics at the Vic we would eat most of our meals there unless we brown bagged it, because it was at least a fifteen minute trek down to the cafeteria from the Women’s Pavilion. Since we were incarcerated in the Case Room like hernias, we never had that much time to eat.

The motherly waitresses would refill my coffee. “You look tired, Dearie.” They would say kindly, “Do you want dessert?” The desserts were more substantial and homey than those at the MGH. There were often pies and there was always my personal favorite, rice pudding. This was not the gloopy mess that rice pudding is so often, but closely resembled a crème caramel. In a small cup it was studded with rice grains and perfumed with nutmeg.

After my adventures, I finally felt courageous enough to work at the Jewish General Hospital. For a long time I did not want to work where every older patient was a friend of my parents or grandparents. When I finally joined the Herzl clinic as a staff doctor it was in many ways a homecoming. I was no longer seen as inappropriately loud or argumentative. The food was also way more familiar to me. While the snack bar “dairy” restaurant served egg and tuna sandwiches, they were very different from the genteel treats at the MGH. They were big hearty sandwiches on Vienna rolls. There were also bagels with cream cheese and lox. It tasted more normal to me.

You may have surmised that I love food, and I do.  I also love the spaces that we occupy, the way community is created and hospitals as communities. I have to confess that recently I made some Empire biscuits just to recapture the memory.