Joanna Masters-Maggs, our resident Food Gossip, is back with her column for like-minded food gossips.
This month: The state of worldwide hospital food.
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“The last thing you need on top of everything else when you are in hospital is red wee.”
So ended my husband’s texted tirade after a few days in an Abu Dhabi hospital following an emergency appendectomy which turned out to be less than straightforward. The indignities, pain, and discomfort could be handled with fortitude, but the food had caused the British stiff upper lip some serious challenges. Beetroot was served at every meal and in every conceivable form — none of which was remotely welcome to this convalescent.
Almost unbelievably, the day after my husband was admitted to a Middle Eastern hospital, my 9-year-old son was diagnosed with the same condition and admitted to Taunton Hospital, in Somerset, England, for the same operation. Patrick took it all in his stride, only threatening mutiny when a disposable bottle, apparently made of the same recycled cardboard as egg cartons, was proffered in response to his request to go to the loo. With furious determination he heaved himself upright and made his way to the bathrooms, wheeling his drip ahead of him and making my heart swell with maternal pride.
Several hours later, when wrinkled potato wedges and bright orange fish fingers confronted him, Patrick’s attitude was rather different. My husband’s texted complaint lacked the colour a human voice could give the words. My son’s anguished “Why, why, why?” however, provided a glimpse of The Husband’s state of mind when he composed his text. The pitch of “Why can’t I just have a tuna sandwich?” swung from already-stressed contralto to end-of-tether soprano.
KISS: Keep It Simple, Sandwich
This question is one I ask myself every time I face airline food. Why not a sandwich? A simple sandwich is perfect food for those on the go; ask any hill-walker. It is easily transported and eaten and requires little in the way of tableware. It certainly beats sub-standard wannabe home-cooking, or, more depressingly, wannabe gourmet cooking. KLM used to do a nice sandwich on granary, a little oatcake and a good cup of tea or coffee on their London to Schiphol shuttle. I have never enjoyed airborne eating as much. Flights since, even champagne-soaked upgrades, have never hit the spot as well.
Hospitals, like airlines, are susceptible to the curse of being the girl who tries too hard at parties and embarrasses everyone, for different reasons of course. Airlines because they feel they are part of the same package as the business trip or holiday and have to provide something special. Hospitals, being in the health business. feel under pressure to produce something healthy and balanced. Easy healthy and balanced is a lump of protein, a lump of carbohydrate and some boiled veg. Each element can be whatever is readily to hand in the locale. Obviously, beetroot is easy to come by in Abu Dhabi – who’d have thought?
A few years ago I found myself admitted with an unpleasant stomach bug to a hospital in Kuala Lumpur. During my recovery, meal after meal was placed in front of me, each consisting of overdone, indigestible chicken in glutinous sauce with rice and boiled vegetables. (Never talk to me again about English food.) Not appetizing at any time, but certainly not in the recovery period. At the end of day two I was begging for cream crackers and jelly. Even if I was unable to eat them, they were easier to tolerate the look of in the post-prandial two hours that the staff took to remove the debris.
The Victorians –now, they knew how to run a sickroom
When I’m sick I crave the ideal Victorian sickroom. I want chicken soup, broth, and little crustless sandwiches cut into triangles. I want food that makes me feel pampered and I want it in miniature form. What I don’t want is big hunks of meat that I have to take a hacksaw to. I don’t want to bother with a knife and fork. I’d like little sips of water, or tea and maybe the odd ginger biscuit. Some soft-boiled eggs and soldiers (fingers of toast) would be nice too. In short, give me the whole Victorian sickroom vibe complete with flowery china and a little vase of flowers. Do that and I’ll put on a white nighty, brush my hair and smarten up my convalescent act accordingly.
What explains this wanton disregard for dainty and light in preference for The Undigestibles? I suggest it is because hospitals the world over want us out, and want us out fast. In cash-strapped UK NHS land, beds are at a premium and waiting lists must be kept down. Make things too comfortable and delicious and who knows how long malingering patients will stay? I also imagine American insurance companies would like to minimize the number of nights their customers spend in hospitals which are often more costly than excellent hotels.
If you can’t keep it simple, keep it real
So, what’s my point talking about all this in our “displaced” world? I suppose it is simple, really. I want any experience that takes place outside of my own country to be distinctive and of that place. If a hospital cannot, or will not, convert its menu into something I might find in Little Women, I want to lose my appetite for something distinctive. If I have some indescribably unpleasant stomach complaint and find myself again in hospital in KL, I want to be unable to eat Malaysian food, truly Malaysian food. If I’m not eating, give me beef rendang to reject and not boiled chicken breasts. If I am in Rio, I want to lose my appetite for black beans and chiffonade of couve (actually, that will never happen) and if I ever end up in a Abu Dhabi hospital, I want to reject grated raw beetroot.
You see, be it Victorian pampered convalescent on a chaise longue, or expat overseas, I yearn to feel special when I am sick. Is that really too much to ask?
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Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”