By David Minsky
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By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
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By Dana De Greff
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By Zachary Fagenson
"First need in the reform of hospital management? That's easy! The death of all dietitians, and the resurrection of a French chef."-- Martin H. Fischer (1879-1962)
I have no idea who Martin H. Fischer is, except possibly, given his birth date, the world's oldest electric guitar player, because when you Google "hospital food" on the Net the first entry informs you that Hospital Food is a rock band from Salt Lake City. And that's about as much as I've ever known, or wanted to know, about hospital food until a few weeks ago when I ended up in the hospital for emergency back surgery due to my own electric bass amp, a monster in sound and, unfortunately, weight. The operation went down fine. The hospital food did not.
This was despite well-laid plans. While it wouldn't be accurate to say that I chose Mt. Sinai based on the 1997 food survey of 30 top hospitals nationwide conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, I cannot pretend I was unaware that Jackson Memorial got one of eight bottom-of-the-barrel "Behind the Times" rankings. Mt. Sinai's cuisine wasn't in the survey, but logic said it'd probably be better since it could hardly be worse. Right.
Invariably one's first post-op alleged meal is something called a liquid diet. This proved to be a collection of mainly red items, all but one of which were so sweet that after several swallows the fillings in my teeth ached worse than my incision. The most edible item was some sort of Jell-O that I believe was meant to bear resemblance to some fruit. It didn't. The most horrifying was the one nonred, nonsweet item -- a small cup of broth that I fear was meant to be chicken. It wasn't -- at Mt. Sinai, where virtually every building bears the name of a Jewish benefactor! Forget donating buildings, folks; this place much more desperately needs your bubbie's chicken soup recipe.
This contrasts with the slowly but steadily increasing number of hospitals that allow patients to order a wide choice of relatively gourmet meals, when they want them. Massachusetts General, for instance, offers on-request tray service daily, till 11:45 p.m., of entrées such as glazed tuna with garlic potato wedges or pasta primavera, plus after-hours snacks like homemade soups -- and surprisingly, studies show such programs save hospitals money due to less waste.
Mt. Sinai's meals are ordered twenty-four hours in advance, from a seven-day fixed-menu cycle. The unvarying cycle meant forget seasonal fruits and veggies; the only fresh produce I encountered in two days was a salad of iceberg lettuce (with a packet of "French" dressing much redder than the salad's two tiny unripe tomato wedges), and, here at the height of mango season, a banana imported from South America. The 24-hour advance ordering meant that on my first "regular diet" day, my meals were the choice of someone else -- which is why I can't tell you whether one entrée was meat loaf or Salisbury steak.
On the basis of hospital history I'd guess the latter; this originally very highly seasoned and wood-grilled lean beef patty was invented by nineteenth-century physician James Salisbury to cure Civil War soldiers suffering from "camp trots." On the basis of taste, Mt. Sinai's slab of bland ground mystery meat was anyone's guess, but it sure could've used Dr. S's recommended butter, pepper, salt, Worcestershire, mustard, and horseradish flavorings ... or better yet, some nice meaty brown gravy.
The above entrée was, though, superior in taste to both baked scrod, which seemed to have received that treatment given to fast-food fish fillets to remove any fishlike flavor, and Mediterranean chicken, which tasted much like the scrod but was less mushy in texture. It was, though, equally dry, and not helped by baby-food-bland tomato sauce roughly the size of a Tylenol 3 tablet.
A breakfast entrée, apple pancakes, was one desiccated rolled-up crêpe. The one bite I managed was similar to what I'd imagine it's like to eat an apple jam-stuffed cardboard toilet-paper cylinder.
Surprisingly coffee was quite drinkable -- American-style stuff, not Cuban coffee (which could wake the dead -- thereby saving hospitals millions of bucks on CPR equipment), but still fairly fresh and flavorful compared with average weak, and week-old-tasting, truck-stop joe.
Still, man/woman cannot live by caffeine alone. By 3:00 a.m. the third morning, I was lying awake wondering whether my neurosurgeon's instructions to call her at any time in an emergency could be interpreted to include an emergency sushi delivery. Fortunately I was sprung later that day, older, wiser, and -- the upside -- three pounds lighter.