Food You Can Eat: Nourriture d’Hôpital (Hospital Food)

Breakfast is Served

Before I begin, a little [long—Ed.] story. So I was recently hospitalized. Happens to the best of us. I was admitted to the Emergency Room almost immediately, where I languished for ~20 hours. I wasn’t exactly neglected but I wasn’t looked in on either, because I didn’t really need anything and there was a constant parade of nurses “taking my vitals” and assuring me that a room was being prepared for me somewhere. By the way, nurses are incredible and I must have interacted with at least 20, no joke. All were kind and funny because I was in a cheerful, non-complaining mood, as I always am. Just ask the Better Half. Or actually, maybe not him…

Part the First:

It was quite chilly in the ER and it was packed, as all NYC hospitals currently are. Therefore in each small ER cubby were placed two patients with a divider. My personal space consisted of my twin-size hospital bed and my IV-drip pole, which would prove to be my Virgil that guided me through the hospital Inferno. Though the space was so crammed that without the divider I could have held hands with my roommate as I drifted off into restful slumber, I spoke to none of the three I had, which is a shame.

Roommate #1 was Johnny Rose from “Schitt’s Creek,” except slightly more Jewish and New Yorkish. He schmoozed the nurses and his doctors. Imagine my delight when I overheard that he was being discharged and his wife was coming to pick him up. But the wife was no Moira Rose. “I brought some crackers. Have this orange. You don’t want the orange? Here, I’ll peel it.” “I am being discharged by Dr. [first name] [last name.] He is very good. I learned that he has a wife and three beautiful daughters. One is a cantor at [synagogue known to them] which is where [people known to them] attend services.” “Must be a fine family. Where’s your sweater?”

Roommate #2 arrived jabbering a mile a minute and had many questions. Apparently he arrived with some kind of power strip or something and said, with a girlish laugh, “I know, it’s my genius hack. The one thing about emergency rooms is there are never enough outlets. Oh and this? I know, it’s crazy, right? But it was so ridiculous I had to have it.” I now had so many questions. Exactly how many ERs had he visited? And what was so ridiculous that he had to have? Sadly I didn’t get an answer because he immediately speed-beeped the staff about how uncomfortable he felt (this went on at length) and he’s incredibly sensitive to light and sound which triggers his PTSD which is the episode that brought him here in the first place…They quickly agreed he should be sent back to wherever he was (confined?) previously so he lasted an hour tops.

Poor roommate #3 arrived and started whimpering in pain in a really child-like voice but he didn’t use the call button like his predecessor had with such skill. While I was debating whether to tell him to use it someone showed up and he must have been sedated very quickly because he was silent/snoring for hours. Imagine my surprise when, the next morning, he was visited by an attending physician and in a normal, friendly, adult male voice described how well he was feeling and how grateful he was.

Then my Surgical Team showed up, all five of them, gave me the lowdown, my room would be ready momentarily, etc., and I was whisked off.

Part the Second:

I won’t bore you with the details but here’s where I wanted to start my FYCE research. I was given a room on a high floor with a pretty nice view and I got the window bunk. My roommate was a cheerful Brooklyn Russian who kept to himself but we chatted a bit. Then he too was discharged and I had the room to myself for the remainder of my stay.

My FYCE plans were thwarted though, because I was to have surgery that very day so no liquids or food. This took a while, the surgery was completed, and Virgil and I were whisked back to my now-empty room. A nurse greeted me and said, “Now you can eat and you’re not on a restricted diet” and implied I could order in from one of the many tasty Thai places in the neighborhood, or the Chipotle. I said, “Having gone without food for so long maybe I should start off with something simple, like a sandwich or something.” “The cafeteria is closed but I could get you like a ham and cheese sandwich or something?” (Presumably from a vending machine.) Here’s where my food diary begins.

  1. The Ham-and-Cheese Late Night Supper Sandwich

It was actually three sandwiches, two of wheat bread with two slices of very tasty cured deli ham (presumably low-sodium) and one of two slices of decent, although bland, and presumably low-sodium, cheese. Each came with a packet of mayo and a packet of mustard of a brand unknown to me. “I don’t know why they do this, sometimes they put the ham and cheese together, sometimes they don’t. Oh, and I got you some honey graham crackers.” These were two to a cellophane package, like saltines. My first instinct was to take one of the water cups, mix the mayo and the mustard, and craft a ham-heavy club sandwich out of this, but I thought that would be too much for my system, so I had the cheese sandwich and half a ham sandwich, and one of the honey graham crackers, also pretty tasty, and read my book and fell asleep.

2. Every couple of hours my blood pressure was taken or the packets on Virgil were replaced (one for electrolytes, one for hydration) and Virgil would beep every so often, and I would look out the window at this little chunk of Manhattan and read my book and sleep again. Then, at around 4 AM my day started (hospitals keep really crazy hours). At some point I had a nice chatty little consult about What Next. It was Ash Wednesday and the woman had ashes on her forehead. There was a nurse seeing to Virgil and another person in there doing a little cleaning up. I said, because I’m irrepressible, “I don’t mean to be rude or intrusive, but you’re Catholic, right?” She laughed and said, “Yes, these are the ashes you get on Ash Wednesday.” “Oh, I know what they are, but I read that because of covid they weren’t going to put them on your forehead this year, they were going to sprinkle them on your head. Or maybe holy water. This is what they do in Europe.” The nurse attending to Virgil chimed in, “We have a chapel here at the hospital and I bet the priest got his second dose of the vaccine already?” This is one of the most interesting covid-19-related conversations I’ve had in a while, because under Emperor Cuomo all we hear about are his measures taken that follow the data, follow the science, but it’s all hogwash, a lot of it is his whim and his vindictiveness and his pettiness, but even he cannot dictate his lunatic “exactly who can do exactly what exactly when BECAUSE I SAY SO” to the Catholic Church.

3. The Hospital Breaking of the Fast

Breakfast arrived. That’s the subject of the header photo. And this is why you don’t want me to photo my own food when I contribute to FYCE. Breakfast was the two rubbery pancakes shown above. I thought the plastic knife had met its match but it soldiered through. Behind the pancakes in the photo, from left to right, is a container of 1% milk, which I immediately moved out of sight, so offensive was it to me; a container of decaf coffee; and a container of orange juice. Lurking behind the coffee is a container that, to my surprise, contained this sort of blueberry compote so I guess I had a kind of build-your-own blueberry pancake breakfast. That compote will haunt me for a while. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t really taste like much of anything, and unrestricted diet or no, I’m sure they weren’t feeding a lot of sugar to the patients, so I think I had the fruit version of whatever that “beef” stuff is that isn’t beef. I don’t recommend this but anyway the reason you don’t want me to photo my own food is this is what I would do: make an earnest attempt to show you something and fail miserably.

4. A Healthy Roast Chicken, Farro Pilaf, and Roasted Brussels Sprouts Lunch

At some point someone arrived and took my lunch and dinner order. I thought, “I have essentially a private room in prime Manhattan real estate and someone is going to record my lunch and dinner order personally? Is my insurance going to cover all of this?” There were only two or three options per meal, and for lunch I went with the roast chicken option, because as I have mentioned ad nauseam one of the things I can’t do is roast a chicken. For dinner I could have had chicken parmigiana, which I ordered, and even debated calling off the Better Half to pick me up a little later so I could sample this, but I didn’t. I love Chix Parm more than anything else; in my FYCE post I mentioned I think I would order it as my death row last meal, but my desire for freedom trumped this.

Reader, my sense of surreality sent me into a different dimension. I do not know how anyone could make a farro pilaf as bland as what I was served, I’ll start there. It looked like farro pilaf? On to the roast chicken. It was an actual chicken, not a patty or anything, and my meager plastic utensils were once again tested to their limits. But it was very good, nice and juicy, warm, just perfect really. This sent me on a reverie. I buy (the Better Half buys) supermarket rotisserie chicken fairly often, but I only use it as a raw material to make something more, I never just serve and eat it as is. Why do I do this? Why can’t I leave well enough alone? Is it something from my past that compels me? As I watched the cars far below me going wherever they were going, I wondered, “Do those people just eat rotisserie chicken for dinner, or do they compulsively shred it or cube it and maybe make Chicken Divan out of it? Am I the last person on earth who knows what Chicken Divan is?” I may still have been shaking off the anesthesia.

The roasted Brussels sprouts were…the best I’ve ever had in my life! Really juicy and tangy, a little lemony, as if the chef had stolen from the farro and given to the sprouts, like a culinary Robin Hood.

I thought I had taken two or three different photos of this but my phone tells me otherwise. Photo Phail again.

Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.



  1. Welcome back! You were missed.

    This is shocking “The roasted Brussels sprouts were…the best I’ve ever had in my life! Really juicy and tangy, a little lemony, as if the chef had stolen from the farro and given to the sprouts, like a culinary Robin Hood.”

    Who knew that you lived by a gourmetesque hospital?

    • The hospital actually has it own cookbook. Well, not really, but a series of downloadable pdfs with recipes contributed by staff. I think I’m going to try some of their stuff and maybe get an FYCE post or two out of it. I looked in vain for a Brussels sprouts recipe but came up empty. I’m sure they can’t produce the recipes on an industrial scale, my hospital alone is a vast labyrinth and it is one of 6 or 8. 
      I left with a new-found purpose in life: With God as my witness I’m going to try to learn again how to roast a chicken. I’ve made capons, no problem, and roasted a turkey or three with success, but the simple supermarket rotisserie chicken eludes me. 
      I’m going to ask Better Half to get a supermarket rotisserie chicken and I will dissect it like Madame Curie detecting and finding a use for radium. 

        • Both, and other stuff. Like the skin cooks but doesn’t crisp and comes out kind of gross. It doesn’t really matter, a supermarket rotisserie chicken doesn’t cost much more than buying a chicken yourself; I’ve read elsewhere that they’re often loss leaders to entice you into the market and buy more stuff while you’re at it. 
          But I am determined. I am going to see what the Three Muses (Julia Child, Martha Stewart, and Ina Garten) have to say about chicken and once I master it I’ll be churning it out like a junior manager at a Popeye’s.

      • I’ve eaten in a couple of hospital cafeterias a few times in recent years, and I have to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I’m not saying it was restaurant quality food, but fairly decent. You could get fresh vegetables, pretty good soup, there was OK looking stuff in the steam tables.
        I seem to recall ARA had a semi-monopoly on institutional food for many years, and they were terrible.  Companies seemed to have cracked the code that increasing demand was a better way of making money than relentlessly focusing on cutting corners.

        • Even the rubbery pancakes with the faux-food “blueberry” compote wasn’t that bad, there just wasn’t enough of it for huge, gluttonous me. I was kind of shocked. It was my first go-round at this hospital and I was expecting gruel like unflavored oatmeal and apple sauce. The farro—I don’t know how they did it. I don’t make a lot of rice or farro normally but I’m going to get Better Half to pick some up and I’ll search for recipes for what to do with farro. Those Brussels sprouts are going to be my white whale. The Better Half loves Brussels sprouts, that’s why I make them, and I can make them in a few different ways, but nothing that approaches what I was served out of an industrial hospital kitchen. I’m still so pissed off about it, but in a friendly, competitive, and grateful way. 

      • With God as my witness I’m going to try to learn again how to roast a chicken.

        I am stunned that roast chicken is your issue. Not because it’s easy (it takes some prep and some time), but because you are so accomplished that I would just assume that you can roast a bird better than any of us. Anyway, I know you will achieve success, and once you do you will really appreciate it.
        I’ve been assigned the DASH diet for a few years now due to cholesterol issues, and I’ve come to LOVE roast chicken and roast vegetables. I still occasionally eat pork and beef, but I don’t really miss them like I thought I would.
        Oh, and my start down the road to roast chicken was this article from Albert B. on Deadspin. His part about how the chicken is raised affects the taste is dead-on, IME.

        • It is a very weird flaw. About once a year I make (or used to make, pre-pandemic) capons for a crowd, and they came out perfectly. I’ve roasted turkeys in different ways and all have turned out great. Half my diet consists of chicken in the form of breasts or something else. But roasting a chicken is beyond me. It’s a little trick of the Kitchen Gods, I guess.

  2. So, I’m assuming that because this was a trip to the ER which facilitated the surgery, you weren’t in fact able to convince your regular health care team that they needed to pay attention to your leg.  It sucks big time when providers are so focused on what they think is the problem that they refuse to listen to the person actually having the problem.  I’m sure this will make for some awkward conversations with your doctors down the road.
    So far, I’ve been spared the adventure of being admitted to a hospital.  When I was a kid I was intimately acquainted with most of the ERs in the area, but never had to do an overnight.  Which is great because I think the food would kill me.

    • Unfortunately, most doctors see what they have been trained to see, and they tend to work in stovepipes. There are strong institutional biases against crossing boundaries or working as teams.
      I do think things are a fair amount better than they used to be. My son has had some sports injuries and he has had younger women doctors who have been great — sympathetic, approachable, and strong communicators to go with a solid work ethic and a lot of competence. Other younger doctors I’ve dealt with are also much less haughty and dismissive than the older school ones.

      • Oh, I know this all too well.  Until recently, I spent the past seven years in graduate medical education.  The siloing is strong.  It’s so bad that a lot of hospitals are structured to discourage interdisciplinary cooperation by allowing each specialty to have its own foundation, which means its own money and its own decision making processes.  This makes for wildly disparate methods of handling the day-to-day work of the department.  I won’t even get into what it does to the clinical side.

    • It was actually just the opposite. I go to what is, for all intents and purposes but not advertised as such, a community public health clinic. Have you ever seen the movie “Change of Habit”? Elvis Presley is a young, well-meaning doctor who falls in love with Mary Tyler Moore, who is a nun but allowed to wear street clothing. It’s where the song “In the Ghetto” comes from. It’s an amazing movie but very white savior-ish and it takes place in East Harlem, so Spanish is considered a language spoken on an alien planet, like Vulcan. 
      Where was I? Oh yes. At my Community Health Center they finally gave up on me and told me to go to an ER. Three months and maybe a dozen visits. They’re not really healing and helping, they’re a bunch of well-meaning young medical residents getting their points in to become full-fledged MDs. From what I know from multiple waiting room observations, the practice skews older, poorer, and darker than me, and gerontology and the afflictions that beset the oldest and poorest among us may be their focus, I hope so. 
      As for me, once this over (my issues and the pandemic) I’m going to sign up for a real doctor in a real practice, not some med school training ground outpost run by a corporate entity that s impossible to contact because “due to high volume.”

  3. good to hear you made it out of the hospital and survived the famed hospital food (i have heard much about it…but never had to stay in a hospital long enough to sample it…cept for some icecream when i had my wisdom teeth pulled…which was good…i think..i dont know i was high as a kite when i woke up with icecream and spent an hour singing to meself to the amusement of passing nurses…but mostly they are really quite eager to send me on my way again within a couple hours…sometimes they throw painkillers at me)
    and on the note of rotissery chicken….yep..i just eat that for dinner…i dont even like chicken all that much…but i cannot resist the smell of rotissery chicken…sooo…sometimes when i go shopping for dinner i just come back with a big bag of chicken and eat that 
    and then usually realize that i still dont care much for chicken…

    • At least. The first phase, stuck in the ER endlessly with the rotating cast of NYC stock character stereotypes, and the VERY LOUD CLERICAL STAFF IN THE MIDDLE OF US ALL WHO YELLED LOUDLY ABOUT THEIR PRIVATE LIVES AT 3 AM rates about a 1, but once I got into that room I thought, “You know, Mattie, you used to work just two blocks away. For years. And you never came over here. With everyone fleeing Manhattan, what would a high-floor apartment with a balcony like the one you’re staring at cost?” 
      I give the unintentional private room stay a 5, I give all the personnel a 5, especially the nurses. When the Better Half came to collect me and we got in the uber I said, “Have you ever thought about maybe moving here? We could sell our apartment for a fortune—” “No. We made a pact. We’re not moving again until we feel comfortable moving abroad, remember the code? FIS. France, Italy, Spain. We just have to figure out who will have us once this pandemic is over”. “And the kennel requirements for the Faithful Hound.” “You can get around that, believe me.”  

        • The only thing abut Italy is actually living there and working there presents obstacles. I’ve heard it can take months to get reliable Internet access, and neither of us plan on retiring any time soon. We both plan to keep working, not necessarily out of necessity, just because we both enjoy the work we do, and even before the pandemic we worked from home. The Better Half works for a Global Company and they like the fact that he’s in New York, in the NYC time zone, so he can cover Europe but also keep in touch with Home Office back in California within a reasonable, if long, day. What work I do is, “Here’s your assignment, you have two weeks, email with any questions.” All done via WeTransfer. We could have moved to Europe a decade ago, but I think we’re finally ready to pull the trigger. We are, for better or worse, proud Americans, the last four horrendous years aside, but we’re not getting any younger and America is a country for young people. Italy, for example, has one of the highest official age medians in the world, they’re up there with Japan, because so few Italians have children and when they do there are few of them. 
          On the other hand Spain and France are littered with British and German ex-pats (the Germans tend to avoid France, for obvious historical reasons) and they’re set up to receive foreigners in enclaves all over the place. When we were last in Spain we stayed in a charming seaside resort before heading off to the nearby big city (Barcelona) and long about day 3 in the seaside town I asked the hotel proprietor why there were so many Biergartens and Irish pubs. “Who do you think lives here? Retired EU people. The Spanish come for the day and go home. The foreigners never leave.” 
          If we move to this town (it is our number 1 choice of all the many, many places in Mediterranean Europe that we’ve been to) I will force myself to learn Catalan. I can speak Castilian Spanish but that’s like nails on a chalkboard to the Catalans, and Catalan, though it is its own language, is not that different from Spanish, in its written form, but as spoken it sounds nothing like Spanish. So that will take some getting used to but where there’s a will there is a way.

          • All good things to know. I, too, would require good, reliable internet for my work. But I couldn’t live in an enclave of any sorts. We would most likely find a small village in northern Italy and hopefully be the only native English speakers there. We’ll see.

  4. My mother was in one of the smaller Pittsburgh hospitals once and they ordered the food from a local well known Italian restaurant. Presumably for those not on restricted diets. She was there for close to a week and said the food was so good she didn’t want to leave. That was many years ago, I don’t know if they still do that or if the restaurant is even still there. I’m glad your stay was short.

    • It was amazing. Out of boredom during my stay I went to the hospital’s website and there was a whole section about dining options from local restaurants, including discounts for patients. BUT, I stayed true to my FYCE research and ate out of the cafeteria/industrial kitchen canteen.

    • They are, but they’re very small and young, and you usually serve them whole, one to a guest. I stopped this practice once I learned about the Fate of the Capons, but I had it down pat. Chicken, I don’t know. I have a Viking gas stove that could heat the entire building if it had to, so maybe that’s the problem. That’s why in my FYCE posts I’m always cautious about baking times: not everyone has a small nuclear generator like I do.
      I don’t know. In my confinement I’m going to mess around with roasting a chicken, although in my rapidly gentrifying neighborhood I’m not sure that any of the local groceries sell them any more.

  5. Yay! We missed you!

    Sometimes cafeteria cooking is fucking delicious. While I haven’t travelled to the Connecticut corporate office in 11 months, the cafeteria there is managed by amazing people who made fucking delicious food.

    Like I never went out to lunch because the caliber of the cafeteria food (plus the cost) was superior to leaving the building. 

    • In my corporate days back in the 1940s or whenever it was we were relocated for two years to a different part of Manhattan for two years, while the new HQ was being built. The cafeteria was amazing and very heavily subsidized. We were only leasing a few floors so it was really meant for the sleek power brokers who had longer-term leases but we had access to it. It stayed open late so you could put in dinner orders and take it back to your desk or take home, that’s how delicious and cheap the food was.
      When the new HQ opened it, too, had a cafeteria but it was beyond ridiculously bad. It was like a Bulgarian workers’ factory canteen circa 1964 but incredibly overpriced to boot, so people tended to avoid it. I certainly did. I have since heard that the dining areas (there were at least two) were converted into more cubicle farms because the company needed the space and the employees didn’t really need the cafeteria. A great missed opportunity because the HQ is in one of Manhattan’s food deserts (there are a few) in a dull, notoriously failed blocks-long strip. It took us all about a week to realize how grim the situation was, so we’d bring lunch in from home. On nice days we’d bring our lunches into Central Park, a five-minute walk away, and eat there. I, being who I am, organized the occasional lunchtime pot luck, so we’d go to Central Park and spread out and share our food, like the Lenape who used to live here quite quietly and peacefully 500 and more years ago.

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