Last weekend I had the opportunity to stay at one of Atlanta's premiere medical hot-spots, where I was sliced open to have my innards fiddled with. Afterwards I was presented with this magnificent feast. It was almost as pleasant.
I've loved institutional food since I was a small boy standing in line for lunch at Marshall Street Elementary in Norristown, Pennsylvania. There is something comforting about school, hospital and prison food. It's a massive sub-genre encompassing a wide range of international fare, each dish carefully crafted to be as bland and harmless as possible.
"I can't eat Italian food, it gives me heartburn." "I can't do Mexican, I can't handle spicy foods." "Thai? Are you f***ing crazy?" Each of these normally valid complaints is negated through the anti-excitement filters every institutional dish must pass through before it's cleared to appear in cafeterias across the country. There may be a hint of garlic or a half-hearted kick of spice, but it never follows through.
As I review my post-microdiscectomy feast, bear in mind that not all hospitals exclusively serve the bland stuff. When my twin boys were born they wound up at two different hospitals — Kennestone in Marietta, Georgia and Children's Healthcare in Atlanta. Children's Healthcare has a magnificent cafeteria, complete with a wood-burning oven for making pizza, while Kennestone sticks with the basics. This is why we love the child who wound up at Children's more than the other one.
I'm just kidding. We like the other one more.
Anyway, on to the food. First, a foggy-voiced video overview. Yes, I brought a camera to the hospital for just this purpose. Enjoy the auto-focus noises.
I must give St. Joseph's credit — the food that arrived as if by magic during one of my rare post-op lucid moments was certainly more colorful than I expected. Vibrant reds, puzzling yellows and playful oranges certainly brightened up the sterile room.
Let's do this dish-by-dish.
Hrm. That's being a bit too generous.
Small Bowl of Lettuce With Single Sad Tomato
There we go. I couldn't really call this a salad, because my wife's been making some pretty spectacular veggie creations lately and I wouldn't want them to rise up against me in protest. There are more elaborate salads than this wrapped in plastic down the street at Waffle House. If you can't out-salad Waffle House, you aren't salading properly.
That said, I am a big fan of lettuce, if only because you can stuff a whole lot of it into your mouth without feeling bad about it. Lettuce makes everything feel and taste a little bit healthier. You haven't lived until you've tasted my bacon brownie lettuce wraps. So decadent. So imaginary.
St. Joseph's lettuce bowl had a very earthy flavor to it, which is a polite way of saying it tasted like dirt. Since this is a hospital named after a saint, I imagine it's consecrated dirt, making this a test to filter out potentially undead patients. I passed.
So bright! So colorful! So completely devoid of flavor! I am not normally much of a cooked vegetable man, but when you take away the taste and transform the crisp texture into something rubbery and lifeless, I'm all in. Not sure what that says about me — maybe the consecrated dirt test salad was wrong about me.
So round! So magnificent! So yeasty!
A roll placed on a plate of food is only so much doughy garnish, but when a roll is placed on its very own plate it attains a sort of understated majesty that belies its simple origins. Thus one begins to expect more of the roll. That buttery tinge to the outer crust, those specs of green dried plant — why, this roll is going to be a flavor explosion!
Not really. It tasted like really dry dough and butter. That's likely exactly what the chef was going for, so good job.
Grilled Chicken With Fettucini-ish Noodles and White Stuff
Chicken, prepared properly, is the most harmless of the meats, making it a staple of the post-operation menu. You're never going to have herniated disc material removed from your spine and then wake up to a big juicy hamburger or a leg of lamb with mint sauce. You get chicken. If you're very lucky, chicken with gummy noodles and white sauce sprinkled with paprika.
I'm pretty sure the white sauce is supposed to be alfredo sauce, but it was really hard to taste anything but creamy, which isn't a taste at all. That's fine, really. Too often a sauce overpowers the flavor of what's beneath it, and in this case it wouldn't have to try very hard.
The bird was a bit tough, but I believe that was done purposefully in order to ensure my jaw received the proper post-operative exercise. As you can see in the picture above, one side of the grilled chicken took on an almost jellied appearance during the cooking process, which was so horrifying I had to take a close-up picture so I could share it with you.
There's Always Room For Jell-O
Jello is always delicious, though I've found it's at its tastiest in a hospital environment. The splash of flavor is perfect for washing away the non-taste of whatever you've eaten before it, and it's always packed with delicious canned fruit, because fresh fruit would be too much of a shock to the system.
I do wonder why the Jello here was served with a leaf of lettuce. What was I supposed to do with that? Make Jello lettuce wraps? I appreciate the effort to present an appealing plate to people who don't have the option to order out for pizza and are generally too drugged-up to care. Way to go that extra mile.
As I stated previously, I love institutional food — just not for its taste. What I love about institutional food is that it's an entire spectrum of food products specifically designed to make you feel bad about continuing to eat it. We don't want our schoolchildren overeating or lingering at lunch. We don't want our prisoners to feel pampered. And we want to make sure our hospital patients have a good reason to recuperate as quickly as possible.
I arrived at the hospital for my operation on Friday morning, with plans on staying until Saturday morning. I left an hour and a half after this meal. Mission accomplished, hospital food.