I love food. There are those who eat to live and others who live to eat. I am definitely in the latter category. To me, eating is one of life’s pleasures – unless you serve me sprouts (no, I really won’t like the way you cook them, so if it’s all the same to you, I’ll just give them a miss thanks) or chilli (kidney beans should be banned). Otherwise, I’ll eat pretty much anything – oh, except shellfish – one bad mussel as a student and the ensuing two days of vomiting was enough to put me off consuming anything still in possession of its alimentary tract for the rest of my life. Nor do I comprehend why anyone would consider serving up anything with claws, tentacles or eyes looking back at you from the plate (it’s dreadful when someone’s watching you eat) so it’s a definite non to the fruits de mer, merci.
I’ve always had a healthy appetite and cooking has been, since learning to throw a passable lasagne together at the end of my first year at university, my one creative outlet. I can’t draw, or paint, can barely sing and as for dancing – don’t even go there: I never do.
Imagine my excitement then, as a newly-qualified doctor at Scriventhorpe General Infirmary* in West Yorkshire when we were presented with vouchers entitling us to a complimentary supper in the hospital canteen. At the end of a long day consisting of more induction than a first-time mother of quads on a labour ward, we house officers retired to our on-site rooms to change into dinner suits in preparation for the impending repast. Nonchalantly throwing my white silk scarf over my shoulder, I ambled down to the optimisitcally signed “Staff Restaurant” with my new colleagues.
Entering the refectory, which had clearly been newly decorated (in the late 1950s), and chattering excitedly, we joined the back of the queue and slowly made our way to the serving hatch. Dressed in an off-brown tabard and sporting a nicotine-stained hairnet, Brenda (or ‘Blender’ as she came to be affectionately known – owing to the mostly liquid food she proffered daily) drew hard on her cigarette blew a plume of smoke into the extractor hood above her head and muttered: “What’ll it be luv?” with every word the bobbing cigarette (still mounted in the fissured lips) threatening to sprinkle a garnish of ash into the simmering victuals beneath.
I surveyed the rectangular stainless-steel vats of indeterminate fare before me and opted for something which looked like it might once have been part of a chicken. “I’ll have the curry please,” I ventured. Blender wielded her oversize slotted spoon with gusto depositing two enormous spoonfuls of food on a once-white plate before overlooking the rice, grabbing a small shovel and adding a generous portion of chips on the side. The meal was then pushed toward me. For a second or two, I toyed with the idea of asking for rice instead, but the end of Blender’s cigarette glowed red as she dragged in a lungful of Benson & Hedges, looked at the customer behind me and choked out: “What’ll it be luv?”
We stood there with our food and having presented our vouchers to the cashier, looked around the seating area seeking a suitable table. I noticed a sign hanging from the ceiling which stated: “smoking area” and its counterpart on the other side of the room reading “heavy smoking area” – we opted for the former and took our seats to eat what could probably be described as the worst meal of my entire life. Was this really to be the standard of our food for the next six months? How would I survive? Prisoners in the nearby Wakefield gaol were served better. There was worse to come.
One of the perks of being part of the “on-call” team was the free meal provided to us for consumption after the evening’s entertainment covering the medical wards. This had to be collected from the restaurant on the day and was handed over frozen solidly in a white plastic container by the ubiquitous Blender. All the on-call meals were curries of varying strengths, all held in cryogenic stasis and all accompanied by a sad-looking naan bread complete with a sprinkling of cigarette ash. They were to be warmed in a microwave oven until they resembled something which might offer a little more nutrition than their containers. Some of them looked like they might contain meat (some of it quite possibly fit for human consumption) but in short, they were disgusting.
It’s odd how one’s enjoyment of a meal depends on so many things other than just the response of the taste buds. Aroma, presentation, appearance and texture are all vitally important constituents contributing to the overall delectation of a meal and it’s true that the on-call dinner had none of these until midnight, when having had nothing to eat since breakfast (save for a few snatched Quality Street on the wards) it tasted like manna from heaven.
A couple of years back, we ate in a three Michelin-starred restaurant in London and had an astonishing feast – but even that wasn’t as satisfying as one of Blender’s boxes of frozen midnight slop. I heard recently that the celebrity chef James Martin is campaigning to improve hospital food. I say: do what you like James, but hands off the on-call meal. That’s special.
*The name of the actual hospital has been changed in order to prevent embarrassment (it was Pontefract).