Hospital food was long the culinary cellar of America, always maligned, ever dreary and gastronomically as flat as stale ginger ale. The miracle was that the genre transcended regions: It was invariably mealy, cold and stodgy everywhere.
Today, the style, if not all the content, has changed drastically. Your friendly local general hospital is likely to offer you a radiant little plastic platter adorned with more than a few flourishes.
Along with it will be a respectably complex series of menu options, including dinner wines (your doctor permitting). Hospital gourmet, if that is what it is, has arrived.
I recently had an extended chance to sample the new look in bedside fare. On the morning after a serious session in the operating room, I was offered a fine and juicy pork tenderloin for lunch without even asking for it, plus golden roast potatoes and gravy. Great. One option was a glass of wine with dinner.
What has prompted this sudden civilizing of the often-scorned dietetic world?
Richard Carpe, a hospital consultant, thinks the new culinary trend is natural. "Food is one of the biggest single areas of complaints that patients have," he says. "When you are hospitalized, the one thing you look forward to is a meal."
The gourmet trend is a "response to patients' higher expectations," says Richard Gluch, associate director of nutrition for the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. "We have a wide range of patients from around the world and we try to enhance the quality of their stay," he adds. The program began more than 10 years ago and now offers special meals for visiting family members or guests and meals that can be ordered for a friend who is a patient.
The fact that the U.S. public has begun to associate good, fresh food with good health and a reasonable diet also helps.
Actually, there is no built-in conflict between fine dining and a healthy convalescent diet--and perhaps the reverse may be true. Elegant melons, for instance, are rated among the most nutritious of all fruits. Fresh strawberries are low-cal bombs of essential Vitamin C. And daily food preparation itself means that kitchens will tend to lean on fresh rather than processed or packaged types of offerings, with their chemical and non-natural features.
Who chooses the deluxe meals, most of which, but not all, involve a premium charge over trays provided in a routine room stay? Pat Messick, director of nutrition services at Baltimore's Union Memorial hospital, says, "new mothers celebrating a birth, less critical cases, a broken leg, or someone who feels fine but can't get around much are the kind of patients that enjoy the hospital's gourmet offering."
At Union Memorial the options are built around three entrees of classic sort: a stuffed fillet of sole, a chicken Wellington and a Delmonico steak. "The steak is the most popular," says the nutrition director. Sherry or other wine will be served, with written permission from the doctor. There's no particular reason why the wine is or is not offered on such menus. "But it is an appetite enhancer," says Messick, "and it's a way of making an institutional setting a little more warm and personal."
At Baltimore's Franklin Square hospital, young mothers get prime rib, or a boned, stuffed chicken breast with potatoes au gratin, salad and fresh broccoli. Cheesecake or chocolate cake are the dessert options. At the same institution, even the regular menu reveals a gourmet touch featuring such items as cod with toasted almonds, herb and cheese quiches, croissants and beef stroganoff and sirloin tips simmered in a mushroom-Burgundy sauce.
Buttery chicken Kiev, beef tenderloins, crab and shrimp stuffed snapper, rissole potatoes and wines or beer are among the offerings at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in a gourmet meal option that costs $15.
A new Johns Hopkins menu in preparation will star a fruit cup or salad, filet mignon, lamb chops, broiled or baked flounder and chicken cordon bleu with Black Forest tortes and a Vienna-style walnut layer cake among the desserts. The tab is $15, a price that probably few restaurants could match for the same dishes. Hopkins even has a snack-style menu for two, an accommodation to visitors, spouses and parents. Six options range in price from $5 (for a vegetable plate and dip) to $8 (for fruit and cheese or antipasto or wine).
Nationally, the hospital good-food trend has proliferated into a good many trimmings that would have been unheard of in the old days. A check of published reports from across the country shows that some institutions give a free take-home dinner to new parents fresh from the OB ward. Boston's Norwood hospital freezes the offerings in oven-proof containers, meals starring beef Wellington, stuffed chicken breast or baked stuffed shrimp. The farewell dinner packs also come with a split of either Champagne or sparkling cider.
The send-'em-home-happy trend has also caught on in Cincinnati, where four hospitals sell frozen dinners to discharged patients, outpatients and staff. Chicken Dijon, seafood Newburg and lasagna are among the popular items. "Food in hospitals hasn't always gotten a fair shake," says Ohio dietitian Rohn Vickers.
Not only professional dietitians, but chefs and gourmets, have joined in the upgrading trend. Fancy Los Angeles restaurants have been preparing carryout meals for hospital cases who are customers who want their favorite special at bedside.
In Washington, D.C., restaurants and hotels have catered gourmet meals in rooms and cafeterias periodically for relatively long-staying patients at the National Rehabilitation Hospital. The Willard hotel and the Occidental restaurant are among nationally known diners that joined the program. Roanoke's Community Hospital in Virginia has called in the executive chef of the Hotel Roanoke to counsel on adding hotel-style glamour to menus, including the hotel's famed peanut soup and spoonbread.
Chefs are increasingly attracted to hospitals as career sites, say observers of the field, because of benefit packages and stability. The American Culinary Federation has noted the increased interest from culinary professionals in hospital jobs. Shorter work weeks and better benefit packages than those offered in cruise lines, restaurants and hotels are two of the lures. It may improve the balance sheet, too, if a pro is handling things. In one California hospital, where the kitchen was gourmandized, annual cafeteria revenues jumped from $400,000 to $1 million a year, according to Donald C. Miller, food service director for Tri City Hospital Center of Oceanside, Calif.
Perhaps the ultimate in hospital gourmet developments was left to the great state of Texas. You simply move the gourmet restaurant into the hospital. Such was the case at Texas Medical Center's Methodist Hospital, Houston, where a full-scale eatery ("Chez Eddy") was created on the spot. There talented chefs concoct luscious meals using American Heart Assn. guidelines, with imaginative dishes like peppered salmon and Thai chicken seasoned with ginger, coriander and sesame seeds. One Chez Eddy triumph was in creating a sauce soubise without cream, using a reduction of cooked rice and onions, with nonfat milk.
The new eatery is so integral a part of Methodist that it is housed between the departments of diagnostic cardiology and ambulatory surgery.