Sunday, February 25, 2018

Spilling the Beans on Vintage Hospital Cafeterias

Lots of folks have bitter complaints about hospital cafeteria food.  Not me!  I actually enjoyed eating in the ultimate of institutional dining settings. Student  nurses had unlimited access to this crude, but very satisfying  sustenance  via  monthly issued meal ticket books. One day my clinical work was interrupted by that dreaded summons. "Report immediately to the nursing  director's office."  I was soon ushered into her inner sanctum by her assistant who was an authentic nurse with cap and pin; there were no nattily dressed executive assistants with perfectly coiffured  hairdos  for old school nurse executives.  I was somewhat  relieved by her cheerful demeanor, "Fool, the girls  (her generic term for all student nurses except for me. Male students threw her for a loop) have told me how much you enjoy the cafeteria meals and I wanted to give you extra meal ticket books." I stammered and stuttered a timid "thank-you," and slithered out dreaming of those perfectly round machine stamped salisbury steakette  patties. I was fascinated by the way grease gravy squirted out of them and glistened in the overhead florescent lights  when pressure was applied with a fork. Fine dining in all it's stomach gurgling  glory.

The Sisyphean task of tendering expeditious food service to intermittent parades of time pressured hospital personnel gave way to many unique innovations.  Fiberglass trays were easily propelled along shiny chrome runners that minimized friction as hungry diners made their selections. Just as ceramic tile was the defining element to the operating rooms, chrome was the underlying theme to old school hospital cafeterias. The shiny stuff was just about everywhere from the food displays to borders on any horizontal surface. Even the Sweeda cash register was chrome.

 A small army of colorful characters on the supply side of the chow line could cut a gigantic sheet cake into perfect 3 inch square pieces or whip up a massive vat of our favorite desert , Whip N' Chill in the blink of an eye. I don't recall the flavor of my favorite whipped desert but it was  red in color. That  food dye would leave a permanent stain so be careful with that white uniform.

Just about any standing kettle of soup or chili would acquire a 1 inch thick layer of gooey grease that rose to the top. These underpaid but well meaning food service workers had bulging forearms from the near constant stirring motion necessary to keep the grease in suspension.

In the OR all of our cases ended in an ectomy and in the cafeteria all the meat product entrees ended in the suffix ette. There was my favorite pork chopette, steakette,  hamcheesette, and last. but not least chicken croquette. None of today's  pretentious  light and fit, locally sourced artisanal food here. Artificial flavors and texture enhancers were embraced as a great space age wonder. Those clever scientists were hard at work making our food taste better. Great work and don't spare the MSG and nitrates.

The three horsemen of addictive, pathogenic food additives were proudly displayed as the centerpiece of each table. A gigantic cylindrical dispenser of good old fashioned sugar was always front and center, tempting nurses to drown their fatigue in a hyperglycemic rush. Pepper and salt were readily available. There was nothing like dousing highly processed foodstuffs in salt for a hypertensive boost. The artery clogging fat of a pork chopette could be supplemented by that insulated mini carafe of whole cream for your coffee. Some folks liked to add a spot of whole cream to their Whip 'N Chill to give it "extra body," but I preferred mine unadulterated.

Perhaps it's time to resurrect old school hospital cafeteria food. In the mindset of today's greedy hospital corporate types foods like this are an integral component of a dynamic profit circle. Consume these  high fat, high sugar, processed food and business is booming in the diabetic clinic and cardiovascular services. Besides, I have a decades long hankering for just  one more pork choppette


  1. Which is why I ALWAYS brown-bagged it!!!

  2. "Ah now here's an article that brings back memories for me!

    When I was a young wet-behind-the-ears student nurse we lived in the nurses' home and ate in the dining room reserved for nurses and (for some odd reason) student physiotherapists (and we nurses had to wear full uniform - including cap and apron - even when off duty!!!)

    Hierarchy was indicated by table settings. Student midwives (already State Registered Nurses so of course they never spoke to us mere student nurses, perish the thought) sat at round tables with vases of flowers in the centre. Student physiotherapists for some reason not only had the round tables and vases of flowers but also got a fruit bowl. Wow.

    Student nurses, being the lowlife that we were (until we hit Third Year when we got a special cap and had to be addressed by any lowlife 1st or 2nd year nurse who dared approach us as "Senior" Nurse) sat at one very long rectangular table sans flowers or fruit. I was terribly cross about it.

    Meals were dished out by a terrifying Greek woman whom I could never understand so I always got the wrong food. On one memorable day, sheep brains were served for breakfast, tripe for lunch, and black sausage (don't even go there, it's made from offal) was for dinner. As I was at risk of heaving at the site of any of these delicacies, I went without food for that entire day. My mother actually telephoned Matron declaring that her daughter would become malnourished if this continued!

    It was OK - on the wards we learned to take food left over from patients' trays, especially desserts.

    In the nurses' home the maid delivered an entire cake to us each evening promptly at 8pm. It was thought the carbohydrates would boost our energy levels. As I had the room with the best view of when the maid appeared with the cake, I would alert my buddies as soon as she came into sight so we all got first dibs on the cake.

    One memorable day in our second year (when you started to lag and wonder if it was All Worth It) we were invited to partake of afternoon tea in the Sisters' Quarters (Sister being the title given to any State Registered Nurse, who were practically gods). This was meant to show us what we would get if we persisted with the gruelling training and actually became one of these God-like beings.

    Sisters had their own lounge room and maids. We had tea poured into dainty china cups from Royal Doulton teapots and sank into deep padded velvet arm chairs, it was Heaven!

    Apparently this form of hierarchical seating was the same at the British training hospitals, so we must have inherited it from them.

    Of course later it changed to a serve-yourself-on-a-tray-sit-wherever-you-like kind of cafeteria - and I wasn't sorry to see the hierarchy of the nurses' dining room disappear. Still those Sisters and their armchairs and china teapots and maids in maids outfits were pretty splendid. I'm glad I saw another world before it all disappeared! Thanks for the memories OFRN, cheers S.

  3. Well WE occasionally were given a coupon for a free stale cookie, but as a night shift nurse I never had the opportunity to use them. I did notice that they were now cutting those cakes into 1.5 inch perfect squares for the patients. Pretty sure they still use the whipnchill though.

  4. I'm sitting here trying to eat my breakfast, and, sadly, reminded of 4 years of eating in Marine Corps mess halls. I think the proper term was "dining hall", but "mess" was much more accurate. And in the field, it was C-rations, whose sole redeeming feature was the little 4-pack of cigarettes. However, neither in a mess hall nor in a box of C-rations did I ever have - as far as I know - a "chopette".

  5. I once did a short stint in a large university hospital kitchen as I had a need for shelter and food in the outside world. I remember making beef stew in a 100 gallon steam kettle and the recipe started out with 300 pounds of beef cubes and 5 pounds of salt. The paddle to stir it was the size of a canoe paddle, but made out of aluminum. It was about a thousand servings. It wasn't too bad, but I never gained any weight while working there.

  6. Thanks so much for all your detailed comments. There was a rigid hierarchy in our cafeteria too. The doctors actually had a dining area that was separated from the riffraff of ordinary nurses and student nurses. No flowers, but their tables proudly displayed a huge bottle of hot sauce along with the usual toxic food additives. The MDs had all the same food choices as the general cafeteria with the exception of a carving station that had a huge chunk of intact beef - none of the ground, processed chopettes for this prestigious bunch.

    Officer Cynical, I suspect that Downey VA hospital where I briefly worked may have been similar to your military food adventures. The most disgusting food noted there was reconstituted dry powdered eggs. Yellow pasty appearance with a greenish speckeled look that when scooped on a plate spread like syrup. Yuck! A patient half joking told me they used these eggs in the motor pool to loosen rusted bolts.

    That chopette term seemed to refer to any processed ground meat that was assembled to look like the real mc coy. The pork chopette was actually shaped like a pork chop and the steakette kinda resembled a strip steak if you used your imagination. I think it would have been stretching the truth beyond reason to call the thing a pork chop.

    Jono, I actually enjoyed most of the concoctions cooked up in those giant kettles. Sometimes the bathrooms could be busy places on days when chili was served and I always made a mental note to sit as far away as possible.

  7. Sadly the overly processed foodstuffs still reign in my hospital cafeteria. By far the worst I have ever tasted. And when I started here they were a "no added salt" cafeterai. So despite being able to get virtually any food deep fried, one could not add table salt to very bland canned vegetables. Ugh.

  8. The hospitals here in Pittsburgh have slowly improved their food offerings. Doctor's dining rooms are a thing of the past and there are actually some fairly decent selections from salad bar type arrangements. My nursing school cafeteria had zero in the way of fresh produce.

  9. When I was first nursing the food was very basic - most dinners were two small lamp chops with three veg. I dug out my old graduation photo a while ago and we were all so slim - not one overweight nurse in sight in 50 graduates - our waists were tiny! Walking miles along the wards, heavy work and basic food (apart from cake) kept us all incredibly fit. Now it's a battle to keep the weight under control (sigh). I'm munching on a celery stick as I type this...

    Great post OFRN with lots of interesting comments! S.

    And I hope the weather has warmed up a bit over there...

    1. Oops I meant lamb chops not lamp chops!

  10. Lamb chops are a delicacy here and were never served in the hospital cafeteria. Most of the meat dishes were highly processed ground meat products which were then cleverly shaped to resemble a cut of real meat. My favorite, the pork chopette was ground meat shaped just like a genuine pork chop.

    About once a month the hospital cafeteria featured rabbit, but I could never bring myself to eat it-visions of the Easter Bunny always came to mind ruining my appetite.

    It is a bit warmer but we had over 2 inches of rain which caused several major landslides in Pittsburgh; makes me glad to live on the top of a hill.

    1. How interesting I've never heard of that - choppettes! Lamb chops were cheap here in Australia - my mother must have served them for our dinner at home most nights when I was growing up. I imagine that's why the hospital served them so often.

      Did you have the tradition of only the Charge Sister (Head Nurse) handing out the patients' meals - even though they were already dished up and ready to serve from the hospital kitchen, good old Flo's directions that diet was so important that only the Head Nurse should decide what was served to each patient was still continued at my training hospital. S.

      Glad you're not involved in any landslides - we have a pretty terrible drought over here...