In Italy we live to eat. But tasty NHS fare puts our boring hospital food to shame | Viola Di Grano

I was born into a family with little love for food, and therefore hardly Italian: I grew up on salads and overcooked pasta and two parents who saw food as nothing more than a necessary compromise for survival. It was only as an adult that I discovered that food was indeed a source of satisfaction, and that in Italy it was mainly associated with hospitality, conviviality and good feelings in general. As one of our most famous writers, Elsa Morantesay it: “The sincerest expression of affection, the only one indeed, is ‘Have you eaten?'” That’s right: not the tired, abstract “I love you,” but a concerned question about your loved one having had a meal or not.

There is only one place where this story about nurturing food fails, and that is the hospital. As every Italian knows, once you are admitted as a patient the wealth of flavors is replaced by miserable food worthy of a medieval prison. The meals served to patients not only lack variety (you can count the options available all year round on one hand), but are chewy, hard and absolutely devoid of any flavor or seasoning. This practice is so widespread, without exceptions (even, as far as I know, in expensive private clinics) that no one has ever wondered where it came from. Not until last summer either. I was admitted to hospital in London for a respiratory infection. To my surprise, a very nice employee came by every day to show me a menu and let me choose from different options: all complex, tasty dishes based on different culinary traditions. As I gorged myself on delectable tikka masalas and delicious Asian sweet and sour dishes, I began to wonder why the experience had been so different for me (and everyone else) in my home country.

When I think of the times my loved ones have been in the hospital (both public and private), my thoughts are filled with watery fruit jelly, pale chicken breasts as tough as winter boots, and mountains of limp, unidentifiable vegetables. If you’re wondering how I experienced this food, even though I wasn’t a patient myself, it’s because a patient’s loved ones will often partake in the miserable chewing to spare them the horror.

My immediate, naive reaction to the very varied and in my experience good NHS menus was to ask the nurse if I could actually eat chocolate and custard, salt and pepper, pork and salmon. As ridiculous as it sounded, I had come to believe that sick people had to adhere to strict self-punishing food rules that turned out to be little more than superstition. It wasn’t me: my friend Anna, also an Italian living abroad, sent a message saying: “Enjoy English hospital food!”

NHS cupcakes at Frimley Park Hospital, Surrey, UK, 2021. Photo: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Reflecting on the contrast, I came to the conclusion that it could have its origins in different legacies of religious tradition: in deeply Catholic yet happy Italy, forever torn between strict Christian morality and a Mediterranean urge to enjoy life , the sick Upon entering the hospital, a person is expected to immediately purify himself of any lust for worldly pleasures. Rubbery meat and unseasoned boiled carrots come to bedridden people as a disguised opportunity for reconciliation. The patient stoically chews the horrible food as if offering it for their sins. It is the traditional act of fioretto that they teach us as children: You promise to the saint of your choice that if they grant your wish, you will sacrifice something you really enjoy.

The implicit assumption in this story is that pleasure is sinful, and that giving it up makes sick people more likely to recover. In fact, that’s not much different from the idea of ​​’good death’ in Victorian England. Back then, when the end of life approached, people gave up attachment to the mundane to prepare for the bliss of the hereafter.

Of course, not all people admitted to hospitals are nearing the end of their lives, but hospitals do lend money The words of Susan Sontag, are the “kingdom of the sick”. In these ambiguous purgatories that stand between life and death, food, like everything else that belongs to the “kingdom of the source”, must adapt to the new set of priorities, to the new hierarchy where small pleasures are finally revealed for what they are. : small. This reminds me of Chihiro, the heroine of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, a film rooted in Japanese folklore. Entering a new magical world that will make her grow up as a person, the spoiled girl is fed tasteless food meant to keep her from disappearing, while her greedy parents, excluded from the child’s spiritual journey, devour delicacies and indulge in therefore turn around. in pigs.

I doubt there is any hope for Italians to escape this very old (and apparently cross-cultural) tradition of hospital food reconciliation, but I do know that the next time someone I care about is admitted to a hospital, I will eat good food for will bring him. , because I now know that it is perfectly fine medically, and most likely a tonic for the patient.

skip the newsletter promotion