December 10, 2019

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Hospital, rehab stays made infinitely worse by unpalatable ‘food’

A file picture of some of the food offered by the Regional Distribution Facility at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority Nutrition and Food Services.


A file picture of some of the food offered by the Regional Distribution Facility at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority Nutrition and Food Services.

I lied. And I asked others to lie for me. 

I haven’t been on holiday for most of the past month; an obsession for privacy and anonymity kept me from admitting that I was recovering from a bad fall. But the sling on my broken right arm was removed last week, and the brace from my neck (surely an instrument of torture somewhere in the world) a few days ago, and I’m on the mend.

It was all because of that red moon. At 10 p.m. I went down to my kitchen — unlit, the better to see the eclipse — but the leaves on the trees obstructed it. I thought the powder room just off the kitchen might offer a better view but in the dark I opened the door to the basement by mistake, and ended up lying on the cold cement floor below, where I remained for 12 hours, until I was rescued by my son. I spent a few days in Victoria General Hospital and then several weeks at Deer Lodge Rehab Centre.

I felt an explanation about my absence was necessary, but this column isn’t just about me. It’s about food, albeit not the kind of food I usually write about.

My desire for anonymity led me to more lies (no, I was only distantly related by marriage to that Marion Warhaft), but some of the staff knew the truth, and many of them pleaded with me to write about the food. I agonized for ages before coming to the conclusion that, if my duty has been to direct readers to good food, it was also my duty to inform them about food that was truly dreadful.

The care I received at both Victoria and Deer Lodge was wonderful, and neither place is responsible for the food served. It is all assembled and distributed by the Regional Distribution Facility, an arm of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Hospital food has always had a bad rep, but only those forced to subsist on it realize how awful it has become. It’s not the kind of awful that even the most timid diner would refuse in a restaurant; it’s the kind of awful no restaurant would dare serve. It tastes bad and what’s worse, it’s bad for you, and serving it to those in need of proper nutrition for recovery is disgraceful.

To detail the various flaws would take a book, and the following are only a few examples. Most ingredients were of low quality, and most of it had been processed, precooked, frozen and reheated. Carelessly.

To wit: flavourless, tenderized-tasting meats in bread crumbs that were zapped to mush. Pulpy, strongly fishy-tasting salmon. Dishes dubbed "Texas something or other" usually meant a few dry beef shreds which tasted left over from one or two earlier efforts, combined with sprinkles of cheese.

On rare lucky days we had pickled beets, but most often the veggies were tasteless carrot rounds or pulpy, water-logged wax and green beans or, occasionally, hard, overcooked peas and corn niblets. Salad was invariably pale head lettuce with a side packet of Kraft dressing. 

Potatoes were usually reconstituted dehydrated mounds resembling mashed, or slightly crisped wedges dubbed hash browns. I also remember stale, reheated fries and a dark, fork-resistant baked potato.

Some meals seem to have been simply slopped together, with no consideration for balance. Dishes with sides of rice were often followed by rice pudding. The dessert with one of the dreadful mini-meat pies (a few stringy bits of tasteless beef in a gravy-drenched, nuked-to-mush pastry) was a raisin tart.

The broths (with a few veggies added) were weak but potable. There was usually a pastry — invariably too sweet, and one day’s scone was raw in the middle. Sometimes, rarely, there were fresh apple slices or orange segments, but mostly our daily fruit — in an odd-tasting and somewhat slimy syrup— came in plastic containers marked Product of China. 

Patients who can rely on friends or family to bring more palatable foods are the lucky ones. There are restaurants nearby that offer food for takeout, and two in particular were oases in that desert of dreck.

China City, 1811 Portage Ave., 204-415-1103

I was the lucky recipient of an assortment of dim sum from China City, which I shared with my roommates, who had never even heard of dim sum before and who adored them. These bite-size dumplings are particularly suitable for patients, since most have delicate flavours, light textures, and are often steamed and digestible.

The selection is relatively small and the prices slightly higher than average (most $3.55 to $4.10), but the dumplings also seem seemed bigger than usual. Tops among them are the delectable seafood dumplings stuffed with both shrimp and scallops, but plump har gau shrimp dumplings; eggplant slices topped with shrimp; and slightly glutinous pan-fried shrimp cakes were also delicious.

Meat-eaters should love the pan-fried pork dumplings, the little chunks of ribs steamed with black bean sauce, and — best of all — the open-topped and ultra-meaty deluxe pork dumplings.

Captain’s Table, 1823 Portage Ave., 204-837-3474

Judging by conversations in the dining room, the dish many patients most longed for was fish and chips — previously bought at a now-closed nearby Japanese restaurant. I was able to direct them to the Captain’s Table’s fish and chips, which are among the city’s best.

The batter is thin, crisp and greaseless, and the cod, haddock and halibut all taste moist and fresh. Prices range from $10 to $12 for a single piece, $14 to $16.95 for two with relatively thin chips, and excellent coleslaw and house-made tartar sauce. A richly creamy chowder ($5 a cup, $6 a bowl) is delectable and so is the sticky toffee pudding, even when cold. I will never understand the appeal of mushy peas but for those who do, a side costs $3.


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Updated on Wednesday, November 18, 2015 at 2:46 PM CST: Adds related item.

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