A worm’s eye view of hospital food in Covid times

By Andrew Newby 3 September 2021

Macaroni alla Boitumelo. (Photo: Andrew Newby)

When a cheesemaker and occasional food writer lands up in hospital, it’s time to check out the dreaded food. From the inside.

Andrew Newby

Hospital food was not on my thoughts as we sped along the R59 to Sasolburg’s Metsimaholo District Hospital. Staying alive was uppermost in my thoughts as my wife Heidi piloted the car through the Highveld winter darkness.

We’d left our farm on the Vaal in indecent haste; me gasping and spluttering for more air while Heidi had thrown together a few essentials along with a GSD (German Shepherd Dog, there always has to be a dog). As we approached the lights of Sasolburg I could feel Siggi’s warm pants on the back of my neck. For him this was infinitely more interesting than going to bed early. But I could feel that it was going to be a close call.

And it was. My dramatic hospital entrance revealed itself to be a real TV-style ER drama. I collapsed muttering “I can’t breathe” (even in my confusion I was aware that someone else had said much the same thing fairly recently and the story had ended badly for him. But I couldn’t, for the life of me, recall who he’d been). Heidi had a short sharp dispute with the duty doctor and, outside, Siggi had taken the liberty of hopping out of the car left open-doored and was chasing hospital security guards off their own turf.

The following morning I woke up in a hospital bed with lots of oxygen streaming into my head to the words: “Tea and bread.” They were from a bumptious youth in checked trousers, tight shirt and sneakers holding out a steaming mug and a saucer bearing a slice of quartered white bread.

“Tea and bread?” I enquired feebly. “It’s still dark outside.” He shrugged and walked off jauntily, secure in the knowledge that ready takers were not far.

Tea and bread. That was my first introduction to hospital food in this saga. Of course I’ve been exposed to the food of the many hospitals that I’ve lain down in over the decades: Addington, Entebeni, Greys… even 1 Mil. in Pretoria. At one time in my very early years I’d yearned for it, deludedly so, but as kids we believed that a tonsillectomy at Grahamstown’s Settlers Hospital entitled an eight-year-old to as much jelly, ice cream and custard as he could eat.

But if you’d asked me about hospital food prior to that desperate Sasolburg run I would have replied that I was, at best, non-committal.

This first impression was negative. I mean, who eats a slice of white bread spread parsimoniously with golden syrup along with a mug of weak tea whitened with evaporated milk and sweetened with three spoons of sugar at 5 o’clock in the morning?

“Not me,” I resolved stuffily in my strange bed. “Left that kind of thing behind in the army a long time ago.” But I would be thinking back to tea and bread quite fondly in the not too distant future.

The food at the Sasolburg hospital wasn’t too bad. It didn’t take me long to realise that it was an institution where pap ruled when it came to matters culinary. At breakfast it was mielie pap, oats pap or Maltabella pap. It arrived not exactly piping hot, but certainly not cold. A stiffer form of mielie pap came in the middle of the day and again in the late afternoon, lightly smothered with a cabbage, carrot or tomato gravy, sometimes accompanied by a small piece of chicken, fragments of beef or pre-battered over-fried reconstituted fish. I seem to remember a sausage of some kind.

There are people who like Maltabella porridge which is milled from sorghum, one of Africa’s handful of indigenous grains. I really do believe that there are some out there, but I’ve never been a fan. In fact, five years of boarding school breakfasts and countless servings in the army extinguished any bond I might have had with the porridges of the world. But I would have to get with the programme or starve.

Maltabella. (Photo: Andrew Newby)

The size of the portions relegated them to the Oliver Twist category. But in those early days at Sasolburg it didn’t matter too much because I was too sick to want much more. Meals were delivered by Bumptious Youth with a curious mix of charm and cheek. He knew that his wares were not silver service fare, but he seemed to believe that if he served them up cheerfully and in good faith, he would be making up for at least some of their shortcomings.

It was on about the third day that I started feeling hungry. Tea and bread was as usual offered as a very early morning snack because breakfast was still three hours away and to my surprise I found myself slurping up hot, milky sweet tea and trying not to gobble up my white bread quarters too quickly. Then at around 9pm, four hours after the evening meal, there I was at the tea and bread again, beginning to believe that this was indeed a civilised ritual. My imagination got the better of me: fantasies of living on the Subcontinent in Raj times, indulged with Bed Tea served by Bumptious Youth who’d transmogrified into a tiffin wallah. The problem was that as I recovered from my ER collapse I was getting increasingly hungrier and the hospital portions were minuscule.

My stay at Sasolburg’s state hospital lasted not quite a week. After some dithering as to how to how my condition should be alleviated it was decided to send me on to Kroonstad where there might be more specialised medical input on tap. So I was packed into a smart Free State Health Services ambulance and whisked down the N1 to be deposited at Boitumelo District Hospital. On arrival I sat for the following 12 hours on the side of a bed in casualty without oxygen or food before being admitted to a general ward. But that’s another story for another day.

I was, understandably, quite peckish when I was finally settled into the ward at around 6.30am. “Do you think that it’s possible for me to have something to eat?” I asked the male nurse, hopefully, trusting that it didn’t sound too much like a whine. “I haven’t eaten anything for more than 24 hours.”

“No, it’s impossible,” he replied firmly. “Breakfast is coming up from the kitchen in two hours.”

That was my introduction to Boitumelo’s food offerings.

Hippocrates is said to have once remarked: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.” But if he did ever say such a thing and if there is even a grain of truth in it, those folk down in Boitumelo’s kitchen have either never heard of the old Greek geezer or just plain disregard his advice.

Breakfast when it came on that first morning in Kroonstad consisted of a small bowl containing a dollop of ice cold Maltabella pap, grudgingly dusted with sugar and marginally boosted with not more than a thimble of milk.

And so I learned that on most occasions Boitumelo’s food generally rates with prison food, military field kitchen issue, refugee camp meals and that which is served up at remote boarding schools populated by naughty and/or unwanted children.

“Any tea on the go?” I asked the nurse. He looked at me as if I’d just ordered a double of Johnny Walker Black Label so I decided not to pursue the matter.

Over the following few days I was ECG’d, X-rayed and set upon by harpies with needles to extract numerous vials of blood from unwilling veins. Then a well-groomed doctor in smart calf-length black boots informed me that there was little that could be done In Kroonstad so I was to be forwarded on to Bloemfontein where cardiologists hang out.

“But first you must be tested for Covid,” she told me firmly. “They won’t take anyone with Covid there.”

“But I tested negative in Sasolburg last week. I had two tests,” I protested.

“Anything can happen,” she said. And it did. I knew my immediate fate when a strange nurse, wearing pandemic PPE, arrived.

“We go to different ward,” she said, wheeling me, bed and all, out of the room.

“I failed my test?” I asked miserably.

Aye. You Covid patient now. Don’t worry you not die. We fix you.”

As I rattled down gleaming long corridors, in and out of lifts and finally past a sign which proclaimed “Restricted  Entry-Covid Ward”, the realisation that I had been infected by the virus within the hospital system sunk in. My thoughts were awhirl with words like comorbidities, vulnerable old men and ventilators. My bed was pushed into an empty slot and I fell into a dreamless sleep for several hours.

I awoke with both nasal cannula and a full-face mask forcing oxygen-enriched air into my lungs, not knowing where I was. My confusion was exacerbated by the most dreadful din but I was too weak to sit up and investigate its source. Covid was kicking in.

The commotion was dominated by a man’s voice, talking very loudly in seSotho and sometimes Afrikaans. There were other voices – female ones – like those you hear in electronic game shows. Some of them shouted back in response to the male voice, scolding and bold. A third element consisted of ragged snatches of hip hop and rap interspersed with crooning. Eventually I summoned sufficient strength to sit up.

A huge man propped up in his bed on the other side of the room was regarding me balefully. He was guzzling orange-coloured cheese pops at a phenomenal rate with one hand and in the other held a large smartphone. Clearly he believed in communicating at full strength on speaker phone at all times. That was the source of the noise. When a nurse next visited to check my oxygen flows I asked if it wasn’t against hospital rules to make such an outrageously and consistently loud commotion in a Covid ward? But she said nothing except “lala” which I did for several more hours.

I soon came to call the big man Georgie, after Georgie Zamdela the township rogue and sometime gangster of Isidingo TV series fame. This Georgie appeared to live a parallel existence: one in this scary Covid half-world and the other in a paradoxically virtual one via the portal of his cellphone. Through this device he would spend day and night accessing the various aspects of the life he’d been living prior to hospitalisation. He would shout at girlfriends tardy in tuck deliveries, switching his phone to video to validate the emptiness of the cold drink and yoghurt bottles that littered his surrounds.

“Empty… empty, empty, empty,” he would grumble, honing the phone’s camera lens on to each vessel as he pronounced its status.

Aye… aye, aye, aye,” the girlfriend would respond.

Georgie always had food. Parcels arrived daily and their contents were certainly not what a nutritionist might describe as health food. “Bring vir my double Russians and chips, sweetness,” he would shout down his phone. “Maak seker hul’s warm, jy weet ek wil warm kos eet.” Not for him watered-down, cold sorghum soft porridge or equally chilled disks of stywepap and cabbage gravy.

He had a tea kit consisting of a thermos flask with containers filled with tea bags, sugar, powdered milk and a mug. The nurses with mysterious and somewhat puzzling compliance would fill his flask up on order with boiling water from their kettle. Oh, how I envied Georgie as he slurped his way through numerous mugs of hot sweet tea through the day and night. I was starting to notice the unsettling psychological effects generated throughout the ward by this inevitable contrast of much tasty food and minute helpings of spare flavourless fare all in a relatively small space. I could see that the others in the room were resenting him not only for his non-stop noise but also because of the abundance of food that he was continuously scarfing down. And the tea-making was clearly regarded as unfair and excessive – mostly because we had no tea at all.

It was over a period when the kitchen appeared to be struggling with not only the quality and quantity of basic ingredients, but also the distribution of meals. Previously they were served cling-wrapped onto small plastic dinner plates. Then they were bought on side plates similarly wrapped and finally the meals started arriving on saucers. Sometimes it would also come in polystyrene takeaway containers.

To everyone’s relief Georgie was eventually declared Covid-free and well enough for the doctor to sign his discharge papers. As he was wheeled out bellowing on his phone, an orange rolled out from his bedclothes. Georgie had never struck me as a fruit eater and it was easy to see why he’d neglected its existence. It rolled over to my side of the room and, as nimbly as I could under the circumstances, hopped out of bed and put it on my bedside table, hoping that the nurses wouldn’t claim it as patient booty.

Although I didn’t miss the shouting and brazen consumption, I must confess that I missed the interest factor that Georgie brought to the ward after he’d departed. Apart from all of his various girlfriends he also communicated with a sort of Dial-A-Pastor service which I never quite got to the bottom of. It seemed to involve an unctuous-voiced Sotho, absolution, the dispensation of comfort and lots of female American gospel singing. During these conversations Georgie would sob piteously and enquire as to the immediate direction of his future. “Ons is almal kinders van God,” he told me in one of the few conversations that we had.

Food occupied my mind for many of my waking hours. Not unlike a World War II concentration camp inmate I would conjure up visions of what I would buy given the hypothetical opportunity of choosing 10 items that I most fancy. The most incongruous things popped up on my wishlist: buttered toast and Marmite, a Reuben Sandwich, chocolate Jelly Tots, a mutton mince samoosa, chilled grapes, a curry pie, and digestive biscuits. But cold slop remained the order of the day.

Then like General French who with his cavalry relieved the 124-day Siege of Kimberly, my spare diet was broken with the arrival of a parcel from my brother in Cape Town. From Goodwood’s Pick n Pay via Aramex’s instore courier facility to the security gates of Boitumelo Hospital in Kroonstad; the package contained sliced beef biltong, some dried fruit goodies and a few nougat bars.

What heaven. I could lie in bed and slowly nibble on slice after moist slice of the finest biltong in the land. My food anxieties dissipated and I found myself no longer being offended by pap and all the guises it came in. I started reminding myself that without bad food, a person cannot really appreciate good food. Like most things in life there is a positive and a negative, a yin and a yang which generally serve to make the world go round. Perhaps we entitled humans take too much for granted and have too many expectations, I told myself wisely.

While pondering the existential aspects of hospital food an arrival was parked alongside to become my newest neighbour. He had a massive head and lay like a giant upturned beetle, face covered by a full oxygen bag delivery setup, waving his arms erratically and moaning.

As twilight darkened into night the moans became louder, eventually turning into pleas.

“Please,” he would shout and rip his oxygen mask free. “Please, please, please.”

The night sister, a lady who is not in the habit of taking prisoners and exudes a type of Rosa Klebb menace, was having none of it.

“You want to die?” she demanded. “You take your oxygen and you eat your food.” His cling-wrapped saucer stood untouched as testimony to his wilfulness.

“Please,” he gurgled.

“What is it you want?” asked Rosa.

“Freedom,” he shouted.

“Freedom is not part of my job,” she shouted back. “My job is to make you live and if you don’t start behaving I am going to tie you up so that you cannot remove your oxygen.”

“Cold water,” he screamed as she paddled out of the ward.

Later that night in the small hours I awoke to really desperate entreaties. That huge head had swivelled around to face Georgie’s orange sitting on my bedside table.

“Oranges,” he shouted suddenly. Tentatively I unhooked my drip and oxygen, climbed out of bed, picked up the orange and went around to the other side of his bed. The sight of a Frankensteinian monster-in-the-making rattled me. The body trunk corresponded proportionately to the head, being almost as wide as it was long. But curiously the upper and lower limbs were short, further adding to the image of a beetle on its back. Huge eyes stared at me but I was unsure as to whether they were actually seeing me. And true to her word, Rosa Klebb had tied his hands to the bed railings.

“Um, excuse me, would you like an orange?” I said, proffering the fruit, prepared to peel it for him.

“Cold water!” he shrieked so loudly that I was sure that Rosa Klebb had heard and would catch me out of bed. Like a guilty boarding school child I scuttled back fervently hoping that I hadn’t precipitated a scolding.

When I woke up at dawn, the orange was gone. It couldn’t have been taken by my tied-up shouting neighbour so I guessed that it had been snaffled by a hungry Covid fellow patient, craving fresh, sweet and vitamins.

Shortly afterwards in the notorious Covid tradition, my taste and smell senses evaporated. Poof… gone just like that. The consequence of these deprivations was insidious: at first I didn’t really notice that anything was missing. But then I realised that my mieliepap and gravy that had previously tasted awful now tasted of nothing and had become truly horrible. My taste buds were on the blink and despite their valiant attempts to snare vague flavour swirls concealed somewhere in the substrates of slush, they were unsuccessful.

I searched for sweetness in my pap, my tongue exploring for errant sugar crystals and found a few. But it was like mouthing sand grains in slurry.

I knew that hot was out of the question because prior to my taste failing me I’d longed for the aromatic sharpness of black pepper or more earthy white pepper tones on my mush but had been disappointed. As for chilli… anything capsicum was always going to be dead in the water in this neck of the woods; the Boitumelo cooks in their quest for quintessential bland would never in their wildest dreams play around with such dangerous stuff. I mean, this is hospital food. Right?

As for salty; well, the cooks in question had clearly and unilaterally placed all patients, irrespective of condition, on a low-salt diet – regardless of whether needed or not. In my palate-compromised state I know that I crave salt, probably even need it. But the taste of salt is frustratingly absent. This remains one of the biggest issues that I face in my current predicament.

As far as cool is concerned, I experimented while brushing my teeth. My Colgate yields sporadic bursts of mint in unexpected places around my palate. But only toothpaste appears to elicit such a response.

On bitter or sour I can’t really comment. There’s no tea or coffee here so it’s difficult to talk about such things. What I do know is that I miss the bitterness of the beverages made more complex by the myriad complex aromatics released in their respective processes. I certainly would not be able to discern and enjoy that marvellous sour flavour of mango achar right now.

And finally, umami, that savoury, meaty taste that’s raised its profile in recent times among foodies who know. I could just make out a hint of umami in my brother’s biltong before I swallowed the final slice. But when it comes to looking for umami in Boitumelo’s kitchen’s offerings it’s lamentably spare, even if your taste buds are normal. If they’re Covid-compromised then everything becomes a futile exercise.

The villain of the piece here is that venerable contraption so revered by industrial and institutional catering kitchens, the double-jacket oil cooker. Super-heated transfer oil situated in the jacket space of a stainless steel receptacle pressure-cooks raw ingredients, without discretion, into mush, in a jiffy. The cooks ensure that their cookers do exactly that. What starts off as probably perfectly good beef or chicken ends up as stringy, fibrous shreds, and so the cooks succeed in their mission of relieving the disintegrated flesh of any umami that might have ever lurked there in the first place.

By now you may well be saying that a person doesn’t go to a state hospital for a Michelin eating experience. You go there to be healed. If things are so dismal in the culinary department, then why don’t you dig deeper in your pockets and book into a Mediclinic or Netcare facility where such things as menus and hot food are the order of the day?

True, but at the time I had little choice in the matter and suddenly found myself deep in the Free State Health Services system. Besides, my pockets are not so deep that I really have many choices.

However, I’m grateful for the treatment that I have received. I might get a bit hungry but I haven’t perished from starvation. All I would really like to do is get into that kitchen downstairs, kick some ass, and remind those cooks about what Hippocrates said.

It’s been a month now and I still can’t smell or taste properly. But I’m out of the Covid Ward and in the Male General Ward, awaiting a cardiology slot in Bloemfontein. 

A luta continua! DM/TGIFood


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  • Dear Andrew Newby, with apologies at having hugely enjoyed your account of your awful predicament, thank you for managing to extract some entertainment from a dire situation. Hope the food has improved (if only by way of further parcels sent by concerned family members…). Your article underscores the distressing issue of inadequate (to say the very least) hospital food within the bigger picture of medical “care” and, more broadly, public-health nutrition. Clearly a matter in need of serious attention. In the meantime, best wishes for a full recovery, including revived taste and olfactory capacity!


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