January 16, 2008

Code Red - food emergency

When the cover came off the plate, I realized it wasn’t there to enhance anticipation. It was to prevent retching.
It’s been a long time since I was forced to eat institutionalized food – so these words came out before I’d picked up my knife and fork:
It’s a slice of Alpo. Warmed up.
Waxed in gravy that had separated in brown globs inside diluted, gelatinous corn starch.
A blob of fake mashed potato.
And four spears of broccoli that seemed offended.
They called it meatloaf.
And I ate it….
Life gets smaller when you’re sick.
Have you noticed that? If you have the flu and you’re curled up in bed in a fetal position, your life shrink wraps around you. The farther away the news, the people, events, the less important. Your obsessions change from say, the currency market in Hong Kong, or women’s rights in Afghanistan, to orange juice.
Not from concentrate.
I noticed that on Saturday. For the second time in my life I had to go to emergency…the first time I was four, enjoying my favourite post-grocery shopping treat of the week: french fries and Coke with my bof. (Okay we didn’t shop for food as much as spin ourselves sick on the railings of the grocery cart corral.) She and I started wrassling and I twisted my arm in the back of the chair, screamed, then whimpered heroically all the way to the hospital – where they made us wait so long, I was fine by the time they x-rayed it. I remember coming home bummed because I was castless. Casts on the arm were cool…they indicated adventure. To a four year old.
This time the emergency room and I got intimate because I developed a fever – and on chemo (I’m 2/3 of the way through) – that’s a no-no. I didn’t want to be a patient. I’ll tolerate outpatient. Not patient. I think it makes me feel too vulnerable. I hate feeling vulnerable. No wait. I hate being out of control – think of the back of the gown alone – it just screams: here is a specimen.
So, chemo attacks any rapidly-dividing cells – unfortunately including my white blood cells which fight infection. They become what Rumsfeld or Cheney would call medical collateral damage. Doing harm to do good.
They had pounded into me that if my temperature hit 38 degrees Celsius (100 F) I wasn’t to call or wait or anything. Just get to ER. So we did. And there I stayed – four days until my immune system showed it could behave itself.
I may have dreaded the idea, but I was grateful to be there.
But what gives hospitals the right to twist that gratitude by admitting you and then serving you Alpo and calling it meatloaf?
Or chicken noodle casserole? Sunday night.
Or pork goulash? Monday night (I ordered the vegetables alone).
All meals whose ingredients have more in common with a lab than the soil.
Food that's beyond life support. That gave up trying. That never had a chance.
We joked about it in our room. There were three of us.
While I was there one of my penmates heard that she had won a bed at the particular palliative care centre she wanted to die in. She almost cried with joy. Life had shrink-wrapped around her tight.
She looked a little older than I. Not much. After two rounds of chemo, she told them to stop. Her skin was just starting to tinge yellow – that stealthy, creeping sign.
She obsessed about the tiniest, molecular-sized things. Her clock was angled incorrectly. She stopped a nurse to have him turn the waste basket the other way. Her bed pads were wrong. The curtain was too far along. Her light had to be on. She didn't read. She didn't have a tv. And she stayed awake all night, like an owl. Waiting.
She had been there since before fall had turned to winter.
Her friends and family visited every day, bringing her what she wanted – a submarine sandwich one night (the night I had the Alpo, which was just unfair) – a cheeseburger and onion rings from their teenaged hangout joint the next night.
I laid there listening from behind the curtain that I shrouded around myself trying not to let in what this third-floor ward meant. Steve and I walked around one morning only to come across a priest, holding his book in front, leaning on the wall, looking at the floor, his sacrament collar dangling, as he waited to deliver last rites. And even over the incredible din of the overwhelmed nurses' station, you could hear the weeping from somewhere. We turned back. Down another hall, another family with young kids gathered around another bed, the husband saying it was going from hour to hour. His wife is, if she still is, 43.
That, my dears, is too close. I like the world of denial much better. We walked over to the cardiology floor…
So, knowing I was escaping to come home, knowing I’d be able to sink and drown the smell of the hospital in a perfumed bath, knowing that I’d feel the weight and security of my down duvet, and knowing that I could make my own dinner with ingredients that were loved and respected, not institutionalized/brutalized and processed into the “shape” of short back ribs, no bones! (yes, my first night there)…I found myself wandering through my cookbook collection and free-floating recipes to find the most fundamental recipe I could offer – that represents love, respect, comfort and life.
Here it is – for you.
My Mum’s Yorkshire Puddings
vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups milk (Mum uses 1 or 2%)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Take a 12- cup muffin tin and pour enough vegetable oil (canola is my Mum's preference) into each cup to coat the bottom (she uses about 1 tsp per)
Put the tin in the oven to heat up.

Meanwhile, whip together the eggs. Then add the flour, salt and milk. Beat until smooth.

Carefully remove the tin from the oven and again, carefully pour the mixture into each cup filling about 1/2 to 2/3 full. If the oil doesn't sizzle, it's not hot enough.

Put them back in the oven for approximately 15-25 minutes. They should puff up and turn a beautiful golden colour.

Remove from oven and put into a serving dish - and take to your table groaning with roast beef and horseradish and vegetables and gravy.

Do what we always did as kids, when you get one or two or three on your plate, pour gravy into the well that formed in the centre. And devour.

If there are any left over, and if you like cold leftovers, these are beautiful with jam the next morning.

Yorkshire puddings - fundamental. From my Mum's big, loving (and non-shrink wrapped) heart to yours.


Julie said...

Being in the hospital sounds grim, even before considering the food.

I'm so glad you're back home and your mother's Yorkshire pudding sounds like exactly what you need to put the memory of hospital food behind you.

Stay healthy, and here's to staying out of the hospital!

Anonymous said...

Glad your back home in more familiar and pleasant surroundings.

I hear the fois gras is excellent in Sunnybrook hospital. You must have stayed someplace else? :)

Tox Man