It’s 1:30 p.m. on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. You’re on call, and hungry, and having not had the forethought to make food ahead of time, you decide you’ll take your chances and see what the hospital cafeteria has to offer. You bustle your way past screaming children, harried caregivers, and distracted hospital staff with their heads buried in smartphones, following signs for the fork and knife.
Finally, you arrive. After considering the stack of soaking wet trays to your left, you decide to forego this piece of gastronomical technology. You’ll rough it.
The room before you does little to whet your appetite. A smell of fatty decay and sweet sepsis wafts through the cafeteria. It is a hospital, after all. Although ostensibly well lit, the room is actually somewhat dark. The fluorescent lights tasked with illuminating the room emit weak, yellowish, lazy blobs of haze that seem to quit about a foot away from the bulb. But you’re hungry, and light or no light, you’ll have to find something to nourish you.
Suddenly, you see it. A large wall-based refrigerated display case. In it are various “healthy” pre-wrapped foods bathed in crisp white lights. This is the land of salads and yogurts. Of apples and ham sandwiches. Of — could it be? — yes — sushi. Hospital sushi.
“No, no. This can’t be right. There can’t be sushi here,” you think. “This is a hospital. It is a building filled with people that die from horrible bacterial infections. Bacteria like Salmonella and E coli. Resistant super-bacteria like methacillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, vancomycin-resistent Enterococcus, and multi-drug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Why would anyone in their right minds put raw fish in a place like this?”
You instinctively walk away from the refrigerated display case. “No, no” you keep muttering to yourself. “It can’t be.” Your legs carry you away faster than you expect. You wind up in front of the American Classics section of the lunch line. “Finally,” you think, “some sanity and order. I’m getting pizza.”
You inspect the pizza more closely as it rotates in a glass display case that was last cleaned by an industrial revolution era British chimney sweep. The cheese drips off in uneven glops. The crust comprises fully half of the surface area of the pizza. You see a solitary piece of pepperoni dangling from the edge of one of the slices, wishing its life away as it stares into the abyss. You feel solidarity with the pepperoni. Your heart sinks.
Your gaze turns down the aisle, to see what other American classics might entice you. It’s slim pickings. There are several unattended serving stations with steel serving trays of water simmering gently. A pile of chicken wings catches your eye, but so does the ocean of oil that it is currently buoyed in. How difficult would it be to get actual food in this place, you wonder, half-aloud.
Your phone vibrates. You pick it up. It’s a Facebook notification. Your friend Taylor just posted a picture of a bowl of ramen, two tall glasses of beer, and an inviting, sunlit outdoor restaurant. “I love Saturdays!” she exclaims virtually. Your blood pressure begins to rise, and you hear the faint rumble of a train engine. You never considered how wise Emperor Palpatine was when he mentored Anakin in the Star Wars prequels. You feel the hate flowing through you.
You turn back to the sushi. Sushi, a delicate culinary art. A masterpiece of local cuisine. The pride of a nation. The height of sophisticated, savory splendor. “It’s trapped,” you think to yourself. You begin to feel sympathy for the sushi. After all, it didn’t decide to reside in this grotesque carnival of inedible calories. It was brought, against its will, to this horrible place.
“Maybe,” you think, “if I purchase it, I will send a message to the establishment. I’ll make a statement that, while I agree in principle with what this food stands for, it makes absolutely no sense to serve raw fish in a hospital full of bacteria. I support the concept of this type of food. If I buy it, I’m laying the groundwork for change.”
You pick up the tray of sushi. Salmon avocado. It’s $8.99. The pizza was $2.99, but you just can’t bring yourself to go back. Some things can never be unseen. You desperately hope that the pepperoni is still hanging in there, still fighting, but you can’t bring yourself to look. You can’t imagine what that little pepperoni has been through.
You walk to the check out counter. “Just the sushi?” the clerk asks. “Yes,” you say, “I would like to have this raw fish, please.” Behind you stands a man with an IV pole. His foot is heavily bandaged. The smell emanating from the bandages would have been fairly effective as a nerve gas in the first World War. Your mood sinks.
You walk to an empty table, and open the sushi tray. You remove the Green Plastic Plant-Like Divider™ that separates the sushi from the soy sauce. You open the soy sauce, but in doing so squirt some on to your (formerly) white coat. Another casualty. You unsheath your chop sticks. You breathe deeply, but are instantly reminded by your olfactory bulb that you are in a building where people consistently die.
Chopsticks quivering, you reach down to pick up the first piece. You can see it fully in the light now, and you note that there is actually more salmon there than you first thought. You muse briefly on how you’ve been to sushi places before that were more stingy with their fish rationing.
The first bite. You chew apprehensively. You swallow. Slowly, very slowly, you realize that you are enjoying it. The salt interacts with the raw fish beautifully, unlocking its flavor. You are dumbfounded when you realize you’ve had worse sushi than this before. You go in for the second piece, then the third. A helpful pile of ginger allows you to reset your palate, making the fourth piece seem like the first all over again.
You finish your sushi. The ginger and wasabi work wonders in blocking your nose’s receptive capabilities. Suddenly, a thought begins to blossom in you. Bigger and bigger it grows. It enters your conscience with force, and you stand suddenly, asking yourself — Am I full?
You walk back to the display case. There sits another one. Salmon avocado. You pick it up. It’s still $8.99. You turn it back and forth, examining its contents through the clear plastic. You decide you’re mostly full, and put it down. You walk away from the cafeteria, the salmon flavor still dancing over your taste buds. I am content, you think. I am full.
Ben Gold is a physician who blogs at his self-titled site, Ben Gold, M.D.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com