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Cheap Eats: The Cafeteria At The Short Term Unit At McLean Hospital

Food: Dining Out In*

A glorified version of food served in a hospital, which has absolutely
nothing to do with this entry other than by way of contrast .

The first thing you think of when dining in Belmont is generally boring but serviceable “family” restaurants (“family” in the sense that they are filled with screaming brats who presumably have families somewhere in the restaurant); a few mediocre ethnic restaurants; or overpriced Italian fare (some good, some not – you know who you are).  Always eager to try new up-and-comings, and then blog (or even Yelp!) about them as if we have some sort of qualifications (all the while writing in the first person plural when it is really just me sitting alone in bed with my cats), we decided to venture ever deeper into the sylvan, autumnal outskirts of this bedroom community to the renowned McLean Hospital.

The once-temporary home to Sylvia Plath (killed herself, oven), Zelda Fitzgerald (died in a fire awaiting shock treatment), Ann Sexton (killed herself, vodka and CO2 poisoning), David Foster Wallace (killed himself, hanging); and Livingston Taylor (recorded an album in 1988 called Life Is Good), McLean is situated across the street from a vast community garden abundant in organically grown produce, a fact totally irrelevant to this review and the in-house fare.

The wait at The Cafeteria At The Short Term Unit (or STU) can be upwards of 2 hours, but this does not seem to deter the droves of hungry denizens that line up outside, having no other choices.  We, however, wisely arrived exactly upon it’s opening at 5 PM (though we were not surprised to see a few of the faithful already mulling around its doors to fill up on the daily special before filing up on evening meds).  After all the hype surrounding the Main Cafeteria, which has firmly secured its well-deserved reputation, boasting a passable salad bar, an (admittedly small but carefully selected) variety of Chobani yogurt, Smart Water; and “proudly serving” Starbucks coffee, we were surprised that the chefs/industrial-food-service employees behind this tried-and-true staple would venture even further off the ‘eaten path to the inpatient units, all to serve up pre-prepared meals to those unable to dine – supervised or no – in the Main Caf.

Unlike its cosmopolitan counterpart, ordering and paying is infinitely easier in the cafeteria at the STU. (N.B. STU is an acronym for Short Term Unit. The staff and patients freely employ the quip “In the STU” – pronounce: ‘stew’ – believing that the devilish double entendre never gets old.  Unfortunately, it also comes across as a desperate stab at levity in its attempt at making light of something that is in fact gravely serious and extremely depressing.)  The selection process is rustic and no-nonsense, inspired by small 20-seater trattorie or Parisian bistros.  When it comes to ordering, you don’t actually order jack shit, but take what is available. If you are smart you will indicate a “special diet” upon your arrival.  We did, telling them we were a vegetarian.  In such cases one can but hope for hummus, pita, and raw vegetables while accepting the equal likelihood of being presented with a pasta of suspect origin dreadful enough to make you reconsider why you checked yourself in here voluntarily.  As to paying, you’re not! Your insurance is (after your deductible, which was likely wiped out within an hour into your intake, so mangia!).

It’s seat-yourself-first-come-first-serve,  reminiscent of  the casual seafood restaurants hidden within the shadowy back alleys of Venice or the sushi bars that line the teeming side streets of Osaka.  After being seated, we started with a fried fish accompanied by french fries.  In the interest of clarity, I should stress that when I say we “started with,” we also “finished with”, as this was the sole offering for the evening.  The tables generally seat four, although we squeezed in five by dragging another chair to the head of one of the tables.  The initial plan was to pull two tables together and make one longer table so as to facilitate group dining, but alas the tables are ingeniously affixed to the floor, simultaneously underscoring the institutional charm of the dining room while preventing anyone from creating a makeshift battering ram.  After one of us tried the fish, it was pronounced shit.  Very few of us ate it at all (myself included – I would not have  touched it wearing rubber gloves and a condom).  Spending a full minute and a half contemplating the a la carte green beans in a blissful but puzzled Seroquel haze that probably made the server a bit uncomfortable, I opted instead for one of the Nature Valley granola bars (Oats ‘n’ Honey flavor), always available in the drawers with the salt, pepper, and sugar packets (sorry Ladies, no Sugar In The Raw, so be sure to bring in a hand-full from the “outside” or pocket some from the Main Caf. if and when your privileges are raised and you are allowed to go on supervised walks).  The granola bars I topped, using plastic knives that could not cut through jelly, with peanut butter, available in single serving packets one drawer down.

The shiny, shitty entree was  pronounced “shiny” and “shit” by the one person who tried it and who, despite the fact that this is a mental hospital, we all believed unconditionally.

We attempted to finish with dessert, which turned out to be the very fruit left over from breakfast (I recognized the exact placement of the sticker on a particularly small and sad apple, having studied that as well for an uncomfortably long period of time).  Recalling that the whole batch seemed rather tired and mealy eight hours ago, we instead investigated the plastic coffee carafe for any dregs of what is, at its freshest, bad coffee mixed with equally bad decaf and hot water.  Alas, no joy.  (Sad emoticon face.)  The carafe had been empty for the larger portion of the afternoon.  At this point many turned to the Salada Orange Pekoe tea for caffeine sustenance, or Diet Pepsi brought back from the Main Caf. during a supervised walk.  I instead opted to engage in desperate, pathetic bargaining with an emotionally and physically compromised patient suffering nausea and stomach pain after ECT treatment for one of her Starbucks Via packets, marking a low point in my life as it pertains to coffee (or vice versa).  The negotiations and supplications proved successful upon promising her I would score her a genuine Grande Skinny Latte from The Green Mermaid herself the following afternoon, to be brought in from the outside (which I did, and which she didn’t end up wanting due to continued stomach pain, and which I then drank, and which caused me stomach pain – I just can’t involve skim milk in anything).

While service was cut off a bit abruptly – the gentleman with the food trolly wheeled it away before any of us could have stopped him, were we to have tried, which we didn’t.  In fine spirits, we left the Cafeteria at the STU eager for our evening meds and PRNs (whether we really needed them or not, the pro re nata is a desert in itself).  Reflecting upon our dining experience that evening at The Cafeteria At The STU, we were indeed confident of one thing: we would be back – first thing in the morning.

I insert this picture solely in the interest of further depressing the reader. A quick Google search for “hospital food” yielded  this very image several times.  I did not  investigate further.

*(David Curcio has no qualifications for writing about food.  Nor, for that matter, does any food writer.)

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One Response

  1. It’s amazing. Many people will agree with you here. Nice writing style.

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