In Italy, we live to eat. But tasty NHS meals put our bland hospital food to shame | Viola Di Grado

In Italy, we live to eat. But tasty NHS meals put our bland hospital food to shame | Viola Di Grado

I was born into a family with little love for food, and therefore scarcely Italian: I grew up with salads and overcooked pasta and two parents who looked at eating as nothing more than a necessary compromise to survive. Only as an adult did I discover that food was indeed a source of satisfaction, and that in Italy in particular it was associated with hospitality, conviviality and good feelings in general. As one of our most noted writers, Elsa Morante, put it: “The truest display of affection, the only one indeed, is ‘Have you eaten?’” That’s right: not the decrepit, abstract “I love you”, but a concerned question about your dear one having had a meal or not.

There is only one place where this food-cherishing narrative fails, and it’s the hospital. As every Italian knows, as soon as you’re admitted as a patient, the opulence of tastes is replaced with miserable food worthy of a medieval jail. The meals served to patients not only lack variety (you can count on one hand the available options throughout the year) but are chewy, hard and strictly devoid of any taste or seasoning. So widespread is this practice, with no exceptions (even, as far as I know, in expensive private clinics) that no one has ever wondered where it came from. In fact, I hadn’t, either until last summer.

I was admitted to a London hospital for a chest infection. To my surprise, a very nice member of staff came round every day to show me a menu and let me choose between different options: all complex, tasty dishes drawing on different culinary traditions. While stuffing myself with scrumptious tikka masalas and delicious Asian sweet-and-sour dishes, I started questioning why, in my home country, the experience for me (and everyone else) had been so different.

When I think of the times my loved ones have been in hospital (both public and private), my mind is filled with watery fruit jellies, pale chicken breasts as tough as winter boots and mountains of flabby, unidentifiable vegetables. If you wonder how I experienced this food even though I wasn’t myself a patient, it’s because a patient’s loved ones will often partake of the miserable munching to spare them the horror.

My immediate, naive response to the very varied, and in my experience good, NHS menus was to ask the nurse if I was actually allowed to eat chocolate and custard, salt and pepper, pork and salmon. As much as it sounded ridiculous, I had been made to believe that sick people had to abide by strict self-punishing food rules that turned out to be little more than superstition. It wasn’t just me: my friend Anna, also an Italian living abroad, messaged saying: “Enjoy English hospital food!”

NHS cupcakes at Frimley Park hospital, Surrey, UK, 2021. Photograph: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Reflecting on the contrast, I came to the conclusion that it may have its origins in different legacies of religious tradition: in deeply Catholic yet happy-go-lucky Italy, forever torn between strict Christian morality and a Mediterranean urge to savour life, the sick person is required to immediately purge themselves of any lust for worldly pleasures on entering the hospital. Rubbery meat and unseasoned boiled carrots come to the bed-ridden as a disguised opportunity for atonement. The patient stoically chews the awful foods as if they are offering them up for their sins. It’s the traditional act of fioretto that they teach us as kids: you promise to the saint of your choice that if they grant your wish, you’ll sacrifice something you really like.

The implicit assumption in this narrative is that pleasure is sinful, and so giving it up will make sick people more likely to recover. In fact, that is not very different from the notion of “good death” in Victorian England. Back then, when approaching the end of life, one would give up attachment to the mundane in order to prepare for the bliss of the afterlife.

Of course, not all people who are admitted to hospitals are approaching the end of their lives, but hospitals, to borrow Susan Sontag’s words, are the “kingdom of the sick”. In these ambiguous purgatories that stand between life and death, food, like anything else belonging to the “kingdom of the well”, has to adapt to the new set of priorities, to the new hierarchy where small pleasures are finally revealed for what they are: small. This reminds me of Chihiro, the heroine of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, a movie rooted in Japanese folklore. When entering a new magical world that will make her grow up as a person, the spoiled little girl is given tasteless food that is meant to keep her from disappearing, while her greedy parents, excluded from the child’s spiritual journey, devour delicacies and therefore turn into pigs.

skip past newsletter promotion

I doubt there’s hope, for Italians, to escape this very old (and apparently cross-cultural) tradition of hospital-food atonement, but I do know that the next time someone I care about is admitted to a hospital I will bring them good food, because I now know that it is medically perfectly fine, and most likely a tonic for the patient.