How (not) to Feed the Sick


The morning’s Styrofoam tray held a hardboiled egg knocking against a tiny plastic cup of soggy fruit cocktail.  A slice of while bread anchored a corner, its wrapping extolling the absence of trans fat but the presence of enriched bleached flour and a bunch of chemicals I can’t pronounce.

Noon arrived accompanied by two slabs of cooked beef on a roll, another fruit cup and one more roll.

Dinner was a salty Salisbury steak, buried under floury gravy.  However, good news on the side’s front: the hash browns were acceptable and the carrots were almost fresh, not too watery. Two stale chocolate chip cookies stood in for dessert.

No one expects hospital food good hospital. Anyway, I wasn’t very hungry.  Still, lying in the ICU surrounded by all its beeps and moans,  I was in great need of assurance my body would mend and get out of there. A little cup of port wine jelly would sooth my nerves, or a clear consommé coaxed from marrow bones would provide strength, if only to sit up.  How hard would it be to serve delicately poached chicken or fish—just a bit, no more than a sliver dampened with white wine?  Finally, in the middle of summer, with a fine fresh produce market just down the street from the hospital, couldn’t a small plum be stewed until its natural sweetness released, its flesh softened and its flavors fortified by steeped chamomile.  Surely dishes such as these would give me something to look forward to through the long day of recuperation. How easily I would revive.

But I would have to somehow be whisked into the 19th century, possibly the early 20th, when feeding the sick was an integral part of healing.  These years saw many advances in medicine and the care of the sick—most developed from the era’s unceasing warfare.  An important aspect of care was a whole catalog of dishes and rules for how they were served, known as invalid cooking.  For the most part people were nursed at home—hospitals of the time being deadly places—and women served as nurses and cooks. Common sense formed most of the dishes, including the dictate that, no matter what a family’s economics were, only the freshest of ingredients used to ensure the highest nutrition and little risk of contamination.  My Salisbury steak in its coagulating gravy, for instance, was close to poison for its heaviness on a weakened stomach and the questionable quality of its ingredients.  Finally, there was the belief that serving the dishes on a pretty tray, with the best plates in the house, perhaps accompanied by a small vase of flowers, would do much to brighten the patient’s spirits and make her feel human again.


Cookbooks of the time inevitably devoted pages to invalid recipes but many more were simply handed down as part of a young girl’s household training.  The first time I came upon them was in used bookstores when I was caring for my mother-in-law and my own parents.  I found recipes in private papers, in oral history and in my own relative’s reminiscence of a time when a tray with one or two good smelling dishes enticed them to eat and build their strength back up.

I was realistic when a wrote a book from my research.  Hospital were not going to change their ways. Our lives are not conducive to the careful stirring and straining that many of the dishes required. But I wanted the book to be reminder of the central role food plays in healing our loved ones. 

That stuff on the plastic tray given to me in the ICU was so far below what I needed for me to walk out of the ICU sooner than I did.  Lait de poule (a thin custard drink flavored with orange flower water), or Scutari broth (cracked veal marrow bones, a handful of cabbage and chervil spring), and finally a cocoa cordial before bedtime (Dutch processed cocoa, a tablespoon or three of port wine) certainly would.

To read more, consider reading my book, A Soothing Broth, or finding recipes of your own in any old cookbook. skill

Published by

pat willard

Grew up in Philadelphia. Live in Brooklyn. Written four books best described as about memory and cultural history, food and some pretty good recipes. Works in progress may be viewed at

3 thoughts on “How (not) to Feed the Sick”

  1. I do hope you feel better soon; so sorry
    to hear you are going through all this.
    I love “A Soothing Broth” ; too bad hospitals don’t take a cue from
    the old recipes.


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