Latest Jewish Chronicle piece:
FRIDAY lunchtime a few weeks back, and I’m an
emergency hospital admission. “I need kosher food,” I
told them as they folded me into bed. “Oh, we need
forty-eight hours notice,” they said. But with a
couple of phonecalls (and this was before the clocks
had changed so Fridays were still ‘short’ – it was
just three hours to Shabbat) the Hospital Kosher Meals
Services had delivered and I had food.
This is no small thing. You can be admitted to any
hospital, anywhere, and even with a tight Shabbat
deadline, you can have kosher food. So that Friday
night, though the hospital was too far from home for
any of my family to be with me, I had roast chicken
and carrots and potatoes. These things matter, and I
applaud the Hospital Kosher Meals Service.
But – like the old joke: “the food was terrible, and
oy, such small portions” – I applaud and I am
grateful, but also I don’t think the service is good
enough. Every single aspect of kosher food in this
country has improved in the past twenty years, except
one: the Hermolis meals sent into hospitals,
efficiently provided though they are, remain dire.
This is not food to make the sick well.
I needed food that Friday night. Apart from the tray
in front of me I was also on a drip delivering
nourishment intravenously, so much did I need
nutrition that Friday night. But the kosher food was
triple wrapped in plastic that my hands could not
penetrate, nor could the plastic cutlery provided. (In
some hospitals they give you little scissors to
penetrate the Hermolis plastic, but even these can be
tricky to manoeuvre when you are weak.) And I am
young; I cannot imagine how very old people would open
this food at all.
And – sorry, here’s the old joke again – once the
plastic is penetrated the food is unbelievably
offputting. I’ve had every menu choice Hermolis
provides now, during various hospital stays (four over
the last three years) and so I’m not just basing this
on one hospital stay. I can see that the slab of
chicken or fish is a good size, and decent quality
too, but it is invariably coated in some vile,
gelatinous gunge and the accompanying vegetables come
coated in matching shades of glue.
Back in the early 1970s my family moved from Toronto
to London. I knew about England: every morning along
with O Canada, we also sang God Save the Queen at
school. I’d studied Britain too; I knew that in London
small boys were sent up chimneys, and were generally
I put my hand up and told my teacher, “I am moving to
London, Mrs Johnston.” Mrs Johnston, an amiable,
white-haired lady, looked up, quite shocked. “Oh no,
dear,” she said to me, “not London, England; you’ll be
going to London, Ontario.”
It’s hard to remember now that London is such a
crossroads for every nationality, but back then in the
early Seventies, my Canadian teacher was right. People
from England moved to Canada; it was very rare for the
traffic to flow the other way.
My father decided we would embark on this adventure by
boat, the QEII. My mother loved it; she discovered
fruit machines and cute little coins called shillings.
My father is fine wherever he has his books. And the
rest of us? Well, I remember there were wide
staircases and chandeliers, a cinema and a dance
studio, but mostly I remember the food.
We were on the Captain’s table the whole week – my
father the senior cleric on board, I guess. When the
captain’s food arrived, our meals came too, a
matching menu, but for one thing. Ours were
foil-wrapped and labelled Hermolis. Never mind boys up
chimneys, we came from Toronto, a land flowing with
kosher bakeries and restaurants. Hermolis was our
first introduction to the English version of kosher
food, and every single night we threw it up.
Our parents exchanged glances when they saw this food.
“We have to move,” my father had written to my mother
in an aerogramme from London, when he went on a pilot
trip. “There is much to do in this community.” Neither
then, nor now, have either of my parents met Melanie
Phillips, but they certainly had the sense that Jewish
life in London was of a very straitened and
When we arrived here, there was one kosher bakery, and
come Pesach, there were constant food shortages. Boy,
have things changed. It’s not Tel Aviv, or Paris, yet,
but there is good kosher food in London.
Except one place. The most important place of all,
perhaps. Competition has improved every aspect of
kosher food in this country. It is time for the
hospital kosher meals service to be challenged.