The reputation of hospital food is poor, often deservedly so. While we have seen greater attention to the importance of healthy food with the rise of nutritional science, and to offering greater choice for individuals, flavour has seemingly not been a priority. A history of food does not seem sufficient for a critical history of taste in hospitals, any more than a description of changing hospital design is sufficient for a history of sight. Taste is, though, one of the harder senses to reach.
We can perhaps draw on Proust, by thinking about the relationship between food and memory. We can think about ‘taste’ in its more widely used cultural sense, in terms of its social relations. We could also consider what food means to patients in hospital, and where it fits within their own sensory hierarchy: does food in the hospital mean something different to food in the home? Do the same foods taste different when presented as nutrition, rather than as pleasure? There is also an extensive neurological literature related to food aesthetics that we might draw on in interdisciplinary analysis: does food taste different on a plastic tray? We could perhaps think further about how illness or treatment might shape their experience of eating and the capacity to taste. In relation to spaces of consumption, the shrinking staff room and the rise of the vending machine might be important for examining changing histories of eating, space and wellbeing. Hospital records provide us with insights into the changes that took place on people’s plates, but we will need to be innovative to find meaning and experience within these changes.