In a retirement home, eating should be a pleasure because there are few high points to the day and good food in good company is the most obvious boost to morale. The dining room should be attractive because it is the one place where the residents are sure to meet each other and socialize.
The kitchen at Cadbury Commons serves meals to seventy-five people a day— two hundred twenty-five meals a day, and it’s a challenge. The food must be easy to cut, easy to eat, and only mildly seasoned. Maybe some large kitchens are more resourceful, but at Cadbury the food was so bland and soft that some of it could be gummed. Nothing was served rare or chewable. Meat and fish of good quality were boiled, baked, broiled and pummeled until they puckered and shrank and renounced their primitive origins. After this harsh initiation, they came to the table as mystery meat, drowning under a floury sauce which was called something fancy and French. Vegetables arrived limp and panting, near death. To be sure that all germs, all nutrition, all life, had been removed, soft-boiled eggs were boiled hard, eggs ordered sunny-side up were turned over, soaked in oil and fried until they blistered. “Pasta Alfredo” came in a glutinous mass, and their veal Parmesan shamed the Italians. One night “baked salmon” turned out to be a gluey pasta with bits of shrimp and salmon in it, and I was dumbfounded at the transfiguration. The waitress believed that she had brought the right dish and pointed out the bits of pink stuff stuck in the glue. Then she was dumbfounded by my objection and indignantly pointed out that the gluey stuff was salmon.
There were some treasured exceptions to this litany of misery. One memorable night the zucchini was served al dente and the spinach had a hint of garlic in it. And another time, we had peanut- butter pie: sweet chocolate, a thin flaky crust—peanut heaven.
It was surprising to me that cringe-making meals were accepted by Harvard professors, who in a former life had eaten well around the world. The food was also eaten without complaint by the many women residents who once took pride in their own cooking. This, after all, was the generation that venerated Julia Child (who lived in Cambridge!). But at Cadbury Commons, as at many assisted living facilities, the food is deliberately bland so it will be acceptable to the greatest number of residents, and management takes the easiest road to keep food costs down.