My Uncle Dominic liked eating hospital food. A lot. Just why such a man liked hospital food so much is, in my view, one of the great mysteries of our time. Like the pyramids. Or the Kardashians.
My uncle, you see, knew about good food. His favorite restaurant was my favorite restaurant; his go-to dishes closely mirrored my own. Laura, Dominic's devoted wife of 67 years, is still a damn fine cook and so are a lot of the people who surrounded my uncle on a daily basis and throughout his life.
Nobody in the family was ever able to get to the bottom of Dominic's peculiar affinity for this dreadful cuisine. Believe me, we tried. Plenty. For many years, usually as we sat together eating in one drab hospital canteen or another, I would ask my uncle what was with this preposterous preference of his. But I stopped asking him about it a very long time ago. Because nothing the man ever said made the slightest bit of sense to me whatever.
Which should explain my utter lack of surprise when, on an unexpected visit to see my uncle shortly before he died, I offered to take Dom to lunch and he chose not one of the many restaurants minutes from his home in Queens but, rather, the below-ground cafeteria in Building 3 at the North Shore University Hospital, many miles away on Long Island.
Now, it is true that we had a scheduled appointment at this hospital later on that day, for what can only be described as some very unpleasant and sad business. But that isn't why Dominic chose to have lunch at Building 3. Convenience had nothing to do with it, trust me. He wanted to eat in the cafeteria at North Shore. Because he has actually liked the food at virtually every hospital he stepped foot inside.
"Are you sure you don't want to go to La Villa for lunch, maybe get some pizza?" I asked as gently as I could manage without appearing to judge. "Or how about Don Peppe? You haven't been to Don Peppe in a while. We've got plenty of time, you know, Unc. Hours, actually. We can eat wherever you want."
Dominic thought it over, but only for around eight and a half seconds, and probably only because I had requested that he do so.
"I think I'd rather see what they're serving over at North Shore, if that’s okay with you," he said. “They have very good food there, you know. You'll like it, I'm pretty sure."
And so later on that afternoon Dominic and I sat together and ate pot roast and mashed potatoes with brown gravy, off of paper plates and using plastic knives and forks, surrounded by hundreds of hospital staffers who barely noticed the strange culinary visitors in their midst. Dominic was pretty sick at this point, but he looked so happy eating his pot roast that I knew without reservation that we had come to the right place to have our lunch.
My uncle was comfortable here. It was a place where he had been helped many times and by many good and caring people, some eating their own lunches at tables very close to ours. And so Building 3 was like many of the other hospitals he relied upon, and sought some comfort in, during the latter years of his life.
When I asked Dominic whether he was enjoying his lunch he pointed at the pot roast with a badly arthritic and swollen finger, smiled as broadly as he could manage, and proclaimed that it was about as good a pot roast as he had ever had.
Which is always and forever going to be good enough for me.