Canteen culture: what medical students eat
'Such a pretty campus," my lunch companion cuttingly remarks as we walk through the low-maintenance-garden-cum-designated-smoking-area that flanks the path to the mortuarial concrete monolith that is the University of the Witwatersrand's Faculty of Health Sciences.
"Not everything has the good fortune to once have been a big bucolic barn at the foot of a giant dissection table perpetually shrouded in swirling mist," is the defensive retort of a Gautenger, if not born then certainly bred. A sort of mining town generic of "scalpels at dawn" - except with "my charna" stitched on for effect.
"This is about students and nutrition, not the mountain, sea and Groote Schuur, where Baarnaard brother Maaarius once paaased his sibling Chris a stolen heaaaart, and which is now the world's leading centre for the treatment of wounds inflicted by the Okapi knife."
The sudden fall in temperature as we step into the neon gloom of the cavernous entrance hall and the whiff of formaldehyde mingled with the smell of multiple antiseptics cast a palpable chill on further attempts to inject humour into the visit.
A stroll around the admittedly fascinating medical museum evokes a sense of relief at one's comparative good health, but does little to warm the appetite.
Over in the northeast corner of the hall, in a pool of surgical lighting so stark it reduces the giant-screen transmission of cricket from Newlands to a strangely animated faded watercolour, is Olives and Plates. The lighting does neither the food nor patrons of the canteen/restaurant any favours.
First stop is the salad bar, the central feature of which - despite a few appetising options like the butternut and couscous - appears to be a shimmer of mayo. Lunch is in full swing yet, suspiciously, there are no takers.
Over at the high-end hot-meal-of-the-day section, a cranky, myopic twitch of eccentric singleton academics, their tics having long since dashed any aspirations to neurosurgery, inspect the short rib stew with the attention of pathologists before grumpily selecting, piece by piece, those bits they deem fit to eat. The long-suffering serving staff are unfazed.
Meanwhile, over at the burger and chips section, a queue of pallid students in green hospital garb with dark rings under their eyes snake their way impatiently to trays containing hundreds of pre-cooked beef and chicken burgers at R16 a pop. By the time the students get to the cash registers most are halfway through their burgers.
The health drinks, on a shelf in a bank of fridges containing every sugar-loaded fizzy drink known to medicine, remain untouched.
And there is a roaring trade in the crisps and chocolate bars that line the aisle to the cashiers.
In the dining area, the eccentrics sit alone, muttering as they fussily pick their way through lunch.
At the student tables, lunch conversation is conducted in the staccato medical shorthand of treatment regimes, dosages and diagnoses - all between wolfish mouthfuls of burger and chips.
The hasty scraping of chairs while still chewing and a final slug of canned diabetes announces the end of lunch for these studies in anaemia.
Meanwhile, my companion watches as I savour a perfectly delicious portion of cinnamon-and-clove-scented short rib stew with samp and beans and a healthy serving of excellent roast vegetables redolent of fresh thyme - all for the princely sum of R28.
Garth van der Walt is a short-order cook with the tall order of nourishing a third-year medical student.