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The Communal Hub of the Hospital: The Mass Eye and Ear Food Services Department

Mass Eye and Ear is celebrating its 200th anniversary, and the Focus blog each month will have stories on the hospital’s past, present and future. In April, Focus is spotlighting the rich history of Mass Eye and Ear’s Dietary Department, which continues to be a hub for healthy nourishment and fulfilling interactions for staff, patients and their families.

Ethel Hargrove reaches for a tray as she prepares dessert in the cafeteria, 1979.
Ethel Hargrove reaches for a tray as she prepares dessert in the cafeteria, 1979.

“It has always been the policy of the Infirmary to afford its patients the very best treatment known to
surgical science.”

Massachusetts Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary Annual Report – 1877

These words from the 1877 Annual Report of the Massachusetts Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary (now Mass Eye and Ear) still ring true today. However, the Managers who authored this report were not writing about innovations in diagnostics or surgical techniques, they were justifying why the budget for meals for hospitalized patients had increased. The report continued:

Vastly more attention is now given to the general physical condition and hygienic surroundings of the patient. A very large proportion of the diseases both of the eye and ear are now attributed directly to a reduced condition of the system, growing out of insufficient nutriment; … and in the treatment of such cases surgical skill is of little avail unless the operation is supplemented by a period of more generous diet … The Managers have allowed the surgeons … to order … more nourishing food than is usually furnished to the patients. In exercising this discretion the surgeons have used a generous liberality which has resulted in adding largely to the household expenses, but the wisdom and humanity of which the Managers do not question.”

Photo of Mass Eye and Ear hospital food menu from 1899
A Massachusetts Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary food menu from 1889.

All annual reports of the late 1800’s detailed hospital expenses, and they show that patients were fed a healthy and wholesome diet – purchases included meat, fish, poultry, fruit, vegetables, bread, flour, milk, butter and eggs. There was even a budget line for wine and liquors.

The “Proposed Dietary for Mass. Char. Eye & Ear Infirmary” from 1889 (pictured here) depicts a typical weekly menu for patients. While some meals may not seem tempting to people today, it is important to note that Mass Eye and Ear was a charitable organization at that time, treating the poorest demographic in Boston. For many of these patients, the guarantee of three meals a day was an unthinkable luxury.

Up until 1943, all employees were provided with free meals, which were considered part of their pay package. Starting that year, employees were given the option to receive a larger paycheck in lieu of free meals. “This necessitated a reorganization of the dining room as a pay cafeteria with a greater choice of foods either on a table d’hote or a la carte basis which seems appreciated by all.” For 50 cents employees could get a bowl of soup and a meal that included meat, potato, vegetable or salad, bread and butter, dessert and a beverage.

Black and white photo of several people getting food and checking out at the Mass Eye and Ear Cafeteria in 1952.
A day at the Mass Eye and Ear Cafeteria in 1952.
1960's Mass Eye and Ear "Dining Out" menu
1960’s Mass Eye and Ear “Dining Out” menu, serving gourmet-style meals during hospital stays.

In 1964, Mass Eye and Ear hired Herbert (“Herb”) Kirshnit, an experienced hotel and restaurant chef to be its first Food Manager. Herb believed that “hospitalization does not necessarily impair one’s appetite.” Under his leadership, the hospital began offering inpatients a menu with a variety of choices at every meal. And for those who wanted something extra special, Herb offered a gourmet-style “Dining Out” menu. For a small fee, patients and their visitors could choose from such options as filet mignon, broiled lobster and baked stuffed jumbo shrimp. “When there’s no medical reason not to, patients should be able to dine on food that’s delicious and glamorous,” he said.

The most dramatic change to Mass Eye and Ear’s Dietary Department came in the mid-1970s, when the tower was added to the hospital during a major renovation. Up until this time, the cafeteria was in a cramped space in the basement, with a low ceiling and no windows. Upon completion of the first phase of the renovation, the cafeteria moved to an open and inviting space on the seventh floor with floor-to-ceiling windows offering a beautiful vista of the Charles River and the Boston skyline, where it remains today as the Lank Family Dining Room.

For current associate director of Food Services Joanna Athanasiou, working at Mass Eye and Ear is not just a job, it’s practically in her DNA. Joanna is a third-generation member of the Dietary Department whose family’s legacy began when her grandmother Despina Ioannidis immigrated from Greece and dedicated 22 years of service to the cafeteria. Following in her footsteps, Joanna’s mother Andrea Ioannidis spent 29 years working in the cafeteria. At just 16 years old, Joanna carried on the family tradition, starting as a food service aide. She has done almost every job in the department, from cashier, catering, even doing some cooking when needed. Twenty years later, she has risen to a leadership role in the department, establishing herself as a key figure in the Mass Eye and Ear community.

Members of the Food Services team photographed in 2017: Left to right, standing: Lop Chan, Nuno Barbosa, Andrea Ioannidis, Margaret Lau, Suzy Chau, Ethel Hargrove, Joanna Athanasiou, and Walter Meeks. Kneeling: Mike Comora
Members of the Food Services team photographed in 2017: Left to right, standing: Lop Chan, Nuno Barbosa, Andrea Ioannidis, Margaret Lau, Suzy Chau, Ethel Hargrove, Joanna Athanasiou, and Walter Meeks. Kneeling: Mike Comora

Joanna has seen a lot of changes in the food served in the cafeteria over her two decades at Mass Eye and Ear. She is most proud of the fact that all the meals are made from scratch with fresh ingredients. She supports local vendors as much as possible, getting all the seafood from Gloucester and salad greens from a local farm. Food Services currently employs 28 staff members, which includes dieticians for inpatient meals, an employees for catering services  the lobby coffee shop, and the café at the Longwood campus (800 Huntington Avenue).

Walter Meeks photographed at the Mass Eye and Ear dinging room in 2013 with the Red Sox World Series trophy.
Red Sox fan Walter Meeks basking in the glow of the World Series trophy, 2013, at Mass Eye and Ear’s Lank Family Dining Room. As of 2024, Walter has worked in the cafeteria for 41 years. He has an infectious laugh that can’t help but put everyone in a good mood, according to his colleagues.

When asked what people love about the cafeteria (beyond the view and great food), diners offered the following comments:

  • I love seeing groups of people from different departments eating together.
  • I love seeing people greet each other.
  • I love how nice and friendly the people that work there are.
  • Everyone always seems to be in a good mood in the cafeteria.

What stands out in these comments is that eating in the cafeteria is more than just a chance to relax, talk with friends and eat delicious food.  Sharing a meal is a fundamentally human ritual, one that builds connections with others and a sense of communal bonding. As colleagues come together around a shared table, conversations transcend the confines of formal meetings, allowing for more relaxed communication. It contributes to a supportive and inclusive workplace where colleagues feel a sense of belonging and camaraderie. Ultimately, the cafeteria becomes a space where Mass Eye and Ear staff not only satisfy their physical hunger but also nourish their emotional wellbeing through social connections and a sense of unity.

Joanna noted that part of the mission of the cafeteria is to keep staff morale high. Based on the comments above, the cafeteria has clearly gone far above and beyond in achieving this goal.

The Mass Eye and Ear Lank Family Dining room in 2024, decorated for the hospital's 200th anniversary.
The Mass Eye and Ear Lank Family Dining room in 2024, decorated for the hospital’s 200th anniversary.

Next time you are at Mass Eye and Ear, stop by the cafeteria on the seventh floor for great food, one of the best views in Boston, and a welcoming, communal atmosphere. Bon Appetit!

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