Friday, June 28, 2013

Prison Food: A Taste of Freedom

Most foodie experiences are so indulgent that daily meals pale in comparison. If you're losing gratitude for everyday fare, get thee to a prison food tasting.

The historic Eastern State Penitentiary now gives visitors a taste of prison life, with dishes ranging from a typical inmate dinner in the 1830s of "Beef, Salted and Broiled, with Indian Mush" to a 1949 inmate meal of "Hamburger Steak with Brown Gravy and Harvard Beets."

ESP also samples Nutraloaf, described as "the modern version of 'bread and water' punishment meals used in most prisons today." While some states officially decry its use as a punishment, prison officials use it for exactly that purpose and have seen inmate assaults on staff significantly reduced.

As one dining critic wrote: "Nutraloaf is a culinary triumph; any recipe that renders all 13 of its ingredients completely mute is some kind of miracle."
Can states argue that Nutraloaf is meant for behavior modification, but not punishment, when it is wholly repugnant? If Nutraloaf is officially only for inmates whose "current behavior is such that service of hot food or use of standard service wares would present a danger to the inmate or staff," then why does it incite 8th Amendment "cruel and unusual punishment" lawsuits from inmates? Surely the food scientists of Aramark can create a food safe enough to serve dangerous inmates, which also has some flavor (usually the addition of salt or fat is all that's needed).

As the first solitary confinement prison in the US, ESP drew visitors such as Dickens and Darwin. I myself visited for Halloween entertainment. New visitors may be drawn in by a Nutraloaf tasting but if you'd rather eat it in the comfort of your own home, here's a recipe (every state has its own recipe) for a tasteless hunk of food.

Now what we need to round out the full prison food experience is to be imprisoned. Sometime in the 1920s, a San Francisco restaurant named Dungeon operated near Union Square (47 Anna Lane). This "subterranean" (a euphemism for "basement," I presume) prison-themed restaurant featured a mess hall and waiters in fetching convict garb. More adventurous diners could choose the private jail cells, where they were locked in while eating. Each cell was labeled with a particular crime, including bootlegging, theft, and forgery. The type of food served is unknown, but I like to imagine they served haute prison cuisine.

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