Food for Thinkers: WANTED! Prison Food Writers Food for Thinkers: WANTED! Prison Food Writers

Food for Thinkers: WANTED! Prison Food Writers

by Nicola Twilley

January 31, 2011

Well, prison food is not as simple as a three meals-a-day foray into the barred bowels of bare minimum nutrition requirements slathered onto a plastic tray. From the eyes of a relatively newcomer to food, if not prisons, it seems as though the connections between the two can be seen across a fascinating spectrum of cultural, moral, and economic landscapes, sharing fascinating intersections with histories of pop food magnates, innovative smuggler networks, Auschwitz-era recipe books, the politics of prison labor, and race-infused hunger strikes, just to start! All of which can hardly be relayed here in this piece alone, but only confirms my belief: prisons don’t just deserve their own inmate food writers—they absolutely need them!

First things first: Prison food probably isn't as bad as you might suspect. Fair to say, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FOB) mandates a somewhat healthy level of nutrition and portions on a per meal basis, and offers a standardized menu [PDF] that many prisons around the nation have adopted. Typically, from what I gather, most prisons serve basic stir fries and pastas, bowls of fruit, light salads, grilled burgers, and some even tofu. In 2008, N. Mate (an associated content writer for Yahoo! News), described prison food thus:
Meals are designed to be low-sugar, low-salt, and limit the number of both calories and calories from fat. To accomplish this goal, portions of the meal—typically the entrée, bread, dessert, and more desirable fruits and vegetables—will be portion controlled and handed out under the watchful eye of a staff member. The remaining items—carbs like rice and potatoes, condiments like ketchup and pickles, and salsa, and most vegetables—will be served buffet-style, with inmates taking as much as they want. Additional choices will always be available under the national menu: a "heart healthy" option (substitution, baked for fried, or prepared with less fat and cholesterol); a "no flesh" option (which may be a soy burger or a cheese sandwich but will have no meat including fish); and the ultimate in healthy eating, the confusingly named "common fare," consisting in a tall stock of row vegetables [sic], a bowl of cold vegetarian baked beans and a T.V. dinner style entrée.

However, nothing I’ve found so far about prison food is more sinister and curious than the infamous "Nutraloaf," or "prison loaf," as it's also called. In other circles, it's been termed the "special management meal," and, simply, "the loaf." The ingredients for the loaf tend to vary slightly from prison kitchen to kitchen: for example, apparently "Vermont's penal cookbook calls for a combination of vegetables, beans, bread, cheese, and raisins," which doesn't sound bad in and of itself. Should you be interested in sampling this (and I would encourage you to do so and report back), you can follow this recipe, compliments of Baltimore's Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center:
Special Management Meal // Yield - Three Loaves 6 slices whole wheat bread, finely chopped
4 ounces imitation cheddar cheese, finely grated
4 ounces raw carrots, finely grated
12 ounces spinach, canned, drained
2 cups dried Great Northern Beans, soaked, cooked, and drained
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 ounces potato flakes, dehydrated
6 ounces tomato paste
8 ounces powdered skim milk
4 ounces raisins

Mix all ingredients in a 12-quart mixing bowl. Make sure all wet items are drained. Mix until stiff, just moist enough to spread. Form three loaves in glazed bread pans. Place loaf pans in the oven on a sheet pan filled with water, to keep the bottom of the loaves from burning. Bake at 325 degrees in a convection oven for approximately 45 minutes. The loaf will start to pull away from the sides of the bread pan when done.

Interestingly, the Nutraloaf can be traced back to a longstanding history of foods used as a means of encouraging moral correction and spiritual reform. While sacramental breads have long been used in various rituals in the Church to honor Christ and the Last Supper, the Graham cracker and the cornflake took on more pop-theological dimensions, in which food became a kind of surrogate delivery service for a uniform moral purification.

And what might the inmate writer uncover for us about the role food plays in prison culture? I'm thinking here of stories such as this one about the importance of honey buns in Florida jails, where they serve "as currency for trades, as bribes for favors, as relievers for stress and substitutes for addiction. They've become birthday cakes, hooch wines, last meals—even ingredients in a massive tax fraud."

Meanwhile, I hope our inmate food writer would not let us forget about the relevance of food in many prison contexts from the past, such as the "dream meals" imagined by women in Auschwitz as a survival tool. Indeed, their own writing could form a similar repository of culture, experience, resistance, and coercion in the future.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the inmate food writer's beat would lie in prison's microcosmic relationship to society as a whole. In such a limited, contained environment, the outlines of our relationship to food become clear—its potential to build community as well as enforce control, to nourish and to poison, to shape human health and order human society. From hoarding to smuggling to sharing to making—despite the limited range of ingredients, in many ways, the entire menu of human interactions with food is on display.

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

Follow the conversation all week here at GOOD, join in the comments, and use the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up to date.

Images: (1) Dining area at the notorious Maze Prison in Northern Island, 1972, via; (2) Inmates at Rikers Island bake a legendary carrot cake, and shared their recipe with The New York Times last summer, photo by Michael Appleton for The New York Times; (3) Nutraloaf, photo by Andy Duback/AP via The Ethicurean; (4) From Last Suppers by James Reynolds; (5) An advertisement for John Harvey Kellogg's Sanatorium Granola, via; (6) Postcard showing inmates at work at the State Prison Farm, Jackson, Michigan, via.

Editor's Note: If you are a currently an inmate and want to become GOOD's prison food writer, I want to hear from you! Email me at nicola [at] goodinc [dot] com.



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Food for Thinkers: WANTED! Prison Food Writers