Our food critic sampled prison food—and kind of liked it!

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 3, 2013

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Bland ambition: In the prison system, Nutraloaf is “imposed for major infractions.”

Photo by J.R. Blackwell

Nutraloaf: It sounds like a snack you’d find in a health-food store’s gluten-free aisle, probably on a shelf between the flax-seed biscuits and vegan laxatives. Or a processed-food product with vaguely psychedelic properties that’s cooked up and marketed to the unsuspecting masses by the controlling, invisible cabal in a Thomas Pynchon novel.

Only, not so much. Nutraloaf, perhaps the most feared food in America outside of KFC’s misbegotten Double Down from a few years back (the bacon-and-cheese monstrosity sandwiched between two slabs of fried chicken; no bread involved), is actually part of a punitive food program at penitentiaries around the country. According to Lt. Robert Eastlund of the Maricopa Sheriff’s Office in Phoenix, posting on a forum on the website of the National Institute of Corrections, Nutraloaf is used “as part of our disciplinary process. The Alternative Meal Program is a separate sanction from disciplinary segregation. This product is served twice daily. It is imposed for major infractions including assault, criminal damage, throwing bodily fluids, etc.”

So, to recap: If an inmate flings his poo at a corrections officer, Nutraloaf is part of his punishment. Of course, my editors strongly suggested that I should try it.

And people tell me my job is easy.

But here’s the thing: It really wasn’t all that bad. Bland, sure. But evil-tasting? Worthy of being considered a punishment in and of itself? Not so much.

Context is everything, of course. This was a four-bite portion served as part of Eastern State Penitentiary’s Prison Food Weekend, an event that sought to educate visitors about the various meals served to inmates over the years. This all went down on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon last month—appropriate for giving an idea of what Nutraloaf is like, but nowhere near enough to provide an inkling of what it must be like to eat for every meal. If I had to do that, I, too, might have thought about flinging my feces at a corrections officer.

Every state has its own Nutraloaf recipe, and Pennsylvania’s leads to a product whose definitive characteristic is its overwhelming blandness. It’s composed of mashed garbanzos, rice, potatoes, dry oatmeal, carrots and margarine, and its flavor profile is the gustatory equivalent of white noise. Dull, but far from deadly.

Other states use recipes that seem to have been written by someone with either no functioning taste buds or a Ted Bundy-esque sense of empathy for his or her fellow human beings. Or both. Vermont, for example, crafts its Nutraloaf from dairyless cheese, spinach, tomato paste, whole wheat bread, raisins, potato flakes, beans, powdered milk and, ostensibly, saliva from the glands of Satan.

In fact, Nutraloaf has been at the center of numerous lawsuits brought about by inmates who claimed that consuming it multiple times a day was tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.

So, having the chance to taste it was instructive, to say the least.

This event, however—which will likely be repeated next year—was about more than Nutraloaf. It also afforded guests the opportunity to experience prison food from a number of specific eras, including “Indian mush” and salted beef from the 1830s and hamburger steak and “Harvard beets” from the mid-20th century. The so-called mush was a classic case of truth in advertising, a paste-like pile of cornmeal in desperate need of seasoning but certainly no teeth to consume.

Verdict: Not guilty by reason of innocuousness.

The salted beef, on the other hand, was actually rather nice, not unlike heavily salted corned beef. Perhaps in special Jewish sections of prison, they serve it on rye bread with sauerkraut and a pickle and pump in recordings of prisoners’ mothers making them feel guilty for their crimes as a means of punishment. Even on its own, however, I’d have been happy to nosh on it.

Verdict: Not guilty by reason of tastiness.

Harvard beets, although I’d imagine they would grow a bit cloying after a while, were lovely—yes: prison food, lovely!—and found a delicate balance between sweetness and a vinegary bite.

Verdict: Not guilty by reason of good flavor.

Hamburger steak, all hearty and well-accompanied by brown gravy, was like a better version of the cafeteria food so many of us grew up on at school. The sauce could have been less grainy, but aside from that, it was a pretty decent salisbury steak-like dish.

Verdict: Not guilty by reason of its straightforward pleasantness.

All of this was prepared by the friendly John Freeman, a corrections officer and owner of Freestyle BBQ catering, who worked hard to create the food as accurately as possible. He worked with Sean Kelley, Eastern State’s senior vice president and director of public programming, on the recipe development and research. Their collaboration and passion for this event was clear throughout.

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