Prison Food Part II: The Overpopulated Tray
-->Our friend, Scott, is our penpal in a California State prison. In
case you've been wondering what food was like in prison, now you know:
Part II: The Overpopulated Tray
Next it was off to a low-security prison, which doubled as a fire camp training center. The powers that be seemed to understand that inmate firefighters need more substantial food, and the trays helped communicate the rare privilege of being involved in one of the few programs that pus the R in CDCR. I learned that trick of truly effective prison food is to set the bar so low in reception that anything else seems an improvement. These guys are good.
Prep starts at 3am and 1pm for 7am breakfast and a 5:30ish dinner. WE get in a long line at the chow hall and take our trays through a slot, picking up kool-aid, coffee or water from spigots on the way to 4-man, stainless steel tables. All the basic components are present, only now the main courses are palatable. You become attuned to a small details in the prep- the PIAGggoes seemed crisper, the bread toasted, the margarine whipped. The carrots are cooked properly, thought the flat noodles are still overcooked or left in the water. I’m not sure pasta can be done right when feeding 2,400 in an hour and a half.
In prison, mostly everything is made from scratch, due to the law of infinite labor and no money. Soups and sauces vary widely in quality, though I often like them – split pea, beef barley, chicken with veggies and pasta, minestrone. An on-site bakery did its best to be creative with 2x3 foot baking sheets. Lots of chocolate/coffee/yellow/brownie cake, occasional angel food. Cinnamon rolls on Wednesdays and flaky fruit turnovers every few weeks.
Spaghetti was adequate, ground beef sourced from better plants in the northern part of the state. Vegetarian pizza was curiously overflowing with mozzarella – a monthly highlight, and a convenient way to gauge your time. Stews are filled with reassuringly identifiable ingredients, peanut butter in the lunches more often. Friday fish night and ice cream Sunday harkened back to a simpler time that few here knew of. The effort in trying to do chicken Parmesan sandwiches for 2,400 is almost touching.
At fire camp, the food universe is less governed by the laws of the greater prison system, and less central to daily life. Food development here seems to have stopped somewhere around 1972 – we may have a garden, but we also have a deep fat fryer. However, the kitchen is almost entirely run by the inmates, and the added room for creativity makes a big difference. Having a good breakfast and dinner cook is what makes or breaks this food, but CDF captains and CDC staff eat the same meals, and their feedback does not come in written form. All the added supervision inspires many kitchen workers to go above and beyond – particularly our bakers. We have fresh daily bread, fruit parfait, cheesecake, fruit turnovers and more rarified, small-batch items sent to the office to curry favor with the cops.
Vegetables in camp are sourced from local community grocers or grown by inmate workers. We grow apples, pears, tomatoes, onions, lemons and a variety of peppers. Hens for eggs are the only farm animals.
The influence of a diverse inmate population is critical to breaking the cycle of food boredom. Salsa is blended and fantastic, and we actually had Carnitas the other night that would pass muster in your average Taqueria. Tonight I’ll see what they’re capable of in the enchilada department – camps seem to have a regular cheese budget. Nouvelle poultry items include foil-wrapped baked chicken, chicken fettuccini Alfred and fried chicken. Sometimes we have turkey, though not from the wild turkeys that roam the camp. Anyway, I’m confident Thanksgiving will come off without a hitch.
Hey fellow convict, want my spare questionable potation product? “Shoooot It!”
-Pen Pal Scott