Sunday, June 07, 2015
Should a MasterChef episode include a nutraloaf/prison cooking challenge?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article headlined "The best prison food you've ever/never tasted." Because I aspire to be a foodie and love watching MasterChef, and especially because I am study prison history and the subjective experiences of incarceration, I wish I could experience the notable event reported the piece. Here is what I am missing:
The old movies refer to unruly inmates' being fed a diet of bread and water as punishment. Nowadays, they're served something called nutraloaf. Nutraloaf recipes vary among the states. Usually having the consistency of a dry muffin, the dish contains elements of the basic food groups — most notably grains and beans. Consumed with water, it will keep a person alive.
Maybe so, but "it's absolutely horrible," said Chris, a worker at Eastern State Penitentiary, the historical attraction in Fairmount. "But then again, state [prison] food is absolutely horrible." Chris speaks from experience. He spent 2½ years at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford after what he described as a conviction for a nonviolent drug-related offense. He was released last year. Chris — who asked that his last name not be used — now works at the prison.
This weekend (June 6 and 7) for Eastern State's annual Prison Food Weekend, a caterer will make the nutraloafs served in state prisons in Idaho (the breakfast version), California, Illinois (the vegan option), Vermont, and Pennsylvania. Visitors will get a review card, and organizers will encourage them to rank and describe the look, smell, and taste of each.
Pennsylvania's has cooked rice, dry oatmeal and mashed garbanzo beans. It's simply bland. The Illinois version contains applesauce, tomato paste, and garlic powder. So nasty, inmates at one prison sued (unsuccessfully) to get it off the menu.
The Eastern State visitors can counter the sampling with Chris' chi chi. Chi chi is a casserole-like dish made on the sly entirely of ingredients bought from the prison commissary or vending machines. Ingredients are blended in a plastic bag, which is cooked in boiling water. Boiling water in a prison cell? "You make a stinger," Chris said, describing a crude immersion heater made from the end of an extension cord wrapped around nail clippers.
When you're locked up, food is even more comforting, Chris said. "I'm Italian," he said. "Sunday night is home cooking." Chris said new inmates can expect the older guys to treat them to a home-cooked meal. "Your first two weeks, you won't be eating much" from the cafeteria, Chris said. "You have to be starving to want to eat that."
Chi chi is as unique as the individual making it. Some are as simple as cold tuna and mayo. Others, such as one that Chris made earlier this week at the prison for a demo, contain packaged ramen noodles, cheese curls, summer sausage, pepperoni, barbecue sauce, honey, pickles, chili powder, and meatless chili. The result — utter deliciousness the ramen was softened by the chili, barbecue sauce and honey. The cheese curls provided a hint of crunch. The pepperoni and sausage gave it texture.
And if there was enough sodium in a few bites to choke a mule? "Sodium is the least of your concerns," said Chris, with a small smile.