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Music – “Folsom Prison Blues” from Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash. Released: 2012.
When I think of “prison” food, I think gruel, mush and porridge, all equally gray coloured and distasteful sounding. Supplemented by a meager portion of stale bread and dirty water, this was the prison food of by-gone days. As author Peter Higginbotham of “The Prison Cookbook” points out, in the English penal system, the meals provided were “…still viewed as part of the deterrent value of a prison sentence”. Why have the death penalty, when you can scare the pants off of any would be ne’er do wells by the threat of prison food?
“The Prison Cookbook” describes the history of prisons and prison food in England, and the “evolution” of both from the 1780’s through the 20th century. A manual of cooking and baking reflecting the times, is also included in the book, along with old dietary menus and recipes. In a fascinating chapter entitled “From Worms to Beans”, Higginbotham notes that at the Dartmoor Prison in the 1870’s, prisoners weren’t getting enough food to fill their bellies, and resorted to eating whatever they could catch in their prison cells: dead rats and mice, candles, grass and earthworms. Beetles, slugs, snails and even toilet paper were enough to silence that growling stomach (toilet paper?)
Over the years in Britain, as a result of prison reform, meals for inmates took a definite turn for the better. Beans, bacon, suet pudding, tea and cocoa became staples. Sick inmates had their own menus: fishcakes, boiled rabbit, custard pudding and stewed figs.
By the 1950’s, sausages, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes were on the menu, and by the late 1990’s, inmates were virtually catered to their every need: vegan, vegetarian, diabetic menus were on the docket, as well as a slew of menus for religious or cultural preferences: Buddhists, Christians, Mormons, Greek Orthodox, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and others (even Pagans).
In 2005, in British prisons, menus had become quite sophisticated and sounded more like the a la carte menu in a fine dining establishment: Chicken Chasseur, Grilled Gammon, Beef Lasagna with Garlic Bread and Salad (probably Caesar!). So much for prison food being a deterrent!
More surprising to me, however, is Higginbotham’s note that in 1999, the “Prison Service Catering Manual” (this isn’t a wedding, people!), made a recommendation to the prisons that the inmates should have a regular “market survey” of the inmates to determine their tastes and preferences. Really? As Marie Antoinette once said, “Let them eat cake!”, however, I would alter that to read: “Let them eat gruel!”
On this side of the pond, American and Canadian prisons have also “evolved“. A recent look at the 2014 prison menu for the American Federal Bureau of Prisons has a pretty rounded out menu for those cast-offs from society: one can dine on roast beef, chicken fajitas, steak and cheese subs, roast turkey, etc. Not exactly the Ritz, but a pretty good menu for a lot of bad folk, in my opinion. Contrast this with some of the photos below of school lunches being served across the US. Which would you pick? Is there something wrong with these pictures? I think so!
(PS – the guess which meal is which is a school meal!)