Chow Hall is a semi-regular column by Justin Slavinski, a writer incarcerated in Florida who provides anecdotes and insights about food and meals served in prison.
Most food we receive in the prison dining hall is not good at all. Many of the meals are lukewarm.
The vegetables, almost always overcooked, swim in a sloshing pool of the water they were boiled in. Noodles are often mush, and rice often has an unfortunate crunch to it. Every few weeks, I nearly crack a tooth on a pebble in my beans. Salads, as they’re known, are roughly chopped cabbage occasionally splashed with vinegar and sprinkled with pepper. When they are made of lettuce, they’re prepared the day prior and drowned in so much dressing that the leaves have grown wilted and yellow. Don’t get me started on the mystery meat patties.
In sum, the plastic trays dispensed in the dining hall contain food that, over the last nine years, has merely kept me alive. And that is about the nicest thing I can say about those meals — except for one.
Years ago and still fresh to prison, I realized my Thanksgiving Day meal would likely not be quite as fulfilling as the one back home, nor would it include my aunt’s coronary heart disease-inducing sweet potato casserole.
Neither my family nor my friends outside the fence would be there. I feared I would be eating slop with people I hardly knew. Or worse, that I might be at a table with people I didn’t like, seated among hundreds of others while officers shouted at us to get up and get out.
I decided to allay my concerns by drawing up immediate plans for a meal with friends in the dormitory on Thanksgiving weekend. The options for cooking in the dormitory are pretty sparse. If you’re heartened by the prospect of making a meal out of what you can find in a very small convenience store (our canteen), then you might be up for the challenge of making a palatable meal for eight to ten people in prison.
In the end, we made Frito-chili pie wraps with a garlic cheese sauce. But the menu didn’t matter. We were able to celebrate on our time and at our pace, together. We enjoyed it and no one yelled at us. We gave thanks and reflected, told stories of our Thanksgiving meals at home, and I even learned a little Spanish (the word for turkey is “pavo”).
As it turned out, we were doubly lucky that week. I discovered that the Florida Department of Corrections each year provides a special tray for Thanksgiving (as well as on Christmas, July Fourth and Eid al-Fitr).
The Thanksgiving tray features either sliced turkey or turkey cold cuts, mashed potatoes, corn, cornbread stuffing, salad, salad dressing, sliced bread or a dinner roll, butter, pumpkin pie and, most importantly, cranberry sauce, the only time during the year we’re ever served it. (I suspect that’s true for most people in the free world as well.)
Everything is cooked properly, water doesn’t slosh out of tray slots onto my boots, and nothing comes out tepid. Food that should be hot is actually hot! This one meal is proof that good food can be served in the dining hall.
Beyond the food, Thanksgiving is one of the few times of year that we are treated with respect and dignity by those responsible for us. We’re not harried and hurried. Some years, officers greet us with a “Happy Thanksgiving” when we receive our trays. Sometimes they even assist with the distribution of food, condiments or other additions to the meal. And they are nice about it.
Even the chaos and insanity of the dining hall — five rows, seven steel tables per row, 140 people in all — can feel almost … heartwarming. That mass of people trading food and chatting and well-wishing is noisy. And with all that noise and all that chaos, it reminds me a little of my mom’s house on Thanksgiving.
But it’s not home. It’ll never be home. We make the best of it. Trades are made (one ramen noodle soup packet is good for cranberry sauce — try it at home). Friends sit together. Condiments and other meal supplements are shared.
At the table among my friends, the noise, chaos and subtle oppression start to fade. I still don’t have any sweet potato casserole, but at these moments I feel closer to a meal at home than at any other time of year.
Meal Rating: 7 out of 10
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.