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.
My bullwhip cracks as I loop it around a conveniently placed beam that allows me to swing across the bottomless crevasse. As I land, dozens of poisonous darts pock off the stone walls on either side of a rapidly narrowing hallway. I roll, dodge and somersault into the room full of treasure as a thick stone slab slams down behind me — giving me just enough time to snag my lucky fedora … and cut!
I stop daydreaming about being Indiana Jones. I’m back in my Florida prison, preparing for meal time once again. I shuffle forward amid the stream of men in blue. Gone are my bullwhip, revolver and fedora.
Instead, my pockets bear three condiment packets: Heinz ketchup, Heinz mayo, and Kikkoman soy sauce. These are my only tools besides my wit. Gaining entry to this torturous temple of dining is just as perilous as an Indiana Jones adventure.
I shuffle forward again as my friend Ed and I argue over whether George Lucas, who directed the “Indiana Jones” series, is a genius or a hack.
“I think he started out a genius, or at least had two good ideas,” I say. “Everything after that was pretty bad.”
We approach the door to the dining hall. The computer beeps as the bored officer scans the barcodes on our IDs. It’s to ensure we’re not eating twice.
Crossing the threshold into the cavernous dining hall offers the first view of the food as well as the chaos of 140 people ostensibly eating.
Smells assail us: cabbage boiled to submission; sour mop water; sweat; ground mystery meat (they say it’s turkey — I don’t believe it); orange peels; and a hint of spices too faint and too distant to place.
This space — crowded, confined, noisy — raises my anxiety about the upcoming meal just enough that I can feel perspiration prickling my palms. To my left is the wall separating the dining hall from the kitchen. I cannot see the men preparing my food. The mystery of what I’ll be eating mounts.
I know the main course on this tray should be turkey and potato casserole. Before the for-profit company Aramark took over food service from the state, this dish consisted of genetically-modified turkey chunks, undercooked peas, au gratin potatoes and a flavorless sauce liberally dashed with pepper.
With Aramark’s takeover, the formerly recognizable turkey chunks have been replaced by a much cheaper option: an unidentifiable, ground poultry blend. This “meat” is flavorless and has the texture of generic canned dog food, no doubt saving Aramark a few cents per tray.
As I draw nearer to the area of doom, the verbal melee of the dining hall diminishes. Like Indy, I can feel my heartbeat rising in anticipation of the treasure. Through a flap, a worker slides a tray over to me. Sure enough, it’s ground mystery meat. I curse, neither violently nor loudly, but enough to remind myself not to return to prison.
A brief traffic jam arises at the drink station — a 50-gallon steel tank with four spigots containing tea. Residents are crowded around to fill, drink and refill their cups. I twist and turn, dodging out of the way of other residents who are far less attentive to their environment than they should be.
Quickly scanning the room, I spot a table with two open seats and work my way there like a Plinko token. Ed and I sit and break out the condiments, which are essential to cover up the taste and texture of the food. Wordlessly, we dig in.
Forty seconds in, Ed picks up the conversation about George Lucas: “From the writer who brought you Indiana Jones … now comes Jar Jar Binks!”
“So, you’re saying hack?” I ask.
We’re interrupted by an officer’s foghorn voice piercing through the noise of the crowd.
“If you are done, get out!”
I hunker down and grumble. No more than 90 seconds later, the siren wails again. Whatever enjoyment this meal brought with it — certainly not from the food, but from the company — has been lost.
Ed and I finish eating around the same time. We’ve also grown tired of the relentless screeching from the officer.
We knock once on the table to signal the end of the meal. We stand and weave our way to the trash cans and tray disposal slot. I toss the used condiment wrappers in the trash, my spork into the bin below the tray slot, the tray into the cluttered slot where it will (hopefully) go on to be cleaned and sanitized for the next man’s meal.
Three short steps lead me through open double doors out to the compound. I exit through a cleansing curtain of fresh air, breathe deep, dodge an ibis carrying a slice of bread and join the stream of men in blue heading back to the dormitories.
In my mind, I imagine the horrid meal being crated up, stamped and carted away into an unnamed warehouse at an unnamed location, never to be seen again — at least until I burp and taste the meal anew a few hours later.
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.