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Four uncooked meat patties are piled on a gray concrete background
Photo by Vladimir Mironov on iStock

“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.

Earlier this winter, my family went to Victoria & Albert’s restaurant at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa in Orlando. A decade ago that was the only five-star restaurant in Orlando, at least to my recollection. Their menu was eye-wateringly good. 

I’m guessing my family ate complex dishes cooked by a team of trained chefs. That same evening, I probably bit into what’s generously referred to as a “meatloaf patty” in the dining hall of a Florida Department of Corrections institution.

I’m not trying to draw a one-for-one comparison between the two dinners, nor am I complaining that I can’t have a five-star meal in prison. I’m not that stupid. 

However, my family could probably see that the meat they were served was real animal meat. Even at Burger King or Taco Bell, the meat is — well, most of the time — recognizably beef, chicken or pork. The patties we are fed in the FDC are not so. They are not recognizable at all. 

According to the most recent master menu for the FDC by our food service provider Aramark, at least nine different types of patties exist. This is the same company that provides “food service, facilities and uniform services to hospitals, universities, school districts and stadiums,” according to their website.

That Aramark believes that nine patties exist at all is a shock to me. I, like any reasonable person, can name perhaps three or four patties: sausage, hamburger … umm … Salisbury? That’s how many I could come up with.

Fear not, though. Our profit-seeking culinary overlords assigned a whole research division to the life-altering task of discovering new types of patties. How many ways could they grind up the offal from barnyard animals, extrude it into a few shapes, seal it up in nine differently labeled boxes, ship it to correctional institutions, then serve the outcast meat to societal outcasts? 

Not only did they accept this task with grim determination, they probably completed it with relish — or, more often, off-brand ketchup and mayonnaise. Here are all the patty types identified by Aramark on our menus: meatloaf, country, Buffalo chicken, fish, chicken sausage, pepper chicken, crispy chicken, charbroiled chicken and zesty chicken.

I’ll be the first to admit that, on paper, some of these actually sound pretty good. I love Buffalo sauce. And my mom’s meatloaf is out of this world. 

Zesty chicken? Sure! Some recipes involve marinating chicken breasts in Italian dressing.

Crispy chicken? Great. Fried chicken sandwiches are a fast-food staple. 

Here’s my reality, though: Those are different dishes than what we eat inside. Aramark and the FDC don’t care enough to spend the money to make mom’s meatloaf, Buffalo sauce-drizzled chicken or a Wendy’s-style crispy chicken sandwich. 

Instead, we are left with what are supposed to be nine different patties, but they all mostly look, taste and feel the same. There is probably some metaphor that could be drawn between how patties, with their different appearances and textures, are all really the same inside — just like us. But I can’t think of anyone who’d like to be compared to a bland, grayish meat patty. 

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.

Justin Slavinski is a writer for Endeavor, a publication at Everglades Correctional Institution in Florida.