- Matthew Schniper
- This particular meal sported a lot of carbohydrates and little vegetables.
For the last decade, I've dined out multiple times a week for work, also grading culinary student meals and judging chef battles and the like at countless community events. Travel through 30-plus countries also informs my experience with both gourmet fare and humble eats. I already knew plenty about the latter, having grown up on public school food and homemade sack lunches, before graduating to college cafeteria provisions. Suffice to say I've eaten widely across the spectrum, international to institutional.
Yet I have never consumed jail food.
As an average law-abiding citizen, I'd hoped never to have to. But we couldn't pass up an invite from the El Paso County Sheriff's Office: "Feel free to drop in unannounced and ask for Commander [Rob] King. This way you can ensure we are not cooking something special for you."
Indeed the word "special" never came to mind after a brief tour through the county jail's kitchen, around the 4 p.m. dinner hour. We observed supervised trusties spooning chunky portions of a pea, carrot and green bean mix, plus a glutenous, jaundiced mass we're told is turkey tetrazzini, down an assembly line into thick plastic, chocolate-colored trays. Two compartments of each were also stocked with bread, one a dense, square dinner roll paired with a glob of butter, the other slightly fluffier and sweetened, dusted in confectioners sugar.
We pulled our trays directly from the line's end and headed into the adjacent ODR (Officer Dining Room), where King sat and dined alongside us on the same meal.
"If I was at a restaurant, I wouldn't be satisfied," he commented midway through, as we discussed topics like calorie count, typical menus, and of course, the flavor of what we were eating. "But it's jail food," he concluded.
True. And many would argue that inmates don't deserve gourmet grub. What would the taxpayers say? Should part of punishment be exacted upon one's taste buds? What about the folks inside these walls who've yet to be proven guilty of a crime?
As my mind became cluttered with queries, my mouth worked through the vegetables, utterly joyless and bland like the typical commercial canned or frozen variety, unseasoned, but completely edible. Ditto on the baked goods, made on-site: no frills and dry with a moisture-sucking effect to the tongue, but not outwardly offensive in any way. I can't say the same about the turkey tetrazzini, flecked with a modest amount of meat, minced and compressed into chewy hunks, texturally off-putting and reminiscent of Tuna Helper. The overcooked spiral pasta noodles were mushy and slimy, and covered in a sauce with excessive salt added. This was simply not good, and hard to keep eating, but if hungry, maybe days into backpacking in the wild — or incarcerated — I would.
To the issue of portion size, I, as a 5-foot-11, 165-pound guy, was plenty fulfilled, full actually, and unable to finish. Yet that must be balanced against my breakfast (around 8:30) and lunch that day (around 12:30) versus whatever the inmates ate at 4 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.
Curious, and invited to try food served separately on a hot line for county staff, I requested a small sampling of Philly steak meat, which arrived well-seasoned over salty fries. It ranked much better than the inmate eats, in an easy, greasy comfort food way, demonstrating that the food-service provider could play up where necessary. Still, I think I'll stay out of jail if I can help it.