If ever left wondering what a prisoner did in their daily life – how they worked, where they slept, what they ate – a step inside the Eastern State Penitentiary could answer those questions. During the Prison Food Weekend event, which ran from June 8-9, visitors got a chance at a real taste of that life.
Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the most well known prisons in the world. It was made famous by its maximum security, as well as its inmates. It was home to thousands of prisoners, one of the most famous being Al Capone. In its day, it was seen as one of the toughest prisons in the country, and lauded for its solitary confinement style of imprisonment. Seeing and tasting the food they ate gave a new perspective on what life was like behind those walls.
For Prison Food Weekend, three stations were set up to sample various dishes prisons served from the 1800s until today. The first to try along the tour was food served in prisons today. The dish is Nutraloaf. It is a food loaf served in slices, meant to be eaten by hand. Here it was served in a mini-muffin style, each in an individual wrapper. It is meant to be as bland as possible, and it definitely lived up to this goal. The recipe calls for milk, rice, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, oatmeal, garbanzo beans and margarine. That’s it, not even salt or pepper for flavor.
This dish is served to inmates as a form of punishment who might eat nothing but it for as long as a week. This dish, along with other meals served in prisons today is meant to meet the minimum for nutritional value while keeping the cost low. Eastern State even provided guests with the official recipe from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in case someone wanted to make this at home.
After touring through the hospital wing and losing much of my appetite, I encountered the food served from prisons of the 1830s. Any food from this time period would be much different than what’s eaten today, largely because refrigeration did not exist. Food had to be eaten quickly, or heavily preserved so as to last. This led to a diet that consisted mostly of salted meats and grains. Prisoners at this time ate meals comparable to working class families, and sometimes even ate better. This was during the time of strict solitary confinement, therefore meals were delivered to each individual prisoner’s cell.
At this station two dishes were served: broiled salted beef and “Indian Mush.” The beef was cured with salt and spices, making it very similar to corned beef still served today. However, the side dish of mashed corn was not like any corn I have had today. Much like the Nutraloaf, it was not made to be delicious- it was strictly for sustenance. It had the consistency of baby food but, as I would imagine, lacked much of the flavor. There was a slight attempt at flavor by adding molasses on top, almost like gravy. Even in the prison, there was a focus on locally grown foods. For example. the corn for this dish was grown by the prisoners themselves right outside of their cell walls.
The final round of food served was from 1950s prison life. This table was outside of the cellblocks, along side of what was once the kitchen and mess hall of the prison. Prisoners now ate meals together in a hall, making the dishes much easier to serve. The two dishes at this station were “Harvard Beets” and hamburger steak. The steak looked as if it was a small hamburger patty, without much of the flavor. This dish was made similarly Salisbury steak, to another popular dinner of the 1950s. The beets seemed to be canned and as the other dishes, lacked any flavor. Food of this time was vastly different from the locally ground variety of the 1800s. During this time, the only focus was on mass production. There was little concern for the ingredients used, as long as it could feed as many prisoners as possible. This was the way that meals continued to be served in Eastern State until its closing in 1971.
Along with the food, Eastern State held their regular scheduled daily tours. They feature guided tours and self-guided audio tours. If opting for the self-guided route, there are various presentations held in the prison to give more information. The penitentiary is open everyday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.