Thanksgiving is upon us! And with Thanksgiving comes those traditional Thanksgiving foods—turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie. It may be a holiday that’s a meditation on gratitude, but it’s also (unofficially) a celebration of all those tastes, textures, and flavors we get to consume every year on the third Thursday of November.

I’m going to talk about that taste celebration today, or really the lack thereof, with an entry about prison food. Institutionalized punishment has a weird relationship with food. On the one hand, prison is punishment. For the sake of deterrence, prisons aren’t going to serve particularly delicious meals. On the other, prisoners are wards of the state, completely beholden to their wardens. And since the state has taken on this responsibility, the state must give its inmates food that, at the very least, keeps them alive enough to serve out their sentences. Somewhere in between this spectrum lies something called Nutraloaf.

What is Nutraloaf?

Spolier: It’s disgusting.

Nutraloaf is an oddity that exists solely in the prison world. It goes by many other names, each one more unappetizing than the last:

– “The loaf”
– Prison loaf
– Disciplinary loaf
– Slop loaf
– “Cold slop in a bag”
– “a substance” called Nutraloaf

Nutraloaf can serve two purposes—punishment and expedience. Prisoners are forced to consume Nutraloaf either as a part of the state’s carceral bargain to keep its prisoners alive or for prisoners who commit disciplinary infractions (such as throwing bodily fluids at guards or failing to return eating utensils).

There is no definitive Nutraloaf recipe but, for the most part, it is made by blending together a variety of foods from normal prison meals. It can contain everything from canned vegetables, to ‘mechanically separated poultry,’ to yesterday’s spoiled leftovers. The punitive variety of Nutraloaf is generally flavorless. Adding any spices such as salt or pepper is the difference between punitive loaf and expedience loaf. Right. Is your stomach rumbling yet?

Is it constitutional?

A sample of the nutraloaf from Medina County Jail

Nutraloaf meets all daily nutritional and caloric requirements to keep a human alive, at least alive enough to serve out his sentence. As Chicago food writer Jeff Ruby observes in his hilarious critique of the vile loaf for Chicago Magazine, Nutraloaf tastes blank, completely devoid of all flavor, neither cruel nor unusual. While Nutraloaf certainly seems unusual in composition, courts have not held it to be cruel in execution. Prisons have found an Eighth Amendment loophole, mashed it up, and reformed it into a dense brick to feed to its prisoners.

However, in a recent Seventh Circuit opinion, Judge Posner held that “[d]eliberate withholding of nutritious food” is violative of the Eighth Amendment. Read here (pdf), for an interesting opinion, if only for the part that Judge Posner reveals that he has in fact wikipedia-ed the term “anal fissure.”

don’t agree with Posner on everything, but today, I can be thankful for his recognition that a substance can be so abhorrently flavorless and cause such extreme digestive problems as to be considered cruel and unusual. I think we can all agree that the absence of Nutraloaf in our kitchens this Thanksgiving is something we can all be thankful for.

So, off to the kitchen, where turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie await in all their wonderful, unprocessed, and spice-filled glory. Happy turkey day everyone.


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