Dining Critic Tries Nutraloaf, the Prison Food for Misbehaving Inmates

JUSTICE IS BLAND: I eat Nutraloaf, the all-in-one “disciplinary loaf” served at Cook County Jail

NutraloafInmates at Cook County Jail are allowed three privileges: television, books, and food. The staff has no compunction about denying its most difficult residents either of the first two, but under the Constitution, correctional facilities can’t withhold food. Nothing in the Eighth Amendment, however, says the food has to taste good. “This is not the Four Seasons,” says Tom Dart, the Cook County sheriff. “Inmates who are injuring people in jail will get their nutritional needs met, but we will not cater to their culinary desires.”

Nutraloaf, a thick orange lump of spite with the density and taste of a dumbbell, could only be the object of Beelzebub’s culinary desires. Packed with protein, fat, carbohydrates, and 1,110 calories, Nutraloaf contains everything from carrots and cabbage to kidney beans and potatoes, plus shadowy ingredients such as “dairy blend” and “mechanically separated poultry.” You purée everything into a paste, shape it into a loaf, and bake it for 50 to 70 minutes at 375 degrees. Eat two a day and, boom, all your daily nutrients, right there. If you want the recipe, ask me.

Or just get yourself tossed into Cook County Jail, where an inmate who causes serious food-related problems buys himself a one-way ticket to Nutraloafopolis. Get caught making homemade hooch in your cell toilet? You get Nutraloaf. Hurl food at a guard or stab someone with a spork? Nutraloaf. Of the jail’s 9,000 inmates, 21 have endured the Nutraloaf program since it began in June. One begged—No! Anything but Nutraloaf!—and another went on a hunger strike. Both men, and virtually every other Nutraloafer, straightened up enough to get back to the usual diet of oatmeal and processed bologna.

In July, I took the afternoon off from my job as Chicago magazine’s dining critic and drove to 26th and California to dine on Nutraloaf. Cook County’s stridently gray-brown cafeteria would never be mistaken for Naha, and the dish’s presentation aims less for the wow factor than the break-your-spirit factor. An employee from Aramark Correctional Services—a branch of the Philadelphia-based company that also provides fare for college dorms and NFL stadiums—presented me a Styrofoam container sagging with a blunt ginger-toned mass roughly the size of a calzone and with the appearance of a neglected fruitcake. It had nothing else in common with either.

The mushy, disturbingly uniform innards recalled the thick, pulpy aftermath of something you dissected in biology class: so intrinsically disagreeable that my throat nearly closed up reflexively. But the funny thing about Nutraloaf is the taste. It’s not awful, nor is it especially good. I kept trying to detect any individual element—carrot? egg?—and failing. Nutraloaf tastes blank, as though someone physically removed all hints of flavor. “That’s the goal,” says Mike Anderson, Aramark’s district manager. “Not to make it taste bad but to make it taste neutral.” By those standards, Nutraloaf is a culinary triumph; any recipe that renders all 13 of its ingredients completely mute is some kind of miracle.

I ate two-thirds and gave up, longing for any hint of flavor, even a bad one. That night, my stomach’s rebellion against the loaf was anything but neutral. I felt so full and lethargic that I skipped dinner and the following breakfast. And let’s just say I finally had a lot of time alone to catch up on my New Yorker reading.

Even though inmates in several states, including Illinois, have sued over Nutraloaf, alleging cruel and unusual punishment, correctional departments everywhere are introducing their own versions of the “disciplinary loaf.” None of the lawsuits have been successful. “We’re not trying to dump Tabasco sauce on their tongues or anything like that,” Dart says. “It just tastes like nothing.” In other words, they found a loophole: Nutraloaf is not cruel; it’s just unusual. Soon it may cease to be either.

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4 years ago
Posted by Elf Sternberg

I've haved Nutriloaf. I cooked it for a "weird food potluck" back in February, 2006, using the vegetarian recipe used by the Maryland Correctional System.

Making the stuff is somehow slightly more disgusting than eating it. When you make the wet mix before baking, it has a smell that can only be described as institutional.

Eating it, on the other hand, is trivial. It is so boring, however, that after a half-pound, somehow none of the signals we've evolved to tell us we're eating what's good for us have been triggered. I knew, intellectually, that my needs had been met, none of the defensive mechanisms that tell us we're eating bad food were triggered, my stomach was signalling that I was full, but somehow... somehow I knew I still needed to find food. My instincts knew that that wasn't food, even though it meats the Michael Pollan definition of "your grandmother would recognize all of the ingredients as food."

It was a very unsettling reaction. I can understand why it's not considered cruel but, man, after a week of that stuff I'd be desperate for the taste of salt, sugar, fat... anything else.

4 years ago
Posted by fof

RE: the comment before mine
FYI, Cook County doesn't give inmates salt other than what MAY be in the food itself. Probably to prevent a slow escape by way of rusting the bars...
What is painful are the disgusting bologna sandwiches that they call lunch. Every single day without fail, it's 4 slices of bread and a couple pieces of gross bologna with inconsistent texture (and often color, being bluish or greenish). Two mustard packets to choke it down, a packet of kool-aid mix and a single holy grail treat - usually some rejected name brand confection that presumably didn't make the quality control cut by the distributor or expired and has made its way to Cook County. Oh, and a bag of chips - usually Bugles which is torture in itself.

Dinner is the only edible meal if you want to call it that. Breakfast tends to be watery, flavorless grits with a couple sugar packets, couple spoonfuls of syrup, and either semi-cooked flavorless potato chunks or else some rice krispies. Couple slices of bread to fill you, and a carton of milk.

4 years ago
Posted by loafgoodness

Good solution to eating Nutraloaf: Don't go to jail. No one cares if you enjoy your stay.... it's jail. No one wants you coming back for the free room and board... it's jail. If you don't like the food, don't get in trouble.

4 years ago
Posted by norris

@FOF
I am with Loafgoodness. I smile everytime I hear about someone complaining about their stay in jail. "the food was bad" "I was treated poorly" blah blah.
I couldn't care less, even if I tried. People end up in jail by making dumb decisions, so you made your cement cot with thin matress and one blanket, so SLEEP IN IT. I say feed everyone loafs and make institutions so damn uncomfy that becoming "institutionalized" is unbearable.

4 years ago
Posted by orionblamblam

Oddly enough, just a few days ago I posted how "Nutraloaf" could be used to save the government a vast sum of money: replace food stamps with free Nutraloaf. Make it freely available everywhere and to everyone. Those who don't need it won't eat it; those who refuse to eat it because it's not tasty... well, they clearly don't need food assistance. Unlike food stamps, it can't be used as cuirrency in underground economies... nobody is goign to trade freely available nutraloaf for crack or cash.

More on this idea: http://up-ship.com/blog/?p=6864

4 years ago
Posted by AuntieSocial

Norris and FOF - People also go to jail for:

* Photographing the police violently assaulting unarmed protesters

* Shooting cops who burst into the wrong house on a no-knock warrant.

* Being in the wrong place at the wrong time and not having a way to prove you weren't involved in something you knew nothing about before it went down.

* Being brown in brown-unfriendly areas.

* Being wrongly accused or anything from rape to harassment to child abuse, either through honest misidentification or malicious intent.

And so on.

I'm not saying that those who are rightly in jail have any reason to complain. I agree - you made the choice, you suck it up. But it's totally specious and simplistic to say that everyone in jail is there because they screwed up and they deserve whatever they get. A not insignificant portion of people in jail are innocent or, at the least, guilty of nothing more than pissing someone else off who had the power to put them there.

4 years ago
Posted by davidst

"Good solution to eating Nutraloaf: Don't go to jail. No one cares if you enjoy your stay.... it's jail. No one wants you coming back for the free room and board... it's jail. If you don't like the food, don't get in trouble."

Says the optimistic fool who thinks it's impossible for innocent people to end up in prison.

3 years ago
Posted by Cornholio

loafgoodness,

Your assumption that everyone in jail is bad or has done something wrong is idealistic and naive. The sad truth is that in this country people are wrongly convicted, and many people spend YEARS in prison for something as petty as possessing a freakin' plant!

3 years ago
Posted by br12345

Loafgoodness - good luck staying out of jail. It's dead simple to get anyone in jail - here's how you do it.

1. A miscreant accuses Loafgoodness of some heinous act that s/he did not commit - child molestation, rape, murder, whatever - and falsifies sufficient "evidence" so that the cops have probable cause to arrest Loafgoodness and haul him/her off to jail to await trial.

2. Loafgoodness, being unable to afford a good criminal defense lawyer, settles for an overworked and overburdened public defender who does not do much of anything to help him/her.

3. Loafgoodness also does not have enough money to bail out of jail and do his/her own investigation into the charges against him/her.

4. After a few nightmarish months in jail, and the realization that if the case goes to trial, s/he will have at least a 50% chance of being found guilty (since juries like to be "tough on crime" and since the defense lawyer isn't doing his job), Loafgoodness decides to take a plea bargain and plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for dismissal of the more serious charge (i.e. take 3 years in prison rather than risk losing at trial and getting 20 years).

5. Loafgoodness goes off to prison to eat Nutraloaf and everyone else pats themselves on the back about how well the criminal justice system works.

How many prison inmates are innocent people caught in something like the above? We will never know.

3 years ago
Posted by Boredoutofmymind

Somehow I feel more inclined to try some now just for the experience.

Unfortunately, innocent people do go to jail, but the U.S. legal system is as fair as it gets. If anyone has any better ideas, I'm sure that that person should try to get them implemented.

2 years ago
Posted by Loafamous

I agree that the loaf is something that should be used for the entire inmate population. It meets the needs of daily intake and jail isn't suppose to be a vacation from doing what you should which is paying taxes and being a productive member of society.
The idea of using it in lue of food stamps however .... any of us could (especially with todays economy) end up in a food line someday so I don't really support the idea. I believe there are many today who are on food stamps not because of thier own choosing but due to hard times. Sure, there are those who abuse the system but I do not believe this would be fair to those who are trying to do the right thing.
The correctional facilities are doing nothing wrong by serving the loaf to inmates when found in violation of the facilty rules and regulations. I have been alive over a half of a century and believe you do not end up in jail for being at the right place at the right time. You do go to jail because you did something wrong or you were associating with the wrong crowd. Prabable cause must be established before the jail door slams behind you. I speak from 30 years experience of working in a local Adult Detention Center (formally known as "Jail").
I say let the nutriloaf spread like a desease until it because loafamous program!

2 years ago
Posted by fiona

re Nutriloaf for the poor - sure this may serve as a deterrent for idle loafers (pun intended), but the genuinely poor already live such a struggle, why punish them by removing another potentially enjoyable thing - food for nutriloaf?

re innocent people in jail - yes, I'm aware that there are no guilty people in jail, only innocent ones in the wrong time at the wrong place.. :P
however - it's stated that the nutriloaf isn't for the general prison population - it's for those who *cause trouble within the jail*. So Joe Innocent should be still able to enjoy his bologna sandwiches. But if Joe Innocent has a tantrum and throws his food, tries to shiv someone etc - then he only has himself to blame and deserves the nutriloaf as much as Joe Guilty. It also raises the question of was he as innocent as he claimed.

1 year ago
Posted by teoferrazzi

@Fiona
your assumption that behaving violently in jail is a possible indication of guilt is absolutely preposterous.
I'd be pretty pissed off if I were put in jail for a crime I didn't commit. would I act on my feelings violently?
who knows?

7 months ago
Posted by Rhyz7895

@Fiona and what if he was attacked and was just defending himself? One of the "real" scumbags of prison approaches them and attacks joe innocent just for looking at him funny. Joe Innocent must either defend himself or die. A guard walks by and sees the two fighting. Now "joe innocent" is thrown into solitary confinement and has an extra 4 months added to his bid, and one pissed off scumbag that wants his hide. You call that fair? Please, use your brain before speaking (or in this case, typing).

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