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I Taste-Tested Various Nutraloafs at a Historical Prison Site in Philadelphia

It tasted like prison.
July 3, 2014, 2:00pm

Taking all the food in your pantry, blending it up into a weird paste, and making someone drink it isn’t just a timeless American pastime—it’s also a classic form of behavioral control that has been institutionalized in prisons across the country and even sanctioned by the justice system.

For years, prison kitchens across the country have been cooking up edible Frankenstein sludges, made from various parts of different meals, that wardens feed to particularly unruly prisoners as a form of punishment and behavioral control. The sludge is known as “nutraloaf,” and recipes for the nutritious mélange vary from state to state.

One thing that doesn’t vary is that the prisoners who eat the stuff hate it. But so far, despite numerous lawsuits filed by prisoners claiming that the food constitutes a violation of the 8th Amendment's protection from cruel and unusual punishment, no recipes have been deemed as such. The loaf, which is referred to in the penal system as a “Behavior Modified Meal,” is typically served as punishment for breaking or throwing trays, utensils, food, or poop. It’s doled out three days in a row for a first offense, and typically seven days in a row for any offense after that.

Recently, a historical prison site in Philadelphia decided to mix up its usual Monday-night hoagie-cheese steak-water ice-scrapple extravaganza, and instead handed out samples of nuraloaf from across the country. Although they didn’t offer any samples of the notorious Arizona-style nutraloaf, which got a reputation for being the nastiest of the nasty after Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio won a federal case allowing him to serve the stuff, I decided to check it out anyways so that any foodie who finds him or herself in the pokey will know what to expect.

State: Oregon and Washington

Taste and texture: I hope you like meatloaf, because that’s essentially what their nutraloaf tastes like. It has the same texture as undercooked beans, and occasionally a mushy apple sliver or a chunk of sour cabbage interrupts the otherwise savory taste. But overall, with a little bit of ketchup or barbecue sauce, I guess it wouldn’t be too bad.

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Recommended pairings: I’d suggest eating the Oregon/Washington-style loaf with a standard domestic lager, like a Yeungling or Brooklyn Lager. Any house red, like a merlot, would be fine as well and something that shouldn’t be too hard to bribe a guard with sexual favors for.

State: Illinois

Taste and texture: The Illinois version is much lighter than the one found in the Pacific Northwest. Although it contained meat, it had a much sweeter flavor, with strong hints of tomato and carrot, as well as a little garlic spice, which was a nice touch. The texture was comparable to a dry brownie that falls apart when you try to hold it but can be easily mashed back into its pasty batter form. Even though I've never tried vegan meatloaf, I'd imagine this is what it tastes like.

Recommended pairings: You might want something a little spicier to counterbalance the kick that this Midwest varietal lacked. I’d suggest going with something like a red zinfandel, or a pinot grigio, an imitation of which, so long as you have the right molding spices, could always just be brewed in a trash bag under your bunk.

State: Maryland

Taste and texture: The Maryland loaf gets points for having more moisture than any of the other loafs, but it also loses points for tasting so much like vomit. Somehow, it manages to perfectly evoke that simultaneously moist and grainy, salty-with-a-hint-of-sweet-curry, dehydrated ooze that barely makes it out of your mouth and onto your front steps as you crawl home from the bar after drinking nothing but beer and whiskey and then thinking it’s a good idea to hit up an all-night gyro stand without getting any water. And the most surprising thing about it: it’s completely vegetarian.

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Recommended pairings: I’d suggest something rich and fruity, like a Bordeaux or a pinot noir, to counterbalance its strange acidic tang. These can get a little pricier, so you might need to start doing your warden’s taxes, Andy Dufresne–style, to get your hands on a few bottles.

State: Idaho

(Dinner)

Taste and texture: If you find yourself eating the dinner nutraloaf in Idaho, count yourself lucky. Although it has one of the weirder recipes (e.g., “gelatin, any flavor”) it didn’t taste half bad. It was the first loaf that didn’t have that dry Fancy Feast texture. Instead it felt more like eating cafeteria mac and cheese, which, despite how you feel about what your high school lunches tasted like, at least you’re back in familiar territory. I was also able to easily distinguish some of the ingredients in the loaf, including corn, beans, and ground bits of meat. The mint-flavored gelatin in ours was vaguely off-putting, and the use of American cheese and margarine definitely undermined the claim that the stuff is supposed to be healthy, but a heavy dose of onions and beef gave it a comforting Tex-Mex appeal, and overall it was my favorite.

Recommended pairings: The strangely creamy yet south-of-the-border combination seemed to call out for sweet and strong porter, like one of those caramelly nitro beers that cost like $9 a bottle. This will be next to impossible to come by in prison, but if you have a good friend with a large anus, perhaps you guys can work something out.

(Breakfast)

Taste and texture: Maybe skip breakfast in Idaho, though; it was by far the worst one I tried. The ingredients were unsweetened dry cereal, granulated sugar, powdered milk, breadcrumbs, margarine, and orange juice. Maybe they just went a little too heavy on the bottom-shelf orange juice, but it tasted about as metallic as chewing on tin foil. It had the texture of soggy cereal that had been left to dry on the side of the bowl, and you could almost taste the cereal varnish. If General Mills had to mass-market it, they would be legally required to call it Curdled Flakes. I was just glad it was served cold, because otherwise I would have guessed that someone’s cat had just coughed it up.

Recommended pairings: The only reasonable drink I could suggest for this would be something extremely alcoholic. Skip the beer or the wine and go straight for the rotgut, preferably something piss-yellow. You’ll need to get the taste out of your mouth, and to get your mind off the fact that you’ll be eating this crap for the next couple of days.

By the end of my five-course taste test, I felt a little underwhelmed. On some level, I was hoping to see just how violated my tastebuds felt, but all said and done, it was nothing to write the ACLU about.

Sure, there were occasional violent clashes of taste and texture, but for the most part, it was all just boring and uncomfortable—like they somehow took everything that makes prison a place you’d never want to go, boiled it down into an edible form, baked it in a disposable aluminum pan, and then served it. The punishment isn’t the taste; it’s the fact that you have to keep eating it every day until someone decides you don’t have to anymore.