Prison Food Taste Test: Eastern State Penitentiary Offers Tourists Inmate Fare From The Past

Prison Food Tasting

In a city that has become renowned for its hip and innovative restaurant scene, a local tourist attraction is offering decidedly different fare: prison food.

This weekend, the defunct Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia will serve visitors sample inmate meals from the 1830s, 1940s and today: broiled salted beef with “Indian mush”; hamburger with brown gravy and beets; and Nutraloaf – an unappetizing concoction currently served as punishment in prisons across the country.

Event organizers say the not-so-haute cuisine is a way to stimulate both the taste buds and the mind. The meals reflect the changing nature of food service at penal institutions and, in some ways, attitudes toward inmates, said Sean Kelley, the prison’s director of public programming.

“We hope to have a discussion all weekend long about what these policies mean to accomplish and whether they’re effective,” Kelley said.

The quirky tasting menu will be available Saturday and Sunday at Eastern State, a closed prison that once housed gangster Al Capone. The centuries-old facility was abandoned in 1971 but later reopened to tourists looking for an eerie glimpse of life behind its 30-foot-tall walls.

The weekend’s food samples will be prepared offsite by Freestyle BBQ, a catering company based in Langhorne that happens to be owned by Pennsylvania corrections officer John Freeman.

Freeman, who works at an undisclosed state institution, started his food business on the side last year. When he heard that Eastern State needed a temporary cook, Freeman couldn’t believe the serendipity – and neither could Kelley.

“Who knows prison food better than me?” Freeman said.

While on prison duty, Freeman eats the cafeteria food that he describes as flavorful but low-grade. Flavorful was not a word he used in talking about the bland recipes he’ll be making for Eastern State.

“It’s going to be hard … to cater something and basically not jazz it up,” Freeman said.

He described the broiled salted beef as being like corned beef, and the Indian mush as basically polenta – cornmeal and water. Kelley, who tried making the recipe himself, noted the mush was actually “very good” because it’s topped with a bit of molasses.

That meal would have been delivered to inmates in their cells because Eastern State in its early years used a system of solitary confinement. Prison officials at the time were optimistic that well-nourished inmates would be “penitent,” reflect on their offenses and become better people, Kelley said.

John Toth, who served about three years at Eastern State for armed robbery in the late 1960s, described oatmeal served at the prison as “baseballs inside a grayish-looking mass,” though he admitted the spaghetti and meatballs weren’t bad.

“The sauce was very good,” Toth said. “But it wasn’t quite like my mom used to make.”

The hamburger-and-gravy meal comes from an actual Eastern State menu for the week of April 17, 1949, which will be on display. At that time, inmates ate communal meals that were prepared on site by their fellow prisoners who used cookbooks, Kelley said.

Current prisoners in the state prison system are also trained to cook, said spokeswoman Susan Bensinger. A sample menu from Graterford prison near Philadelphia includes waffles, pork barbecue and poultry and gravy, with vegetarian options for each meal. But that’s for well-behaved inmates.

Inmates being punished get the food loaf often called Nutraloaf. The recipe varies by state, but in Pennsylvania it consists of rice, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, oatmeal, chick peas and margarine. It’s nutritionally sound but prisoners around the U.S. have filed lawsuits over it, calling it cruel and unusual punishment. Many states continue to serve it.

Kelley, who also made a batch and brought it in to share, said he was surprised at the number of co-workers who wouldn’t taste it.

“I’m curious to see if visitors really will be experimental enough to try it,” Kelley said.

Toth, now a 65-year-old retired paralegal, encouraged visitors to try the meals. Looking at the prison buildings and learning its history stimulate only four of the five senses, he said.

“If you want to know what the real experience was,” Toth said, “taste what they ate.”