In this modern world so defined by speed and extremity, it seems that many of us seek out increasingly unique and dramatic experiences. From horse surfing to volcano boarding to death races, we have become a people famished for new thrills.
In the realm of food, the quest for adventure is no less. Television shoes like "Bizarre Food America" has the host sampling such tasty tidbits like baked muskrat and piglet testicles. And for the ordinary foodies — those of us without television crews to follow us around the globe while we choke down weird things — there is a growing trend in “eating experience” events, like blindfolded tastings and clandestine pop-up restaurants in abandoned buildings and structures.
But after you’ve tried chocolate-covered scorpions and have grown tired of illegal nightclubs in urban water towers, you can always go for the historical experience with a museum tasting. This may be less exciting in terms of sexy pizzazz, but for food enthusiasts who are also secret history buffs, what could be better?
A fine place to start is at Eastern State Penitentiary. Opened in 1829 as part of a controversial Quaker-inspired program of isolation and labor, the penitentiary became one of the most famous and expensive prisons in the world. Yet like many a grand old historic building, it fell into disrepair and was closed in 1970; and then, like many a grand old abandoned historic building, it was saved by a group of conservationists — and then reopened as a museum in 1991.
Among a roster of interesting events, Eastern State hosted a "Prison Food Weekend" in May, with prisoner meals were served in historic locations throughout the complex. The tastings focused on prison food through the years, serving guests sample meals from the 1800s, 1900s and today.
"We wanted to talk about the food served in prisons today, because the prison population has increased so enormously over the last 40 years, driving the cost per meal, per inmate all the way down to $2.30," Sean Kelley, a senior vice president at the penitentiary, told NPR’s The Salt. "It's institutional food, and it tends to be heavily processed — canned, frozen or fried."
Kelley says that the food in previous centuries was less regular and always made from scratch.
"The 1949 menu we have on display is filled with all sorts of quirky things inmates were able to make," he says. "There is a lot of disagreement about whether food was better or not back then, but it reflects that the inmate chefs had to make do with what they could get."
One item tasters got to try is the unglamorously named “Nutraloaf,” an intentionally bland food log still used as “punishment food” in prisons across the country; Jeff Ruby of Chicago magazine describes it as "a thick orange lump of spite with the density and taste of a dumbbell, [it] could only be the object of Beelzebub’s culinary desires." Every state has its own version of this abysmal consumable. The standards of the American Correctional Association, which accredits prisons, discourages the use of food as a disciplinary measure, and there have been a rash of lawsuits by prisoners complaining about the disciplinary use of Nutraloaf.
Yet, people are lining up at Eastern State to get their hands on some.
Watch below as the staff from the Glens Falls Post-Star react to tasting their county's version of Nutraloaf:
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