The national food menu is scheduled to change next month, as it does every fall. The men who’ve been down for a dime still remember the days before a national menu was instituted when it was left to each federal prison to decide what food it served its inmates. To think of all those bologna sandwiches! Now all federal inmates are more or less guaranteed a 2000-calorie diet with fresh fruit and even heart-healthy and no-flesh options. Despite a uniform menu, food quality still varies from prison to prison. The food here in West Texas is generally much tastier than that in Mississippi. There the rice was often undercooked and the only seasonings in the beans were rocks and grit. I’m lucky to have escaped with my teeth intact. I once found an arrowhead in my black beans.
Jack got his hands on a copy of the new menu. Many of yesteryear’s beef dishes such as the enchilada casserole and meatball sub have been replaced with leaner, cheaper poultry. To appease the black Muslim population, pork has been eradicated from the menu entirely. New entrées include chicken tacos, fish tacos, and baked ziti. The baked ziti, Jack says, will be as equally bastardized as the chicken parmesan, which for years has never once come with cheese of any kind or even tomato sauce. Also new to the menu is a turkey burger served twice a month in addition to the beef burger which has long been the anchor of every Wednesday lunch. For those inmates who facetiously count the remainder of their bids in hamburgers, their sentences come October will increase by half.
Mrs. Eller had us devise menus of our own in Food Service Management. She said that everyone, not just those entering the food service industry, should know how to plan and budget their meals. She gave each student a sheet of paper with fourteen blank boxes and told us to work out two weeks’ worth of meals for a family of four on a $400 budget.
It isn’t difficult for a classroom of incarcerated men to fill fourteen boxes with foods they wish to eat. We could have filled a hundred boxes, entire calendars, with the dishes we miss most. Fried chicken and biscuits. Shrimp jambalaya. Carne asada. Broccoli-cheese casserole. Red beans and rice with corn pone. Mrs. Eller tried reining us in by gently recommending we take nutrition into consideration. The hypocrite! She with her notorious sweet tooth! This past week, at her beckoning, we churned homemade ice cream, baked chocolate chip cookies, and prepared three kinds of cream pies—chocolate, coconut, and Key lime. One poor diabetic complaining of lightheadedness had to be escorted to Medical. Surely Mrs. Eller could forgive us our gastronomic enthusiasm. We continued filling in boxes unfazed. Pork tamales for breakfast. Barbacoa served two nights a week. Cobbler served after every meal. We gave no thought to whether dishes paired well with one another. We gave not a damn for repurposing leftovers (there would be none). We said to hell with the perils of red meat. The national menu may prescribe turkey burgers, but our hearts cry for mother’s beef tips and gravy.
Determining the cost of groceries proved more challenging. It’s been years since any of us have stepped foot inside a grocery store. Mrs. Eller had a solution. She brought in a stack of old newspapers and had us scour the supermarket inserts for prices. What strange and colorful artifacts these fliers were, like something unearthed from the rubble of a long forgotten civilization. I recalled reading somewhere that if our society were to collapse and its remains discovered by a future people, they might infer upon excavating our landfills that we ate an inordinate amount of hot dogs. Beneath every rock, behold, a mummified frankfurter. Laced with so many preservatives they’d be about the only remaining evidence of our diet. Thumbing through the SuperSavers, I wondered, if all foods were as enduring as the hot dog, what our forbearers might make of a society that offers its citizens six varieties of milk in three different flavors. What might they say of a nation where the Greek yogurt comes pre-measured in 100-calorie-count cups; where an entire day’s allotment of protein can be satisfied with one indulgent chocolate shake; where the turkey bacon comes pre-cooked and ready-to-heat; where the chicken comes sliced, deboned, and marinated and, for those especially pressed for time, fully-cooked, seasoned, and shredded; where the ketchup is organic; where the cheese comes condensed and canned; where the broccoli comes chopped, packaged, and frozen, the stalks removed and leaves stripped leaving perfectly uniform florets that look as if they were cast from identical molds; where the green beans are extra fine and the snap peas premium; where the red and white quinoa comes in its own microwavable pouch and steams in only two minutes, and the rice with poblano strips and corn nibs in just three minutes more; where the snow crab is wild-caught for freshness and the Atlantic salmon farm-raised for quality (can it still be called Atlantic if it was raised on a farm?); where the immortal hot dog comes bun-length; and where the best thing since sliced bread is crustless bread.
These people must have really had their shit together, they might say. What an industrious and bustling society! So busy and time-strapped, they could afford to pay more for less bread at the convenience of having those impertinent crusts removed.
With ink-stained fingers we combed the food pantries of that capable civilization to which we once belonged. “Does anybody see chorizo?” “Where are the sweet potatoes?” “Has anyone found skirt steak?” The leaflets were less useful than presumed, their offerings outstripped by our vast food fantasies. What items could be found had their prices either obscured by savings or confounded by packaged deals, so that the price of kielbasa could not be extracted from that of baked beans. Mrs. Eller told us to do the best we could, to go by what we remember. But even if we could remember what we paid for a loaf of bread ten years ago, have our families not remarked in letters and in phone conversations on the rising cost of living? We might have paid their complaints more attention, but prices of fuel and food mean little to inmates who are neither mobile or self-sustaining.
“How much are tomatoes?” “What does a gallon of milk cost?” “Is four dollars too much for a pound of shrimp?”
Lugo sat back in his chair, arms folded across his belly, rattling off prices down to the penny. One student asked him the cost of ground beef. Assuming a 20-80 fat-to-lean ratio, Lugo answered $3.99 per pound. Another man asked him how much for a dozen eggs.
“Large, extra large, or jumbo?”
The man specified large.
“Make that free-range,” I added, throwing him a curve.
Lugo whistled. “That’s gonna cost you extra—$4.10.”
Others in the class piped up calling for the price of fresh asparagus, pork tenderloin, Yukon Golds. Lugo named every price with utter conviction. I asked him how long he’s been down. He said seven years.
“Don’t you think these prices might have changed since the last time you were on the street?”
Lugo tilted his head. “Maybe not so much.”
A man who had planned tacos for a Sunday barbecue asked Lugo for the price of lingua. Lugo didn’t hesitate, didn’t even bat an eye, before coming out with fifteen dollars.
“But you can save money,” he added, “by buying the whole head for twenty.”