Prison has a rhythm. Every day starts with a buzz – or a click – or a clank. That would be your cell door opening. After that, you’re on the deck, even on weekends (sleeping with your cell door open is a bad idea on a number of levels). Then comes a chorus of flushing toilets and cacophony of a hundred dissatisfied customers entering a collective realization: we’re still here. A few single-syllable expletives and it’s off to breakfast.
I like breakfast. The quarter-mile walk to the chow hall is a great way to clear your head (and nostrils) of the prison experience and check the pulse of the day to come. Because breakfast is the least attended meal, any variance in that can be a signal of trouble. Or worse.
The line-up of cons stretched out ahead of me like a Soviet bread queue. There had to be two hundred and fifty of them – and that was outside the dining room.
“What’s up?” I asked a lifer named Huck.
“It’s the new menu. Everybody wants to see what it is.”
The new menu. We had heard it was coming. Four months earlier, the Prime Minister had been on TV telling Canadians how he would be fixing the problem of prisoner meals. One would think that with a national army to repatriate, a fleet of sinking submarines, a 14.7 percent youth unemployment rate, and an Elections Canada investigation closing in on him like one of Obama’s drones, Canada’s top role model would have more pressing issues than what the boys in the Big House were eating for supper. Silly me. Evidently, the whole key to reeling in a fifty billion dollar budget deficit is circumscribing the number of hotdogs that Canada’s jailbirds get every week.
“Didn’t they see the menu?” I asked. Copies of it were posted everywhere. If it was accurate, today’s advertised fare would be toast (brought to you by the makers of bread) and a serving of peanut butter. Yet the herd ahead of us buzzed like they were lined up for hash brownies and Amaretto coffee.
“You know the rule in here,” Huck said. “It doesn’t have to be good – just different.”
It’s true. I recently found a reprint of the daily diet from the B.C. Penitentiary in the 1880’s. Breakfast comprised of one pint of coffee (sweetened with ½ oz. of brown sugar), ½ pound of brown bread, ½ pound of boiled potatoes, and ¼ pound of boiled beef. Lunch was a pint of soup, ½ pound of white bread, ¾ pound of boiled potatoes, and ½ pound of boiled pork. And supper? Ten ounces of brown bread and a pint of coffee. Repeat as necessary. Thankfully the menu rotated, and on weekends the warden would throw in a serving of beets and vinegar. According to the article, beet days were a big hit with the boys. But even back then, hard line governments could squeeze mileage out of convict carb counts. At the turn of the 20th century, word reached the House of Commons that prisoners in Kingston had received a spoonful of plum pudding for Christmas. The ensuing debate probably burned more calories than a week in the prison rock quarry, and it was only by a narrow vote that the Big House escaped a return to the days of bread and water.
“You know the thing that blows my mind?” said a voice from behind. It was Twist, the latest addition to the drag queen pool. In his first six months here, he had gone from being a transgender lesbian to a married housewife (draped on the arm of the lifer’s group president) to a professional arm wrestler (betting against him has cost more than one con his lunch). Guessing what blows his mind could put you in the psyche ward.
“This is the new menu for every prison in the country – from New Brunswick to Vancouver Island. So much for Locavorism. Can you imagine the greenhouse gasses they’re going to burn just to make sure that every prisoner in Canada gets the same fish stick on Fridays?”
Locavorism? Not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of a caucus dialogue on con cuisine…
“And good LORD, we wish to thank you for blessing Canada’s greatest friend – your chosen people – Israel, with nuclear deterrent against the satanic Iranians. We also thank you for this low-carb breakfast provided for us in an asbestos-free environment, and pray that you would please forgive our debtors because, as you well know LORD, the polls don’t permit us to at this time. Amen.”
“Amen. Great prayer, Johnny. Especially that part about the polls. If Wild Rose had reminded the LORD about the polls, Quebec would have been a third world nation this morning.”
“Thanks, Chief. Care for a low fat mango?”
“Not yet, bro. Hey Vickalicious, check your Ipad. What are the poor people eating this morning?”
“There’s an app for that?”
“Yeah, Petey. We had the boys at RackNine whip one up for us.”
“Oatmeal and créton, Chief.”
“According to this it’s congealed pig fat with processed meat flecks.”
“Tweet the wardens, will you Vickinator? Make sure there’s no sugar in that oatmeal.”
“Got it, Chief.”
“And Beverly Hills, pass me some of that fresh-squeezed saffron juice, will you dear?”
I like to think that a top-down micromanaged prison menu is the sign of a shiny new future for Canada. Paired with mandatory minimum sentences, it could even solve the problem of all those hungry First Nation’s students. Hopefully they won’t mind the line-up.