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May 12, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Thinking about murdering someone? Well, you can say goodbye to Shakespeare’s pizza, Sparky’s ice cream and ordering in your favorite Chinese food, and say hello to the most dismal plate of mush for the rest of your days.
I sit in the lobby of the Boone County Jail. In my lap is a thick maroon tray of food covered with plastic wrap. I peel it back to unveil what many criminals have to eat for years while they are on trial. The macaroni and cheese, steamed vegetables and cornbread glare at me as I begin to imagine facing this goop day after day.Related Articles
A man in a baggy T-shirt and jeans is waiting to be admitted into the jail, and he sits across from me. We take up the only two sad beige plastic chairs in the tiny cement-walled lobby. He looks at me curiously.
“What are you doing?” he says.
“I’m writing an article on jail food,” I say.
“So, you’re actually going to eat that?” he says.
I look down at the menacing meal.
“Yes,” I say.
I ask him what food he’s going to miss the most before he heads inside. He sighs. “Pizza,” he says.
For some mid-Missourians convicted of murder, the Boone County Jail is their first stop, and let’s just say the meal in my lap could be the best meal of the week for all I know. I’m left pondering what foods I absolutely couldn’t live without — cheesy, saucy pizza; my mom’s creamy lasagna; a giant bowl of guacamole with chips and a moist chocolate cake on my birthday — before I look down again at the ominous maroon tray.
I start with the mac and cheese, but as I put the first bite in my mouth, I realize it’s miles away from my grandma’s or even boxed Kraft. The noodles are mushy and disintegrate within seconds. If I didn’t have to pay attention to the taste, I would have just thrown the glob to the back of my throat like a shot of vodka.
Suddenly, I’m left with a pasty sauce, absent any form of cheese, sprinkled with mystery meat I believe to be ham. The texture alone is cruel, like vomit, but I make it through a couple bites and head for the vegetables. Next up is steamed tomatoes and zucchini. Luckily this side is seasoned with salt and pepper, and the natural sweetness from the tomatoes carries the weight of the bland zucchini. Unfortunately, something that tastes better than the mac and cheese doesn’t necessarily mean I want to take another bite of it. The vegetables still manage to collapse in my mouth without the slightest bit of chewing involved.
Next, I go toward the other steamed medley of carrots, peas and green beans, like the kind Hy-Vee has in bags in the frozen foods section. However, these are not seasoned: no salt, no butter, nothing. The poor veggies were just cooked until they died and then maybe heated up again for a little more torture. I put the mawkish veggie corpses into my mouth, and I feel like I’m 5 years old again, wanting to plug my nose and gulp down a milk chaser.
But of course, I have none, so I look toward the brick of cornbread for refuge. Suddenly the skies open up and the sweet carbohydrate gods come down to rescue me. Now I can see why there’s such a big portion. The sweet, crumbly bread pushes all the bad veggie thoughts away and serves as a piece of yellow cake without the frosting. I take another bite and then one more before I hand the tray back and return home to make my own dinner: herb mushroom cream pasta. It never tasted so wonderful.
But this probably isn’t the worst for murderers moving on to serve decade-long sentences in the Jefferson City Correctional Center. On one hand, the menu meets the American Heart Association’s guidelines, and there are dietary options for vegetarians and diabetics. There are also kosher or halal meals available for people who follow a religious diet, as well as the addition of dessert. On the other, it still can’t be much better than the jail food I dared to put in my trap. Let’s hope we never have to find out.