In an earlier draft of one of my dissertation chapters, I made one or two claims that leaned on the assumption that tasting food is rarely a neutral act and usually elicits either pleasure or displeasure. One of my committee members highlighted this and asked “Really? Aren’t we often in the middle zone?” My response was to restructure those claims rather than to theorize some kind of spectrum of gustatory pleasure, which is out of my wheelhouse. But it’s a question that has lingered in the back of my mind ever since. Is there such a thing as a middle zone for taste? Is it possible to taste something that is not enjoyable without feeling something like disgust? When food is lacking in flavor or has a homogenous texture, the words we use to describe those sensations–bland, mealy, tepid, etc.–have negative associations; do those negative sensations define a disgusting experience, or is there some middle space between pleasant and unpleasant tastes?
Prison Food Weekend at Eastern State Penitentiary last summer offered an opportunity to explore these questions in an entirely unscientific and anecdotal way: I tasted a few samples of punishment loaf and observed others going through the same process.
Nutraloaf or punishment loaf is a food product used in some U.S. prisons as severe punishment, particularly for inmates who are in solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure. Punishment loaf is not standard cafeteria fare, it’s the modern-day replacement for bread-and-water rations in which most of the major food groups (proteins, starches, veggies) are blended together to meet daily nutritional requirements. The loaf is often served without utensils or a tray, so it must be eaten with the hands or out of a bag.
Eastern State Penitentiary put out a few tables serving Nutraloaf made according to recipes from a few different states. Different state penal systems use different recipes and often have different regulations for when and how the loaf can be served. For example, California (whose recipe I did not try) provides two slices of bread and a quart of water with each serving of loaf; Arkansas (whose recipe I also did not try) does not provide anything other than the loaf, and expects inmates to drink water from the cell’s sink. Visitors and staff were invited to try different punishment loaf samples and mark down their impressions on a tasting card. As staff, I stood by various tables and offered a little historical context–because the prison itself is a historic site, many visitors were surprised to learn that Nutraloaf is a modern-day punishment–and I talked to visitors about their experience. Here are a few of my notes on different loaves.
Idaho was one of the only prison systems to have different punishment loaf recipes for different times of day. Eastern State served the breakfast loaf, which included cereal, powdered milk, orange juice, margarine, and sugar, The loaf was chewy, sweet, uniform in texture and appearance, like a slice of banana bread but with no color. You could taste the orange juice. It was an uninteresting sample, but not terrible. As I talked to visitors, many commented that the breakfast loaf wasn’t too bad in a small dose, certainly the least disgusting of the options. But it was hard to imagine eating an entire serving–about the size and depth of two stacked pieces of toast.
Idaho also recently discontinued use of punishment loaves. Nutraloaf is controversial; many states don’t use it at all, and in some states there have been lawsuits or complaints that use of the loaf is cruel and unusual.
Pennsylvania‘s loaf was very, very dry and crumbly; I don’t know how you’d eat it without utensils. It had a pale color with visible grains of rice, tasting vaguely of milk. (There’s a recipe floating around; it does contain reduced fat milk.) For some tasters, this loaf was the worst available option: they described it as dry and flavorless, like eating cardboard or nothing. For others, this was a lesser evil; some even said it wasn’t bad. This loaf made a particularly interesting test case to my theory that blandness is by default a disgusting experience; while many recoiled from this tasteless loaf, others were relieved that it had fewer mysterious unnameable flavors than the others (such as the Arkansas recipe, which was served right next to Pennsylvania’s and which contained some very pungent ingredients).
The Illinois loaf was vegan, and the bean and spinach ingredients were both very visible and very prominent in flavor. Like the Idaho loaf, this one wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting from the way it looked; it even tasted like something I’d make for myself, if I forgot to include any savory flavor agents like mustard, salt, or pepper, and if I forgot to turn the burner up. The vegan loaf is cooked by mixing everything up and baking it at low heat, so the beans were very mealy. This loaf also got very mixed reviews; some people strongly disliked it, but others thought it wasn’t too bad. “It tastes like what I had for dinner last night,” one visitor said to me. “Did you like what you had for dinner last night?” I asked her. She shook her head no. I asked her how she would feel about eating that dinner three times a day for several days or weeks. I couldn’t even bring myself to eat a second sample.
I also couldn’t bring myself to try the Arkansas or California recipes; they looked too much like pet food. Which brings up another interesting element of the tasting experience: Nutraloaf doesn’t really look or taste like anything we normally eat. Some of the recipes made a nod to cultural expectations for food–like the orange juice and cereal combo in Idaho’s breakfast loaf, or the rare inclusion of spice that made the California loaf stand out from the others–but broadly speaking, Nutraloaf is food stripped of context, which caused tasters to scrabble for associations like “last night’s dinner which I didn’t enjoy” or “pet food.” That summer, there was an art installation at Eastern State that featured an actual car inside one of the 8′ x 12′ cells; the car was stripped of all its paint, branding, and identification, so it was nearly impossible to tell what color or make it had been. The punishment loaves reminded me of that car: they possess all the working parts of a meal–nutrients, bulk, minimum required calories–but they have been stripped of context and reassembled into something that has no particular cultural affiliations or symbolic associations.
The final table of this demonstration offered a very different food experience: chi chi, also known as spread, or prison comfort food made from items that can be purchased from commissary. In stark contrast to the punishment loaves, chi chi is made by inmates for their own enjoyment, and there are as many different recipes as there are people who make it. The recipe served at Prison Food Weekend included melted processed cheese, crushed cheese chips, chopped up pickles, chopped up summer sausage, and crushed ramen noodles. Mixed together in a plastic bag with hot water to marry the ingredients, the texture was a little creamy, a little crunchy, but fairly uniform. Spooned into little soufflé cups, the mixture was sticky and bright orange.
Response from tasters was widely varied. Some liked it, a few really liked it, but quite a few found the combination so repugnant that they wouldn’t try it, or they’d try it and say it was as bad as the Nutraloaf. This surprised me greatly; the flavor was not as strong as I expected from the color, but I have to say that I liked the way it tasted. Processed cheese, ramen, and sausage are the comfort foods of my adolescence, although arguably even then they occupied an unexpected space between delicious and disgusting. As a teenager I had already absorbed the idea that these processed foods were “bad” foods, and I was aware that melting American cheese on top of ramen noodles would not widely be considered “good” food, even though it hit all the salty and savory flavors I craved. I imagine that a lot of us have some favorite foods that exist in that space, such as oysters and other foods with a vaguely mucous texture, or unexpected flavor combinations (the example that leaps to mind is Carrie Bradshaw’s taste for grape jelly on saltines).
Although this experience provided me with lots of little snapshots of how different people experience and interpret disgust in food, I don’t have an answer to my question–or if I do, it’s that tolerable blandness can become intolerable with only minor shifts in circumstances. I’m still not convinced that any of what I saw or experience could be described as a neutral response, but if nothing else, it seems clear that the line between “good to eat” and “bad to eat” is not always distinct.