On this day in 1934, the first civilian prisoners arrived at Alcatraz. The prison had previously been purely for military miscreants, but in this year the island was converted into a Federal hold-all for the most difficult and dangerous inmates of other prisons around the country. It was a maximum security, minimum privilege jail and it was said that no-one got sent to Alcatraz - each had to earn the privilege by his behaviour.
Warden Johnson was no softie. Punishment, not rehabilitation, was the philosophy – but there were a couple of advantages to life there, over life in other penal institutions. There were individual cells, and a decent library – and the diet was the best in the Federal system, for the very practical reason that bad food was a common trigger for prison revolt.
A Prisoner got three meals a day, served cafeteria style, and second helpings were allowed so long as the prisoner finished all the food he took. The range of food was good, for the place and time, with luxuries such as salads and fresh fruit being on the menu.
Sadly, I have not been able to find an actual Alcatraz menu from the 1930’s, but to give you a general idea of prison fare of the time, here is one from the Dallas County Jail, on June 29, 1934.
The format of the menu makes it unclear whether the supper dish was ‘chilie, plus a side of beans’, or just ‘chile, including beans’. I suspect the latter, but am treading carefully here, being aware that in Texas, opinions on chile (and the inclusion of beans, or not) run very high.
There is one school of thought that says that ‘chile’ (the spicy meat dish, not the chilli pepper) was ‘invented’ in the Texas prison system in the mid-nineteenth century, as a way of making cheap, tough, meat go further and taste better. I don’t know about that, but I like the story.
From a 1930’s Texas newspaper, a very simple recipe for chili suitable for both bean-adders, and no-beaners:
The Gebhardt Chili Powder Company, of San Antonio, Teas, offers a very simple recipe to make chili at home. Here is all you have to do.
2 lbs of beef.
2 Tablespoons of Gebhardt’s Chili Powder
3 Tablespoons of Flour.
4 Tablespoons of Shortening.
2 Teaspoons of salt.
1 ½ Quart hot water.
One can of Gebhardt’s Spiced Beans (if desired).
Chop or cut the meat into small chunks. Sear well in shortening. Add Gebhardt’s Chili Powder, salt, and water. Simmer until tender. Add flour to thicken the gravy a few minutes before serving. Serve hot.
This recipe may disappoint you unless you use Gebhardt’s Chili Powder. Gebhardt’s Chili Powder is a complete flavoring, containing the necessary spices, etc, in combination with a blend of imported and domestic chili peppers to give you the perfect Mexican flavor of chili.
The Gebhardt Chili Powder Company has been a Texas institution for 41 years.
The Panola Watchman,[ Carthage, Texas] January 6, 1938
Quotation for the Day.
The only thing certain about the origins of chili is that it did not originate in Mexico.