Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Prisoner’s Beans.

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.

Bacon             Syrup
Coffee           Cream

Veal           Stew
Irish          Potatoes
Chilie          Beans
Stewed          Peaches
Ice         Tea

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:

Chili Recipe.
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.
Charles Ramsdell


Wafna said...

Chili in the grand Texas tradition never includes beans, but the formatting of the Dallas jail menu suggests the dish was "chilli beans" (and so "veal stew" and "Irish potatoes", as differentiated from sweet potatoes.) In the south central Texas tradition, "chili beans" are pinto beans stewed with onion, some kind of meat and spices like the Gebhardt chili powder.

Note also the jail menu calls the evening meal "supper". That would suggest the noon meal was the heavier. The day's big meal is usually called "dinner", whether served at noon or night.

Pete said...

Gebhardt's is still the most dependable of the made chili powders. My mother used it all her life (New Mexico, 1936, was when she started cooking) and I swear by it. Of course, in modern times it's very much the fashion to prepare your own combination of herbs and spices for chili-ed foods, rather like making your own curry powder, but for quick meals that taste authentic, Gebhardt's is the thing to use.

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks Pete! I think I assumed that Gebhardt's Chili Powder was no longer available - I am delighted that it is.
Kind regards

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks Wafna. I always learn so much from informative comments like yours. So, no meat for supper? I guess that makes sense, after Veal Stew for the midday meal.

Sharlene T. said...

I've often wondered how institutions maintain diets that aid in normal body functions... this menu helps clear that up... with large numbers of inmates, dietary problems could be enormous, I would imagine... thanks for your efforts and sharing... come visit when you can...

Twitter: SolarChief

Auntie Kate said...

Chili goes back long before the 1900's, and perhaps the Texas prison system. For all I know, they just shot criminals back then. John Thorne has written a fantastic essay about the origins and variations of chili.

Gary said...

Chili, the dish, goes back at least to the nineteenth century.

O. Henry's story, "The Enchanted Kiss," described the chili queens of San Antonio -- street vendors that more than rivaled today's street food purveyors (the chili made by one of them contained a special ingredient that conferred eternal life to those who ate it).

I won't spoil the surprise by revealing that ingredient...

Another thing: Gebhardt's does still make chili powder, but its formulation has changed over the years. Half a century ago, the powder was much darker, mostly ancho chilies, with a deep wonderful fragrance. It came in a narrow, angular bottle -- and we always had Texas relatives send it to us, because it was unavailable in NY (it still is pretty uncommon outside of TX).