Martha Stewart is sour about food in prison

Domestic diva complains on Web

December 24, 2004|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

There will be no chocolate Armagnac truffles in Alderson Federal Prison Camp this Christmas. No glistening apple caramel steamed pudding. No golden crusty eggnog custard cups.

Alas, for Alderson inmate and fine food maven Martha Stewart, perfectly poached pears with gingerbread will be missing, too.

It seems that her temporary incarceration in West Virginia has put a depressing damper on her usual fine dining, the domestic doyenne told fans in a holiday greeting on her personal Web site this week.

"I look forward to being home, to getting back to my valuable work, to creating, cooking, and making television," Stewart writes in her open letter to the public, pining, perhaps, for the Christmas dessert menu of the week on her recipe page.

"I have had time to think, time to write, time to exercise, time to not eat the bad food, and time to walk and contemplate the future."

A future, perhaps, where a warm yuletide dinner is followed up with a festive fig holiday roll that can serve 16 of your closest friends. Prison pumpkin pie, after all, can be so gauche.

It should come as no surprise that Stewart is less than tickled with the cuisine at the minimum security prison known as Camp Cupcake, where more than 1,000 female inmates are housed. This is just the latest in a series of reported gripes Stewart has had with jailhouse gastronomy.

"C'mon, she's not exactly eating foie gras," said Alan Breslow, vice president of Las Vegas-based Somerset Industries, which supplies food to more than 1,000 local, state and federal prisons in the country. "It's not exactly eating at Morton's in Chicago or the Savoy in New York, either.

"But it's not that bad."

Well, maybe not for those who lack a discriminating palate. But we are talking about Martha, she who taught us what to do with leftover pie dough and who brought edible pansies to the masses.

Just last month Prisoner No. 55170-054, better known as the Contraband Queen by her fellow prisoners, made the news for allegedly smuggling brown sugar, powdered sugar, cinnamon, butter and other food from the kitchen in her undergarments to whip up her own cell-block delicacies. Was it for a batch of Alexis' brown sugar chocolate chip cookies?

The New York Post reported in October that Stewart hated prison food so much that she swiped eggs from the dining hall and made egg salad to share with her friends.

That month, Stewart's daughter, Alexis, told fans on Larry King Live that her mother deemed the food "terrible."

Meals featuring cold cereal, cold sandwiches and fried chicken have apparently taken their toll. People magazine reported this month that Stewart had shed 10 pounds since starting her five-month prison sentence in October. Stewart, convicted of lying to investigators about a stock sale, is due to be released in March.

And according to the SaveMartha fan Web site, "As a result of the Alderson Prison Diet, Martha has lost quite a bit of weight, and she reportedly looks better and more rested than she has in years. She has also learned how to make a fantastic creme brulee in the microwave, a recipe that might make it into a future cookbook."

But before we smugly brush off Stewart's not-so-silent suffering, consider the account of one inmate who suggests she has good reason to turn up her nose at prison chow.

Claire Hanrahan, a peace activist and former inmate at Alderson, described the Camp Cupcake dining experience in her book Conscience & Consequence: A Prison Memoir.

"My first prison dinner, served cafeteria-style, is dished out by the women assigned to work the steam tables in the Central Dining Room (CDR). They are wearing white cotton shirts and pants and have nets wrapped around their hair," she writes.

"I'm quite hungry as I scan the steam table for a vegetarian option. I choose a pasta dish with a scant tomato sauce, some pinto beans, a square of too-sweet corn bread, and canned yams. I pass up the iceberg lettuce."

Another account, a posting on PrisonTalk.com by a writer who identifies herself as a former Alderson prisoner, suggests it's just a matter of taste.

Judging the food as good, the inmate said there was a wide selection from a beverage bar, soup bar, salad bar and hot bar, in addition to the main line.

Food-wise, that seems no worse than what one encounters every day in college campus dining halls or office cafeterias.

According to Breslow, prison kitchens are more concerned with basic nutrition than culinary art. Most employ dietitians and a food service director who plan the meals.

For breakfast, he says, there's ordinarily a choice of eggs, cereal, pancakes or french toast and some sort of meat protein. For lunch, a selection of 4 ounces of protein - Salisbury steak, for example - spaghetti, potatoes, vegetables and fruit or cake. Dinner, he says, is often similar to lunch.

But vegetarians are duly accommodated, he adds. So, too, are those with religious food restrictions. Some prisons even cater to those who opt for a more heart-healthy diet, offering low-sodium dining options.

"Many people will eat better in prison than on the outside," said Breslow, who found himself smiling when he heard about Stewart's culinary complaints. "I know the food we sell is healthy and nutritious, but maybe she doesn't have the sauce she'd like.

"I think Ms. Martha is just building a plan so she'll have something to talk about when she gets out," he said, adding, "It's a cheap shot. Sour grapes."

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