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The moment of truth

I did not face the completed Nutraloaves alone. Different people have different tastes, so it would be unfair to the original prison chefs to be judged by a single taster. To add some diversity, my tasting panel consisted of myself, curious about my new creations, Waldo,284 willing to eat almost anything and plenty of it, Cat,285 the slender owner a very sensitive and discriminating palette, and Terri,286 who until very recently was trusting enough to not look up unfamiliar words like “Nutraloaf.” To heighten the realism, we ate from parchment paper, without utensils, at room temperature. We did allow ourselves bottles of water to sip between recipes though.

First up was the Illinois vegan recipe.287 Waldo thought it had a “moist and doughy texture. Like cold baked mashed potatoes” or “Thanksgiving stuffing on a diet.” Cat thought it was cold, garlicky, and “scary,” while Waldo detected “subtle, almost delicate spicing.” Terri thought it was very bland and suggested salt might help. The only thing I could taste was a trace of the garlic powder, nearly buried in blandness. Waldo and Cat both suggested it would be better with a sauce. I thought it might be better if it were far less moist – dry enough to qualify as the “bread dish” that other recipes are known as.288 Cat asked for a “rejects plate,” and Waldo offered to finish her piece. Waldo speculated that with a sauce or garnish this recipe could be “a trendy, high priced dish at an Ethiopian restaurant.” He concluded by stating that he would be willing to eat it again, but not pay for it.

Next came the Illinois beef recipe.289 It looked and smelled a lot like the vegan recipe.290 Terri and I could taste the beef, but just barely. The main difference was the texture the beef added. Cat noted that it provided “some li’l bits to chew but eventually [it] turns into a paste.” She compared it to baby food, but admitted she was chewing more than with the vegan dish. Waldo commented that the “beef gives a little resistance when you chew, but inconsistently. The regular texture of [the] vegan dish seems like a plus in retrospect. It feels like I am chewing something now, but not enough to feel substantial.” Terri and I both thought that the beef version was slightly better than the vegan version. I only ate half of my piece though. It wasn’t that different.

California’s recipe291 was an improvement. Cat thought it tasted “like real food” and compared it to “a beef & bean paielli,” while Waldo attributed a “great south-west baked-chili quality to it, [and a] sometimes crunchy crust.” Terri dubbed it “not bad actually” but noted that it would taste better if it was served hot. I thought the chili powder gave it a nice smoky barbeque flavor. It did not taste nearly as charred as it looked. A slice of this recipe falls apart easier than either Illinois recipe because it is much less damp – it has about the right moisture content that you would expect for a finger food. Cat agreed that it was “not too mushy” like Illinois’. Waldo speculated that the “filling, meaty texture” could serve as “one hell of a bean-dip layer,” or alternatively, “serve this with horchata out of a hole-in-the-wall Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant and I’d buy it.” I finished my piece and thought about seconds. Even Cat suggested she might be willing to eat another slice.

Maryland’s recipe292 was round four. Waldo, upon his first taste, struck a thoughtful pose and stated “that’s odd.” He thought it smelled “less foodlike than the others” and tasted “like lima beans and baked yams, except the beans taste[d] a little fruity and the yams were strained through a sock.” I was already traumatized from preparing the disaster, so I just took one tiny nibble and announced “yuk.” Cat compared it to “a mushy mass of slightly slimy whole wheat bread crusts.” Waldo compared it to “a spinach quiche someone already ate.” He concluded that “there is nothing intentionally repulsive about this, but they put no real effort into flavor matching. It’s just accidentally repulsive.” (Waldo did not have an opportunity to sniff the mixture before it was cooked.) Despite his scorn, he ended with “I’m gonna finish this one” and “I don’t want to eat another one, but I will.” He did not, however, finish his slice in front of me. I wrapped it and another for him to take home. Terri summed it up best: “Really? You make people eat this? What'd I ever do to you?” She was not quoting a hypothetical prisoner addressing a cruel guard. She was speaking to me.

Fortunately for our morale, we concluded with the recipe from Oregon and Washington.293 Waldo dubbed it “a meal meant to be enjoyed.” Cat and I compared it to a somewhat bland meatloaf, which is basically what it was. Terri thought it resembled Thanksgiving stuffing, and noted that it “wouldn't be bad with some hot gravy.” Waldo and I thought it went beyond moist, in a good way – it was actually juicy. Cat felt that this recipe “tasted the most like ‘real’ food” and didn’t “resemble some weird vegan food alternative.” I had had a suspicion that this recipe would be good, so I made a very large amount. It provided several meals over the following days, although I did serve it hot, and I added spices and catsup to the last few meals.

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