Slammer Mess (2001)

Captain Ray Daberko, chef to Dallas County inmates

Cooking is grueling. Just ask any professional chef. It's tedious work getting recipes right, nudging flavors into balance and grooming entrÈes into optimum presentability--especially when this work has to be done for a couple of hundred diners. But if this is tedious, what do you say about Dallas County Sheriff's Department Captain Ray Daberko's daily grind, which entails overseeing the feeding of some 8,000 jail inmates three times a day, for a total of 24,000 meals?

"It's a great big deal," deadpans Daberko, who says he heads up the nation's only centralized penal cook-chill operation with tray service. This means that raw foodstuffs brought into a county warehouse facility in West Dallas are opened, prepped, cooked, fed into plastic bags and rapidly chilled before they are shipped out to Dallas' separate jail facilities. Once they arrive at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center kitchen, the food is portioned into special trays and then delivered to the appropriate Sterrett tower or shipped to another jail facility. Once at its destination, the food is quickly heated in contraptions similar to convection ovens, united with a tray containing chilled items, and served to inmates in the jail "tanks," which hold anywhere from eight to 24 inmates. "Nobody in corrections does what Dallas does," explains Daberko. "What everybody else does is they have a kitchen in each facility."

The logistical requirements for such an operation are daunting. The 18-foot-high walk-in cooler--more like a drive-in--occupies some 1,800 square feet. The kitchen holds four 200-gallon computer-operated cooking kettles. "We buy more corn than any grocery store in the country," boasts Daberko.

Menus are planned six to eight weeks in advance to avoid shortages of food items, which are often purchased by the pallet or the truckload. Meals are prepared three to five days in advance. To whip up the grub, Daberko orchestrates a team of nine salaried cooks and 55 inmates. The inmates are minimum-security birds jailed for nonviolent offenses such as check kiting. "We'll start seeing lots of open-container guys in here pretty quick," Daberko says, almost with relish, referring to the law that went into effect earlier this month prohibiting open alcohol containers in vehicles. "Tuesdays and Thursdays are terrible, because that's when the courts get geared up. We have days out here when it gets pretty tight. We spend all of our time training."

But keeping trained inmates inside the kitchen is not Daberko's only worry. He also has to keep inmates outside the kitchen reasonably content. To do this requires studious attention to some unusual meal characteristics. For example, the foods in hot meals have to be of similar densities. Otherwise, some will burn while others get barely warm. Color is also a serious consideration.

"The reason we deal with colors and things like that and try to get them to contrast is so that [inmates] can see distinctly that there are different things on the trays," Daberko says. They had a problem with appearances some years ago during the transition from older trays to the newer ones required for Dallas' centralized meal system. The new trays were shallower than the old trays, causing the food to flatten and spread in the compartment. To some, it looked like those with the older trays were getting more food than those with the new trays, even though the food was plopped onto the tray with the same 4-ounce utensil. Inmates protested vigorously, and several filed lawsuits.

Flavors are also a consideration. Recipes focus on complementary and interesting flavors--though not too interesting. "None of the Oriental things went over very well," Daberko says.

More important than all of these is the matter of texture and consistency. Every dish must be prepared so it can be consumed easily with just a plastic spoon. "We don't use anything metal that they can cut us with," Daberko says. And while he occasionally serves chicken thighs or drumsticks, he doesn't serve inmates the usual hearty Texas fare. "A pork chop bone makes a real nice something to stick you with," says Daberko, who has been stabbed on the job several times with handmade devices. "Anything like a beef bone or a pork bone, you can sharpen up. And you don't want to get stabbed too many times around here. Eventually one of them might hit something useful."

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