Porridge in the Panopticon

Glen Newey

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Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation included in its first edition an appendix with vegetarian recipes, ‘Eating for Liberated People’. For utilitarians, the belly’s as good a persuasive route as the brain. The Transcribe Bentham project at University College London has put out Jeremy Bentham’s Prison Cooking, the perfect gift for a loved one spending Christmas in the nick.

Utilitarians, and consequentialists like Derek Parfit, can feel torn about food. On the one hand, it’s undeniably a source of pleasure. Bentham’s mummified corpse – the ‘auto-icon’ showcased at UCL – looks pretty well fed for a man of 267, partly because of its wax head (the real one disappeared, to show up later in a parcel inside the mummy’s ribcage). But food costs, too. Parfit recently pointed out that beef and dairy farming is a major cause of global warming, as up to 10 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions come from cows farting. For Bentham, since prison aims to put people off going there, it was a question whether to deploy the grub as a deterrent in its own right.

Prison Cooking doesn’t make it obvious how he answered that question. Bentham’s no Mrs Beeton. There are meat dishes aplenty (despite his proto-vegetarianism), though they usually consist of innards and other sub-prime cuts. He goes long on hearty English stodge, including spuds, suet and lard. Cheapo soups abound. Other delicacies include ‘Fried Neat’s [cow or ox] Foot’, ‘Kidney and Sweet Bread Pie’ and ‘Sweet Liver Pudding’. He costs each item, including labour (multiples of ¼ penny), to gauge how much to debit each dish in the felicific ledger. Turnips bulk large, with a starring role in ‘Turnip Pudding’, a decoction that introduces the staple root vegetable to milk and treacle. The lip-smacking ‘Devonshire Pie’ trailblazes the neglected combo of gooseberries and tripe – or ‘bleached stomach’, as the editors gloss it. Some of the dishes look almost good enough to eat. Bentham’s six-egg ‘omelet’ (his orthography also runs to ‘dumplin’, and the Dan Quayle-anticipating ‘potatoe’) features French beans and onions, with the inevitable clod of pulped neeps. Happily, there’s a porridge recipe, ‘Scotch Porridge’, though there’s no booze in it. Like many fanatics, Bentham was teetotal, but probably left the whisky out for reasons of cost.

It’s all a far cry from Nigella Lawson, to say nothing of the philosophical gourmandising of Bentham’s contemporary Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s Principles of Transcendental Gastronomy. Bentham’s watchword is not gastronomy, but economy. ‘Walnut Pickle’ is made from ground-up shells rather than the nut itself. No bit of cow goes unused: ‘neatsfoot’ serves as the all-purpose gelling agent for custard, blancmange and soup. Bentham’s ‘Notes on Entrails’ ram home the util-eking moral. Scraping out intestines is ‘unnecessary’, as sluicing them with lime water does the job, and the byproduced slurry can be sold on as manure.

Bentham hoped to realise his carceral vision in the Panopticon, a project conceived on a trip to Russia to visit his brother Samuel, who’d come across Count Potemkin’s prison experiments. Back home, big landowners and the church vetoed London sites for the Panopticon, which eventually rose over the swamps of Millbank. One reason it failed was that convicts succumbed to ‘jail fever’, or typhus; Bentham had planned to keep them fit for work. The state would contract running the place to a governor, who could use the labour to turn a profit: thus prison authorities would have a financial stake in the health of their charges. Bentham hoped to be both the contractor and governor.

Prison policy seems still to be pre-Benthamic. According to an inspection report from 2013, 3 per cent of inmates in HMP Bristol thought the scran ‘very good’; 65 per cent called it ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’. An unannounced inspection of London’s Pentonville jail in February found that ‘serveries remained dirty overnight, exacerbating the reported problems with vermin.’ Last year the private contractor Aramark, who took over Michigan’s prison catering in a $145 million deal that cost 370 state employees their jobs, was found to be serving prisoners a rich source of protein: maggots. Comestible deterrence seems to be the norm nowadays, but then, as with airline journeys, few people go to jail for the food.


  • 20 October 2015 at 8:06am
    cufflink says:
    We should thank Glen most heartily for his stirring info on lock-up cuisine. As things stand the proposed new legislation on striking protocol will see many of us eating maggots in HMPs. Fortunately preparation was made for the digestion of these interesting commestibles by a visit many years ago to the Abbeville Chemin de Feu restaurant for a serving of Tripe Pesto alla Wiganese. It was without doubt a Michelin two-hash dish; and was served in a Tommy Atkins enamelled front-line helmet with Caen neeps and Ormskirk tatties.
    Of course nowadays tripe is tendered in the washing machine on the heavy soil regulo and bleached with lime juice. Do please tell me Glen, are takeaways available for trusties?

  • 20 October 2015 at 10:13am
    UncleShoutingSmut says:
    "Omelet" is a completely standard spelling of that dish, given alongside "omelette" in any large dictionary. It's not even an Americanism, as many seem to think: Johnson's Dictionary in 1755 only has "omelet", and Webster followed suit in his Compendious Dictionary of 1806. This work - Webster's first - also plumped for "potatoe" (though his subsequent American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828 has "potato"). A shame Dan Quayle didn't hit back with that as a defense.

    • 20 October 2015 at 5:06pm
      John Cowan says: @ UncleShoutingSmut
      Thank you for defending the spelling which is native to half the anglophones on the planet. There is no need for the original poster to be so parochial.

  • 20 October 2015 at 4:13pm
    rpmcmurphy says:
    The auto-icon of Bentham in UCL is not a 'mummified corpse' - it is a dressed skeleton.

  • 20 October 2015 at 7:39pm
    Eddie Fez says:
    Entertaining as this post is, with desperately understaffed prisons on 23 hour lockdown, the probation service in disarray following its botched and corrupt privatisation, and ongoing cuts to all related services, I'm not sure the state of prison food is currently of the highest priority.