Jail cooks make big deal over a big holiday meal; Food services chief, staff take pains with turkey, pie for 200


For Janet Gates, serving a traditional Thanksgiving dinner meant preparing nearly 80 pounds of turkey, 50 pounds each of potatoes, homemade stuffing, sauerkraut, dinner rolls and pumpkin pies for more than 200.

That was before the food services director at the Carroll County Detention Center headed home to New Windsor to cook today's holiday dinner for her family.

Gates had help. She could call upon three full-time staff cooks and a dozen or more inmates to assist in the preparation, service and cleanup.

Holiday dinners inside a correctional facility take only a little extra planning to make them special, Gates said. The effort to put dinner on the table for 178 male and 22 female inmates and a dozen or so correctional officers is about the same as any other dinner, she said.

The jail's kitchen staff began yesterday right after breakfast at 6 a.m., baking about two dozen large pumpkin pies and pre-slicing the 11-pound turkey breasts.

"We prepared whole turkeys one year and they were delicious, but turkey breasts eliminate my concern that someone might choke on a bone," she said.

Other than the pies, everything was cooked after breakfast today and will be served as the midday meal, rather than in the evening, Gates said.

The inmates normally have their main meal in the evening, but this is Gates' way of making Thanksgiving special for them, according to warden Lt. Col. George R. Hardinger.

The inmates will have sandwiches and cookies this evening.

The change, Gates said, allows the two cooks working today, Delores Blizzard and Margaret Blizzard (no relation) to get home early enough to have dinner with their families. Gates and the third cook, Judy Becker, are not scheduled to work on the holiday.

They can relax, knowing that before today's dinner has digested, preparations for tomorrow's meals at the detention center will have begun.

Gates, 47, took command of the jail's kitchen in 1985 under then-Sheriff Sam Sensabaugh and hasn't regretted a day, she said. She handles all administrative duties, prepares menus according to state correctional standards -- 2,800 calories a day -- orders all of the food within a tight daily budget of about $3.50 per inmate, and fills in whenever one of her cooks in on vacation or out for illness.

When Gates first arrived, an average of 20 to 30 inmates were being served TV dinners. It took her a few weeks to relax and not jump every time a heavy steel door clanked shut, she said.

"My friends can't understand how I enjoy working inside a jail, but I haven't had any problems working with inmates in 15 years," she said.

The average inmate population has steadily risen, nearly doubling in the past two years, she said.

The camaraderie with staff, correctional officers and inmates working in the kitchen is the best part of the job, Gates said.

"I never ask them [the inmates] why they are here," Gates said.

Typically, inmates such as Jerry Caesar of Baltimore are in the kitchen for about two months, having earned the privilege by gaining trusty status. Then they are gone.

"I like working in the kitchen because it sure beats sitting around and watching Jerry Springer all day," said Caesar, who expects to complete his six-month sentence Jan. 8.

Gates trains inexperienced inmates, helping them learn to work effectively on a kitchen assembly line. Mostly, she listens to a lot of their stories.

"Most of them intend to do well when they are released, but we've had some come back six or seven times," Gates said. "They're the first ones to yell to me to get them back in the kitchen to work. Some of them will even reminisce about something that happened when they were here the last time."

Repeat offenders are often Gates' biggest boosters, she said. They like the food and let the newcomers know. Some have the five-week menu cycle memorized and know what to expect at the next meal.

"They really like the chipped beef and gravy," she said. "[But] the young ones are so used to fast food, all they want are hamburgers and more hamburgers."

Pub Date: 11/25/99

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad