FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Some 160 gallons of pinto beans bubble in huge stainless steel vats, ready to add to the mounds of soft chicken tacos, 800 pounds of boneless turkey and hundreds of pumpkin pies stacked in walk-in freezers bigger than many apartments.
Nearby, 34 members of a rather unique 24-hour cleaning crew scrub and mop, watched by a very interested audience.
Across Tarrant County this Thanksgiving season, thousands of special meals will be whipped up and served — 6,000 or so from Mission Arlington/Mission Metroplex; 2,000 or so from the Salvation Army; hundreds from various restaurants and diners.
But none of them can touch the food prep operation in the biggest kitchen in Tarrant County, where workers prepare 12,000 hot meals a day, every day.
The meals cost a mere $1.04 each, so the only steaks on the menu are Salisburys.
The food had better be good, nonetheless. This is not a dinner crowd that anyone wants to see restless.
Inside Tarrant County's jails, where 3,500 or so people are fed daily, food is the great pacifier.
"We don't get any complaints about the food, and we want to keep it that way," said Sheriff Dee Anderson, who presides over Tarrant County's brand new maximum security jail. "Food is the No. 1 thing that will cause unrest if you are locked up. That's all you have to look forward to."
On Thanksgiving Day, the inmates' meal will feature sliced turkey breast and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce, bread and pumpkin pie. The same spread will be dished up at Christmas.
The food is cooking faster and being served hotter now that cooks, crooks and jailers have moved into the kitchen in the $78.6 million Lon Evans Corrections Center in downtown Fort Worth.
"It's like the difference between a Model A and a Jaguar," Executive Chief Deputy Bob Knowles said of the new facility, which Anderson believes is the first maximum-security county jail in the nation.
This is not your average dining spot.
The 34 trustees who work in the kitchen (one of the most sought-after inmate jobs) never touch the food to ensure that there's no monkey business.
Meats are boneless because something as innocuous as a chicken leg can turn into a lethal weapon.
Fruit and bread are limited because they can be fermented into hoosegow homebrews.
"They'll make it in toilets. They'll hide it in plastic bags ... underneath garbage can liners," Knowles said. "The last thing you want in a jail is a day room full of drunks. They can be really creative."
The kitchen serves all four of the county lockups, with meals trucked to the Cold Springs and Green Bay facilities. There are no dining rooms; inmates eat in their cells or in day rooms.
Preparation, cooking and serving are handled by 70 employees of a Dallas-based contractor, Five Star Correctional Services.
"Everything cooks on time now, like in a professional restaurant," said Anthony Shanklin, food services manager for Five Star.
Menus are based on a 2,600- to 2,700-calorie diet.
The 300 jailers on duty at the four jails eat from a separate lunch menu, in three shifts.
"We only have 30 minutes for lunch, so people have to stay here and eat," Knowles said. "It's good. I got the recipe for the Yakisoba noodles last week."
The meal plans are rotated every 28 days to keep things interesting.
"They like variety. It keeps them content," Shanklin said. "We have some of the same entries, but we'll serve them with different gravies and vegetables."
On one recent day, breakfast consisted of potatoes and eggs, grits, corn tortillas, taco sauce, milk and coffee. Lunch was Salisbury steak, macaroni and cheese, green beans, biscuits, cookies and a fruit drink.
Dinner was soft chicken tacos, beans, Spanish rice, corn tortillas, cake and a fruit drink.
Hearty and filling pot pies are an inmate favorite, Shanklin said.
But the most popular meal of the week is the regular Friday breakfast: frosted flakes, coffee cake, biscuits, fruit, milk and coffee.
The biggest challenge is not the cooking but the logistical dance of matching supplies with menus, transporting it all, and then dishing it up on an iron-clad schedule, Shanklin said.
A well-tuned kitchen is crucial, Knowles said. Judges don't accept the "I was late because of lunch" excuse.
And keeping prisoners calm is everyone's goal.
"A lot of riots that have occurred across the country have been over food," Knowles said. "So, we require things to be almost perfect. We can't say we'll catch it next time."
Information from: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, http://www.star-telegram.com