Panopticon Palate

Like it or not, 2016 is fast approaching, along with a return to all the responsibilities grad school entails. Perhaps you’re surveying the last few weeks of financial and dietary excess (and work backload) that the holiday season seems to demand with a feeling of regret and rising panic. If that’s the case, then I have just the book for you: Jeremy Bentham’s Prison Cooking: A Collection of Utilitarian Recipes!

Bentham Cover final 28/7/15.indd

Assembled by the hard-working archivists over at University College London’s Bentham Project, this cookbook combines fiscal prudence, health, and Romantic-era Utopianism (or Dystopianism, depending on your perspective) into one nifty codex. The cookbook, assembled from manuscript recipes for the healthful yet frugal meals Bentham possibly planned to serve his Panopticon residents, offers a fascinating glimpse into late eighteenth-century meal-planning-on-a-budget. As contemporary nose-to-tail chef Fergus Henderson notes in his preface to the cookbook, Bentham’s recipes would not seem out of place in trendy restaurants currently serving all manner of offal: “Someone once said that my cooking was 200 years out of date; the nose to Tail principle seems strong with Bentham” (8). Indeed, with his plans to feed prisoners from potatoes grown and pigs raised on the Panopticon grounds, Bentham almost brings to mind a Brooklyn locavore.

Bentham final 6.8.15.indd

Thanks in no small part to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Bentham and his Panopticon have become especially notorious in the last few decades. But as Transcribe Bentham Coordinator Tim Causer points out in his introduction to the cookbook, Bentham drew up his plans in response to the terrible prison conditions of his day, in which prisoners who could not afford to pay for better food were forced to survive on debilitatingly meager rations. Causer notes: “While many of the dishes certainly sound repulsive to modern-day ears, they appear to be far more nutritious than standard prison fare dished up to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British convicts” (18). It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement—especially since Bentham primarily wanted his prisoners well fed in order to ensure they would be strong workers. As Causer emphasizes: “the rule of economy demanded that the food should be of the cheapest type possible, and the rule of severity dictated that it should be ‘the least palatable of any in common use’, which might have been even harder to stomach as the inmates were allowed only water to drink” (16).

Unrelentingly attentive to frugality, Bentham itemized each recipe by cost (down to the halfpenny), both of ingredients and labor, although Causer observes that “it is no immediately obvious how many portions could be served from each recipe” (19). Repeatedly—and somewhat puzzlingly—referring to the prisoners as “customers,” Bentham’s recipes offer a glimpse into a kitchen filled with neatsfeet (cow feet), lights (lungs), melt (spleen), and pecks (According to OED: “A unit of capacity for dry goods equal to a quarter of a bushel, now equivalent…to two imperial gallons”). I don’t know if I’ll ever have use for Bentham’s “Notes on Entrails,” but his kitchen management tips are agreeably attentive to hygiene. He suggests that cooking vessels should be rinsed “with boiling water for expedition in cleaning and that the vessels may dry immediately,” and notes that “Common glazed pans are dangerous where acids are to remain in them anytime” (26). Bentham also displays a prescient concern about the health dangers of “dissolved lead” and an appreciation for the flavor-enhancing powers of salt: “salt should be put into almost every kind of cookery, even sweet puddings” (26).

At times, the recipes even seem potentially palatable. I haven’t quite found the courage (or the necessary amount of calves tripe) to whip up a batch of sausages—or his omelet recipe that perplexingly includes twopence worth of oatmeal. But I wouldn’t mind trying the recipe for onion soup, although I might leave out the “walnut shells.” And the baked pears seasoned with ginger and pimento (allspice) and sweetened with treacle sound almost decadent.


Although, as Causer admits, it is “impossible to tell” whether “these recipes [were] truly destined for the Panopticon prison kitchen,” Bentham’s copious notes on the topic prove he was attentive to minute details as he planned the Panopticon (19). This book offers a compelling glimpse into the alimentary dimension of those plans. Given the controversies prison food still generates (see, for example, the most recent debate over the punishment of Nutraloaf), Jeremy Bentham’s Prison Cooking remains disturbingly relevant today.