Sheriff Geron Neuenschwander Turns Out Delectable Jailhouse Cuisine—for Just 22 Cents a Meal
The man responsible for Oklahoma's culinary wizardry is deputy sheriff Geron Neuenschwander, 49, a former Army sergeant, farmer, railroad worker and housepainter. In 1973 he began working at the jail where his brother, Virgil, is head jailer, and he became house cook six years ago. Two full-time cooks, plus trusties from among the inmates, showed Geron the ropes in the kitchen, and his wife, Gloria, pitched in with tips. "I had never made turkey dressing in my life until the first time I had to cook Christmas dinner here," he recalls. "My wife told me the ingredients and then said, 'The quantities you'll have to figure out.' "
No small part of Geron's cost-cutting success comes from his liberal use of commodities provided by Uncle Sam, including canned beef, peanut butter, flour and occasionally turkeys. He also relies on competitive bidding, volume purchases and common sense. One of Neuenschwander's favorites is inexpensive ground turkey, which he adds to spaghetti sauce. "Even if it's just a little meat," he says, "they can see it, and it has a wonderful psychological effect." Another of his "general principles" is "to buy dried rather than canned goods and prepare them yourself." But he is also concerned with taste. "If I don't check it close, it might not have enough salt," he clucks over a pot. "You can cook an ever-so-common dish, but there's an art to seasoning that makes it good to eat."
Inevitably the meal plan for the jail's 450 prisoners (charged with everything from drunken driving to murder) includes an abundance of beans, but there aren't many complaints of "Where's the beef?" Breakfast includes Cream of Wheat, applesauce, buttered toast and coffee. A typical lunch features spaghetti and corn-bread, beans or, on Tuesdays, a catchall stew. Dinners often feature fish steak and hominy, cottage cheese and fruit, cold cuts and potato salad or, on Sunday, a quarter chicken with instant potatoes and gravy and green beans for each inmate.
Neuenschwander has had no trouble meeting governmental nutrition standards. "They sure come and inspect," he says, "and all I know is that we surpass their standards because they tell us we do." Oklahoma County Sheriff J.D. Sharp, who eats at the jail twice a month and proudly invites an occasional businessman over for lunch, says, "I've never seen anything yet that I wouldn't be happy to eat at my table." But it's the prisoners Neuenschwander keeps in mind. "They've got feelings too," he points out. "I think as much of these guys' stomachs as my own."
At home in nearby Del City, the Neuenschwanders conceded that they "don't do a lot of cooking." On occasion Geron pitches in on the kitchen duties with wife Gloria. "I generally fry the meat," he says, "and once in a while we cook up a pot of beans. I still like beans."