The cooking wasn't Mom's. And the ambience definitely left something to be desired.
But inmates got a full Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings Thursday at the North County Correctional Facility, the maximum security jail at the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho. The helpings were larger than standard jail meals, but seconds were offered only to those with special privileges.
Many inmates sat grim-faced and quiet as they ate from plastic trays in their 58-bed dormitories. Some watched the Buffalo-Detroit football game on television screens overhead.
"It ain't perfect, but we're thankful for what we've got," one inmate said.
The main course was processed turkey slices, but most of the rest of the fixings were made from scratch: gravy, corn bread stuffing, yams, mashed potatoes, salad, cranberry sauce, bread and pumpkin pie. Similar meals were served to the more than 20,000 inmates in Los Angeles County jails.
The annual Thanksgiving dinner is one of the most difficult meals of the year to prepare, said the jail's head cook, Mike McDonald. He said he and his staff spent two days preparing the feast for the jail's 3,700 inmates, cooking up more than a ton of turkey and 4,800 servings of pumpkin pie.
Most of the cooking was finished by mid-morning Thursday. Food was then loaded into large plastic bins and stacked on carts to wheel from kitchen to dorms for the noontime meal.
"We do a good job, considering the limitations we have," McDonald said.
Nonetheless, McDonald admitted, he planned to eat Thanksgiving dinner later with his family in Ventura County.
"My mom's still a better cook than I am," he said.
A 38-year-old inmate helping to prepare the feast in the kitchen said it was like any other meal for him.
"I guess it's about average," he said. "It's good for jail food."
Other inmates had more critical opinions, or just chuckled when asked about the food. But Rodriguez Simon, a senior cook who went home at 1:30 p.m. to prepare dinner for his own family, said the complainers are too harsh.
Except for the turkey, he said, everything he planned to serve his family was prepared the same way as the jail food.
"This food, anybody can eat it," he said. "I don't care who it is. It tastes as good as anywhere I can think of."
The inmates said they were thankful for basic things, a necessity since many are facing years behind bars. For about 600 inmates, it was a chance to talk to family members and friends in glass-partitioned booths at the jail. On average, 1,000 inmates receive visitors on weekend days.
Some inmates said they were simply thankful to still be alive.
"I'm thankful for waking up every day and for being fed," said an inmate working in the kitchen. He said he expected no visitors during the day and has no hope of being released from jail any time soon.
Although they had to work, deputies at the jail had their own reason to be thankful. None of the jail's all too regular inmate fights were expected during the day.
"We'll have the least problems today of any day," said Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Smith, who was overseeing a set of dorms. "There's football, extra food and visiting. What more could you want?"