For those of you unfortunate enough to be unacquainted with this particular culinary delight, creamed beef is simply: browned ground beef, simmered in cream of mushroom soup, and served over hash browns. Toast or biscuits on the side.

Now I know this seems pretty straight forward—meat and potatoes even—and on the surface it probably is. But just below the top layer of this hearty meal, if you’ll allow yourself to look close enough, you’ll find a prophetic simile by which to gauge the entire week to come.

“And why is it that this particular meal commands such consideration?” you ask. “Aren’t there at least three preceding days in the week whose foodstuff could be deemed equally profound?”

Sure there are! But here’s the deciding factor—out of the various generic morning meals served by the Department of Corrections, “creamed beef” is the first time during the week when the staff and inmate cooks can be “creative.” Inventive even, depending on their mood. And that’s the key.

When a staff member comes to work “happy” on a Thursday morning, he’s more likely to season in a little garlic and adobo as he’s cooking the ground beef. As the rich aroma rises in the bustling kitchen, everything will seem to relax just a bit. Realizing there’s plenty of time before the first inmates arrive to eat, the inmate cooks will remember what it was like before becoming the “kitchen elite,” and part with the oregano they’ve been saving for personal use. Onions are chopped. And the mushroom soup is “bubbling”—as opposed to being lukewarm.

Suddenly, someone will feel liberated. “Biscuits aren’t asking too much—we’ve served toast three days in a row already,” he’ll say. “Let’s make sure they’re light and fluffy!”

As the serving begins, the ladles are generous. The portions overflowing. A tray like this needs to be held tightly with both hands, leaving weapons unattended. Unnecessary.

While the hungry men indulge their healthy appetites, and entertain their appreciative taste buds, they also entertain each other. Laughter isn’t uncommon as the normal morning silence gives way to friendly conversation. Arguments—now redefined as “misunderstandings”—while not forgotten, are postponed, or at least set on the back burner.

Entering the dilapidated—yet imposing—structure, I’m immediately greeted by the fragrance of cilantro and bay leaves. The men fortunate enough to have entered the chow hall before me are smiling. It doesn’t look as if a morsel of food has been left on any of the trays being deposited into the scullery for washing.

“As the creamed beef goes, so goes the world.” Our world that is. It’s just a joke we have around here, although ironically true. But what do we know.

Preparing to grab the hefty tray protruding through the impersonal slot in the otherwise impregnable steel and concrete wall, I release the grip on the knife in my left coat pocket, and let it slide submissively out of immediate reach.

“Looks like we’re in for a pretty good week.” The middle-aged, bald, and tattooed white convict behind me offers with a smile, as his empty hands reach for the next tray.

“I dare say we will.” I smile in response, as I take a seat, say grace, and begin to eat.