What do young men do in prison on Christmas Day and New Years? They eat.
Piper Herman in her book, Orange is the New Black, gives a glimpse of the celebrations women concoct inside a federal prison because, I suppose, women need a sense of community more than men, in prison or out. Our facility doesn’t encourage or allow traditions to the extent Danbury’s prison does, but the females always work up some celebration for Christmas. This year they enjoyed sharing Christmas stockings, watching a movie, putting aside arguments, and baking cookies together.
The week before Christmas my male students were all wound up about the canteen items coming in that week and consulting each other about menu items for Christmas and New Years. More experienced prison chefs wrote down recipes for the newer ones who lived in a different pod.
Out of revulsion, I maintained my ignorance about prison cooking for almost a year, but we’re talking food here. It was inevitable that my curiosity and my ears would override my stomach. My first speech class tried to break me into this world of food with a how-to speech on “spreads.” It sounded like a base of Ramen Noodles cooked in a trash bag (so much for your beautiful $50 pots and pans Paula Deen) and every item from that week’s canteen spread, or mixed, into them. They might have jalapenos, cheese, Cheetos, beans, mayonnaise, pickles, and some sort of dried sausage available. (My stomach turns just thinking about it.) I guess my face showed my disgust because my student asked in disbelief, “You’ve never had a spread before, Miss?” I’d never heard of one. “You should go home and make one for your man,” he told me. I told my husband about it, does that count?
I had also heard staff members make jokes about the birthday cakes. As far as I can make out from these comments, the offenders take everything sweet they can get their hands on and melt/cook/bake the concoction in the microwave until it is one semi-solid mass. Happy Birthday–enjoy bouncing off the walls with your sugar high.
Then I learned that some inmates have a knack for cooking with a microwave, canteen items, and items lifted from the kitchen. Depending on their background, they develop recipes such as prison gumbo, mac n’ cheese, enchiladas, and cheesecake.
One of my students was excited for his nachos on Christmas and cheesecake for New Years. The inmate who was supposed to order the ingredients for the cake, however, dropped the ball, so they’ll be having nachos again today.
Out of curiosity I shared Herman’s prison cheesecake recipe which she prints in Orange is the New Black:
I made my first effort at cooking for someone’s going home party, preparing a prison cheesecake according to my co-worker Yvette’s broken-English-and-hand-gesture instructions. [The inmates] would give me the ingredients they had bought from the commissary and I would whip it up, usually very early in the morning before the prison lights would be turned on, so it could chill all day in a bucket of ice.
1. Prepare a crust of crushed graham crackers mixed with four pats of margarine stolen from the dining hall. Bake it in a Tupperware bowl for about a minute in the microwave, and allow it to cool and harden.
2. Take one full round of Laughing Cow cheese, smash with a fork, and mix with a cup of vanilla pudding until smooth. Gradually mix in one whole container of Cremora, even though it seems gross. Beat viciously until smooth. Add lemon juice from the squeeze bottle until the mixture starts to stiffen. Note: this will use most of the plastic lemon.
3. Pour into the bowl atop the crust, and put on ice in your bunkie’s cleaning bucket to chill until ready to eat.
I didn’t think my students had access to cremora (we can’t serve coffee), ice, or lemon, and someone assured me they didn’t get Laughing Cow cheese on canteen either. So how do they make cheesecake, I wondered. They can purchase real cream cheese and urge one of the staff members to keep it refrigerated. I couldn’t get any more details.
I imagine today they are driving the housing staff a little crazy with trips back and forth to the rooms to the microwave, hanging around the staff station asking for trash bags and other favors, and fending off beggars when their meals are cooked.