I grew up on Boston’s North Shore just a few miles from the heart of the city. As a young priest, my parish assignments in New Hampshire were never more than a two-hour drive from my sister and her family. I usually spent my day off with them.
An avid Clint Eastwood fan, my sister rented the video of the 1979 film, “Escape from Alcatraz,” and we watched it together sometime in 1984. In a memorable scene, Eastwood’s character had his first meal in the Alcatraz prison’s dining facility. It was spaghetti. Clint Eastwood watched as another prisoner fed a bit of spaghetti to a mouse hiding in his pocket.
Edified by this snippet of humanity in such a place, Clint dug into his own spaghetti. The camera zoomed in, and both Clint Eastwood and the viewers caught sight of maggots squirming on the tray. Clint wasn’t the only one eating his spaghetti. My niece – then five, and now married with daughters of her own – came into the room just at that scene. She squealed,“EEEEUWWW!” and ran off. It was a month before my sister could serve spaghetti again.
A decade later, after a Kafkaesque trial, I was shackled and loaded into a van heading for the New Hampshire State Prison. My overwhelmed mind drifted to some rather mundane thoughts, considering where I was headed. As I sat in the prison van, that scene in my sister’s living room spontaneously came to mind. I could hear my niece squealing, “EEEEUWWW!” as though it was yesterday.
Fifteen years later, I marvel that the prison somehow manages to feed three meals a day to 3,000 prisoners on a budget of $1.00 per person per day. Yes, that decimal is in the right place. Because of it, prisoners eat lots of spaghetti. I have yet to see any uninvited guests. Some meals are surprisingly good, while others feed prisoners’ conspiracy theories about organized plots against them.
Prisoners everywhere complain about the food. The biggest complaint is that food is not so much substandard as sparse, and short on protein. What was billed as “shepherd’s pie” for the main meal of the day was actually a small scoop of instant mashed potatoes with a ladle of gravy containing corn and some crumbled “mystery meat” (20% beef and 80% soy). I ate it, and still walk upright. Yesterday’s meatloaf was, well, intriguing.
With the main meal served at 3:45 PM, just about everyone is hungry again by 7:00, and the hunter-gatherer instinct is triggered. Also like prisons everywhere, this one has a commissary that sells food to supplement the “chow hall,” as it is called here. The commissary also sells an electric hot pot for cooking, clothing items, toiletries, postage, etc. We can shop once a week at a designated time. The prison charges a six percent markup on all items, and the profit supplements the prison recreation programs – a sort of symbiotic relationship.
Armed with nothing but a two-quart hot pot that heats water just below a boil, prisoners have come up with some amazing – and sometimes scary – alternative meals. Given that we earn but $1.00 to $2.00 per day in prison labor, the creativity is remarkable.
I asked a few of my fellow prisoners to describe their signature dishes. They were enthusiastic to have their recipes immortalized on These Stone Walls, but we have room for just a few.
CAPTIVATING CULINARY CREATIONS
Pornchai’s Asian Rice with Sardines
At only .60¢ a package, the sardines are the best and cheapest source of protein, and the soy oil is a healthier fat than most. The rice is pre-cooked, so it’s an easy, inexpensive meal with Asian overtones. Pornchai throws in some soy sauce when he can get it. He always offers me some, but having once cherished an aquarium hobby (see “Contentious Convicts”), eating the sardines feels sort of traitorous. Somehow Pornchai gets instant rice to look and taste almost like real Asian fried rice, so I just eat the rice. Cost per serving: about $1.00.
Lee’s BBQ Roast Beef Sandwich
In terms of cost, this is high-end fare. It’s a bit tough on the arteries as well, but on special occasions Lee’s recipe is delicious. In a hot pot, heat one pouch roast beef. Drain most of the gravy and shred the beef. Coat both sides of a bagel with cheese spread, garlic, pizza sauce, and then spread sliced pepperoni. Spoon the shredded beef onto the bagel and steam over a hot pot. Cost per serving: about $2.00.
Koji’s Spaghetti with Marinara Sauce
Koji insists that spaghetti was invented in Japan. While cooking a one-pound box in his roommate’s hot pot, Koji simmers his sauce in his own. He uses 2/3 cup pizza sauce and 1/3 cup salsa. He mixes in some beef jerky that he first softens in water, two tablespoons Cheeze Whiz, some dehydrated onion flakes, one packet of sugar substitute, and a packet of roast beef. This one is also a strain on prisoner budgets, but it’s good for special occasions. Cost per serving: about $3.00.
Dave’s CELLular Chocolate Cheesecake
For the crust, you will need two packages of graham crackers, two tablespoons instant cocoa, two sugar substitute packets, and butter. Crush the graham crackers in a bowl and add melted butter and form a mold. Place the mixture in the graham cracker box and shape it along the bottom and sides of form a crust. For the filling, open 22 individual packets of cream cheese spread (at .32¢ each), mix with two sugar substitute packets and three tablespoons of instant Tang drink mix. Heat in a bowl over boiling water. Pour the mixture into the crust and spread it evenly. Then melt a large Hershey bar in another bowl over boiling water. Spread the chocolate over the cheesecake, and top with crushed mixed nuts. Cover it, and put it into an ice chest for two hours, then serve. Cost per serving: about $2.00. Calories per serving: You don’t want to know!
My own specialty “Steamed Pizza Rolls”
Pita bread with pizza sauce, cheese, pepperoni, and garlic steamed over a hot pot and rolled into a sort of calzone. The cost per pizza is about $1.00. I make it every other week or so. My “staple food” is cereal and powdered milk, though they are a bit pricey in the commissary. Unfortunately, they just switched from a healthy high fiber cereal to one that has no fiber and lots of sugar. The cereal brand rotates every six months.
The basic staple in this prison is ramen noodles. At .23¢ per package, every prisoner has relied on them for survival. Like the dollar in America and the baht in Thailand, “the ramen” is the basic unit of exchange in the prison economy. With seven grams of fat, four grams of saturated fat, and enough salt to de-ice the local interstate, I try to avoid ramen noodles. I do try to keep a few packages on hand for those who ask me for one in a pinch. The Corporal Works of Mercy notwithstanding, giving a hungry prisoner a .23¢ package of noodles is against the rules so I can’t write about it. Here’s a recipe:
Scotty’s Ramen ‘Grilled’ Cheese
Very carefully open one end of a package of ramen noodles. Leaving the “brick” unbroken, remove the seasoning packet. Carefully pour in two ounces of warm tap water. Wait two minutes, then open the other end. Slide the partially hydrated brick of noodles out, and carefully pry it apart. Squeeze a small amount of cheese spread onto one side, sprinkle some of the seasoning, and put the two sides together to be eaten like a sandwich. Don’t try this at home, folks! Cost per serving: about .28¢.
As my niece would say, ‘EEEEUWWW!”