“Hey, try this!” Every so often, some heavily tattooed, muscle bound ex marauding-biker-gang member shows up at my cell door, spoon in hand, to insist that I try his latest culinary creation. If it’s really awful, and I say so, I get an exasperated “ARE you SERIOUS?!” as though I’d just disparaged the Mona Lisa or declared Beethoven’s Fifth to be tedious. I can’t win. If I say it needs something, Bubba will be back in five with another spoon. If I say it’s terrific, I risk the most dreaded words of all: “Gimme your bowl!”
I may have made a tactical error in prison survival last year when I wrote, “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner.” If you haven’t read it, please do. It describes how Clint Eastwood prepared me for my traumatic introduction to prison food. My tactical error was inviting prisoners to submit their own favorite recipes for their signature cell-cooked cuisine. Since then, some of my fellow prisoners keep showing up at my door with spoons because they want their culinary masterpieces immortalized on These Stone Walls.
In my post, “Jack Bauer Lost “The Unit on Caprica,” I wrote of how life in prison revolves around TV. But in this prison’s general population where I’ve spent the last sixteen years, TV is actually second in importance to everyone’s central concern: the daily quest for food!
In fact, the two are often connected. TV cooking shows are wildly popular here. When the closest thing we have to real meat is an 80% soy burger, it’s a self-inflicted torment to hear Emiril Lagasse yell “Bam!” as he jabs a garlic clove into a pork roast. Still, prisoners watch. Then they try their best to emulate Emiril with mixed results. Just yelling “Bam!” a lot doesn’t make for high cuisine.
Some cooking shows make me a little nervous. A few weeks ago, my friend Pornchai Moontri took copious notes as Andrew Zimmerman cooked up fried scorpions in northern Thailand on his “Bizarre Foods” show.
“Tastes like chicken,” Pornchai said. I’m glad we’re not in an Arizona prison. There are no scorpions in New Hampshire.
This prison serves three meals a day, and most are edible. I’m told that the food budget is under one dollar per person per day. That’s actually a rather stunning fact. Obviously, prisoners are not exactly feasting on a dollar a day, but we’re not fasting either. Sometimes prison food is even pretty good, considering, and it’s rarely as bad as what Clint Eastwood endured in Alcatraz as described in “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner.” Nonetheless, complaining about the food is part of the daily grind in every prison. Personally, I can’t complain – though I did break a tooth in the chow hall a few months ago. I think the trail mix we had that day was made with real trails.
Prison meals are not often a pleasant experience. The infrastructure here was built for about half the prison’s current population, so the dining halls are strained beyond limits. There are often more prisoners than seats, so on a typical day there are prisoners trying to eat their meal standing, balancing a tray in one hand while eating with the other. Sometimes the line out the “chow hall” door is very long. The main meal of the day is served at 4:00 PM so most prisoners are hungry again by 7:00. That’s when cell cuisine becomes most creative.
When I first came to this prison, I was assigned to live in the “special” housing unit. I still remember my first prison meal: a hot dog with beans on a paper plate, but with no eating utensils. The next day I was given a peanut butter sandwich along with a plastic fork. I saved the fork since I didn’t know when I would see another one. That night, a tray with spaghetti and sauce was shoved under my door, but not before a guard came in and took the fork away. I tried to see it as an opportunity for weight control, but fortunately I was moved to less “special” housing after a few months.
Every prisoner tries to supplement his food consumption with a few weekly meals of his own. This year, for the first time since I have been here, prisoners were allowed to purchase a 15-pound food package from a designated vendor, and part of the profit supplements the prison’s recreation programs. Prisoners saved for this for months, or dropped hints to their families and friends. We received our packages a few weeks ago, so the “in house” meals have been much improved.
The prison commissary sells a non-boiling hot pot for hot water. It’s the sole cooking appliance available, but the creations are astounding in number and variety, and sometimes they’re even a bit scary. The commissary also sells food items to fit various prisoner budgets. I asked around this week for some of the favorite signature recipes of my fellow prisoners.
The invitation was met with great enthusiasm, though the ex marauding-biker-gang guy wanted four inclusions. I asked him to just give me his favorite. Pornchai also wanted to submit a recipe, so I cautioned him that the ingredients must be bought, not caught!
So here, by popular demand, is my second annual collection of Concord’s Culinary Creations in Captivity. Disclaimer: I did not try each of these recipes myself, and a few of them should probably not be attempted at home, at least not with dinner guests you plan on seeing again.
BIG LENNY’S BEASTLY WRAPS
1 Package pita pockets ($.61)
2 8 oz packages “Rip-n-Ready” Roast Beef ($2.60 ea)
1 Bag instant pre-cooked white rice ($.95)
City-Cow squeeze cheese – cheddar ($1.82)
Diced peppers if you can get them
Garlic Powder ($.72)
1 removable cover from an 8-inch electric fan
Lenny says you will need two hot pots for this one so invite your roommate so you can use his. Begin by heating water in both hot pots. Remove the cover from your 8-inch fan and rinse the dust off well. Place four pita breads in the fan cover, put it on one of the heated hot pots, and cover with a towel. Then pour hot water over the package of rice to cook, and finally place the two packages of roast beef into the remaining hot water to heat for an hour or so.
Combine rice, roast beef, garlic powder to taste, and either diced peppers or black pepper into a mixing bowl and mix together. Cut a clean plastic bag into 12-inch squares. Place one steamed pita bread on each square and scoops the rice and roast beef mixture onto the pita breads. Cover each with the desired amount of squeeze cheese, and roll the stuffed pita tightly in the square of plastic. Tape closed, and place the four wraps back into the fan cover. Cover again with a towel and heat for another half hour or so. [This is a lot of prep work, but the wraps are very good and will serve four prisoners – or one Lenny!]
MIKEY GOGGLES’ “TRASH-BAG CHOP SUEY”
8-oz package of “Rip-n-Ready” Beef Crumbles ($2.10)
City-Cow” Cheddar processed “squeeze cheese” ($1.82)
Two or three packages of Ramen noodles ($.20 each)
Garlic powder ($.75)
One empty pita-pocket bag saved for just this occasion
Fill hot pot with four cups water and bring to a near boil (as hot as it gets!). Heat the unopened package of beef crumbles in the pot. While heating, break up two or three packages of Ramen noodles in the pita-pocket bag. (Put the flavor packets aside for another day as they add too much sodium.) Pour just enough hot water into the bag to moisten and heat the Ramen noodles. Squeeze the contents of the crumbled beef into the bag. Add “squeeze cheese” and garlic powder to taste. Shake the bag until the ingredients are well mixed. [I give this one high marks for easy clean-up. There isn’t any. But I don’t suggest inviting your in-laws on the night you try this.]
PORNCHAI’S PAD THAI SEAFOOD FRIED RICE
2 bags of pre-cooked instant white rice ($.95 ea)
2 packets Pad Thai seasoning mix ($1.00 ea)
2 Tbs. honey
2 3 ½ oz. packages of smoked baby clams ($1.83 ea)
Heat one and a half cups water in a hot pot and add both packages of Pad Thai seasoning. Stir in honey and rice, and simmer until liquid is absorbed. Add clams or any other seafood available. [I’m not a big fan of the clams so Pornchai makes mine with a packet of tuna. The rice is terrific. He has a way of turning bland instant rice into something that looks and tastes like real Asian fried rice.]
CHUBBS’ BREAKFAST SPECIAL
3 Packets of Instant Quaker Oatmeal Peanut Butter
3 packets Sugar
Instant Coffee Non-dairy Creamer Hot water
Mix the hot water with all three packets of instant oatmeal. Add peanut butter to taste. Spread additional peanut butter on the two bagels. Mix the instant coffee, creamer, and sugar with hot water. Eat. [Not a lot of thought went into this one. Chubbs told me this is the only thing he knows how to “cook.” He’ll need a new nickname if he doesn’t learn.]
MARK PINAULT’S CHICKEN TETRAZINI
2 packages of Bumble Bee chicken breast ($2.76 ea)
1 pound angel hair spaghetti ($1.20)
1 bottle pizza sauce ($1.35)
1 bottle salsa ($1.35)
1 small jar grated Romano/parmesan cheeses ($1.25)
Mrs. Dash Italian Seasoning
1 bag nacho chips ($1.25)
1 package pita bread ($.62)
In a hot pot, heat pizza sauce, salsa, spices, and most of the cheese. Let simmer for at least an hour. Shred the chicken breast into the pot. Crush the nacho chips and set aside. Then cook spaghetti in another hot pot. Undercook it a bit so it is al dente. Drain spaghetti and mix with crushed nacho chips. Pour chicken and sauce over spaghetti. While sauce is simmering, heat the pita breads on your spaghetti hot pot, then dust with garlic powder and remaining cheese. [This one is a strain on most prisoners’ budgets].
MY OWN SPECIALITY: PRISON PIZZA
2 used large mailing envelopes
1 bottle pizza sauce ($1.35)
1 bottle Citi-Cow squeeze cheese ($1.82)
1 small bottle grated Romano/parmesan ($1.25)
1 package of four pita breads ($.63)
1 package sliced pepperoni ($1.86)
Mrs. Dash Italian seasoning
Heat some water in a hot pot, and put the strainer basket upside down inside. Save some large envelopes when your friends send you mail. Cut them open and spread them out on a counter. Put four pita breads on the paper. Squeeze some cheese on the pita breads and spread it evenly.
Do the same with pizza sauce, then sprinkle grated Romano/Parmesan on the sauce. Add garlic powder to taste, and then seven or eight slices of pepperoni to each pizza. Place one pita bread on the pre-heated hot pot. Make a tent from one of the large envelopes, and cover the pizza until well heated. Using two large mixing spoons, fold one side of the pita bread and then the other into a sort of calzone. Serve hot.
SKOOTER-WITH-A-K’s SUNDAY BRUNCH
1 cup of Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal ($2.45 per bag)
2 Packets of Instant Quaker Oatmeal ($2.15 per box)
1 Packet of Carnation Instant Breakfast ($.75)
1 Scoop peanut butter
Crush the cup of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal into a bowl. Add instant oatmeal and instant breakfast packets. Stir in hot water until mixture has the consistency of cookie dough. Then stir in the peanut butter. Skooter says this is the only thing he knows how to make. I haven’t tried it, and have no plans to.
AND FOR DESERT, DONNY-DONUT’S CHOCOLATE-COVERED COOKIES
2 Hershey Bars ($1.20 each)
1 Package peanut butter sandwich cookies ($1.35)
Heat water to a near boil. Unwrap Hershey bars and save the wrappers. Break up chocolate bars and place pieces in bowl. Stir until melted. Dip cookies one by one in the bowl and set on wrappers to cool. Once completed, use remaining chocolate to drizzle over the covered cookies. Allow to cool completely, then eat until the sugar sends you into a hyperactive frenzy. [I haven’t tried this one either, but I watched Donny-Donuts in action. In a chaotic environment, this one can be pretty messy. Donny wore more chocolate than he ate.]