As the Church Year enters Ordinary Time, the prison year holds it off as long as the food holds out. We could use a bit of help from Downton Abbey’s Mrs Patmore.
On a cold late December evening with my nose buried in a book, I looked up to see my friend, Augie, standing at my cell door looking distressed and profoundly sad. When I first met Augie in prison, he was 20 years old and had already been here a year. He is now 40, and the half a lifetime he has spent in prison has hardened him, as it does many. Beyond anger – in endless supply here – I rarely see emotion expressed by prisoners. To do so is to appear vulnerable, something men in prison avoid at great personal cost. Most of the faces around me invest a lot of energy into exhibiting a steady look of indifference, even contempt. Augie learned this early on. At 20 it was for survival. At 40 it’s just a self-defeating habit.
So when I saw the look of sadness and loss in Augie’s face, I knew something terrible had happened. I closed my book and gave him my full attention. “Augie, what’s up?” I asked. He was clearly struggling to find the words. “What happened?” I asked again as he finally managed to blurt it out: “I just watched Lady Sybil die,” he said, his voice cracking with inconsolable grief.
Augie is one of several prisoners I know who began watching Downton Abbey at my urging, and are now hooked. Like others, Augie rolled his eyes when I first told him about it in its third season. Then he stumbled upon “Return to Downton Abbey,” an overview of the landmark series’ first three seasons hosted and narrated by Susan Sarandon. Augie was fascinated. When PBS repeated all of Season 3, he was glued to every episode. Downton Abbey has a civilizing influence. In prison it seems to raise life up a notch.
In “Downton Abbey’s Prison Drama” one year ago, I wrote of my sense of panic as I awoke one morning to discover that my little television had died in its sleep during the night. It was no small loss in prison. Prisoners must save $205 to purchase a small 12 ” flat screen television that sells in Wal-Mart for about $75. Coming up with funds to replace my deceased model was but the first of many obstacles. It took over a month for me to jump through all the hoops of bureaucratic red tape to purchase a new one. As I wrote at the time:
“My first notes of panic, however, had nothing to do with missing the news channels that keep me informed and help me to write. My alarm had no connection to the void left by not having this window to the world, or that my writing might suffer a sudden vacuum in awareness of world events. It was none of that. In front of that little disabled TV, my spontaneous sense of alarm was that I would miss the next three episodes of Downton Abbey. How would I ever cope?”
The day my television died was also the day Lady Sybil died. I watched that night’s entire episode standing up, with my earphones plugged into Pornchai-Maximilian’s little TV on a shelf on the upper bunk in this cell. Like Augie viewing the re-run almost a year later, I watched heartbroken and stunned as the beloved Lady Sybil, youngest of the Crawley daughters, died in childbirth of dreaded eclampsia. It was the 1920s. Two doctors looked on helplessly as Sybil died. Were there a way to save her, it had not yet been discovered.
The real drama was yet to come. Lady Sybil’s Irish Catholic husband, Tom Branson – formerly chauffeur to the Crawley household – announced that he and Sybil had agreed to raise their daughter, Lord Grantham’s first grandchild, as a Catholic. “He’s going to raise her as a left-footer!” declared Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, with the proper amount of Anglican umbrage. “Why, there hasn’t been a Catholic Crawley since the Reformation!” The real kick in his noble pants came after the Baptism as the photographer called for the parish priest to join Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his mother the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith), Matriarch of Downton Abbey, to pose for a photograph – which was no small affair in 1921. If looks could kill, neither the photographer nor the priest would have survived.
I had no idea at the time I wrote “Downton Abbey’s Prison Drama” that as I reacted to the death of Lady Sybil, I was writing a major plot spoiler for TSW’s readers in Australia. I’ve since learned that Downton Abbey airs first in the U.K. in the fall, then in the U.S. in January, and finally begins in Australia just as its season ends in the U.S. It’s confusing, but I recently read that the delays have something to do with ratings generated by “the promotion and buzz” of interest around the world. Downton Abbey is the highest rated drama ever produced on public television.
There’s something quite reassuring in that fact. Downton Abbey captures well a period of history – just under a century ago – that exhibits the values of a more civilized time. There were problems, of course, of racial inequity and provincialism. There is no time in human history without a struggle for justice and fairness, but at Downton Abbey the struggles are always engaged with an air of civility at a time when self-respect was promoted no matter one’s social class, and unbridled self-interest was a value still two generations away.
The real kudos for Downton Abbey goes to Julian Fellowes, the series’ creator and writer. Fellowes is a screenwriter without equal, a learned historian, and an astute social commentator on human affairs. This became clear in “The Real Lord of Downton Abbey” an interview with Julian Fellowes by Rachel Dodes in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ “Arena,” Jan. 3, 2014):
“I don’t really believe the age we live in is the best ever. There’s something about our lack of personal discipline that makes us slightly vulnerable and weak as a society. I think [the Downton characters] were tougher, partly because they had to be tougher. Some pain was the lot of every human being alive…[Today] we think we can go from the cradle to the grave without any pain at all. As a generation, we can be rather feeble about toughing it out.” (Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey)
I grimaced a bit as I read in the interview Julian’s disdain for plot spoilers. I did, after all, unknowingly leak the death of Sybil to all of Australia! (Sorry ’bout that!) But Mr. Fellowes announced a spoiler of his own that I didn’t mind seeing. As Downton Abbey Season Four gets underway in the U.S., we can expect a Season Five.
When Season Four commenced last week, my friends Augie, Jay Semprebon, Koji Goto, Michael Ciresi and a few others formed a sort of informal Monday morning quarterback discussion to dissect the episode of Downton Abbey from the night before. Just a month earlier, this same Monday morning ritual took place the morning after every episode of another show every prisoner watches – AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” now in midseason hiatus until February. That gruesome but riveting drama has a lot to say about doing the right thing in a chaotic and unpredictable world. It’s watched by just about every prisoner mostly because the community of survivors spent the entire last season breaking INTO a prison. But that’s a whole other TSW post for another day.
WHERE IS MRS. PATMORE WHEN WE NEED HER?
I have written a few previous posts about the role of both television and food in prison. One of them was “Downton Abbey Blue Bloods Touch Falling Skies upon Criminal Minds,” a title that left nothing to the imagination about the shows I watched. Some are gone now.
Ordinary Time began in the Roman Calendar on January 16, but in prison the Christmas season holds sway as long as our food holds out. Many of the prisoners here still have remnants from their once-per-year allowed Christmas food packages saved and scraped for all year long and purchased from a prison vendor called Union Supply. My two past posts about prison food included “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner!” and a sequel, “Looking for Lunch in All the Wrong Places.” I’ve asked a few local Downton Abbey fans to write out their favorite Captive Culinary Creations using whatever they still have from their Christmas food purchases. I include, with their permission, a little bio about each.
JAY SEMPREBON: “CHILI SHEPHERD’S PIE”
Jay is about 44 years old and has been in prison for six years. He worked as a clerk in the Education Department here, and recently completed a Culinary Arts program. He currently works for the Recreation Department coordinating Christmas food package purchases,. The remnants of his own package were used for this recipe.
Ingredients: 1 10-ounce bag of round tortilla chips; 1 pound sliced American cheese; 6 8-ounce packages of heat-n-serve chili; 1 or 2 5-ounce summer sausages, halved and sliced; cilantro spice; 3 6-ounce packages of instant mashed potatoes; 1 6-ounce bag of hot fries.
Layer the bottom of a plastic latch-box (storage box used for personal mail, etc.) with the round tortilla chips. In a hot pot simmer one-half cup water, salt, pepper, cilantro, and sliced summer sausage for one hour. Add chili to pot. Add American cheese slices on top of round tortilla chips in box. Prepare instant mashed potatoes as per instructions on package. Add hot chili/meat mixture in box. Then add layer of mashed potatoes spread evenly. Top with crumbled hot chili fries. Let stand 15-minutes with box lid closed. Serves 6 to 8.
MICHAEL CIRESI: “SPICY MEATBALL CALZONES”
Mike is a good friend to me and to Pornchai-Maximilian. He is in his mid-40s, and before coming to prison he was a Providence R.I. police officer. He once arrested Michael Martinez, my friend who had shoulder surgery as described in “Christmas in the Midst of All That Really Matters.” Today both Michaels are our friends and they attend weekly Mass with Max and me. Mike Ciresi is the proud father of twin sons, and he looks forward to the day he will be reunited with them. He volunteers as an inmate-clerk for the prison’s Family Connections Center programs. We are proud of both Michaels!
Ingredients: 1 package pita bread; 2 10-ounce packages “Rip-n-Ready” meatballs; 1 8-ounce package chili; 1 bag of instant precooked rice; one-half bag of refried beans; garlic powder to taste; crushed chipotle pepper; sliced summer sausage; sliced pepperoni; whatever cheese is available; Sriracha Hot Chile Sauce.
Simmer meatballs, chili, and refried beans. Add seasonings, and pour over prepared rice. Mix well. Scoop mixture in generous portions onto pita breads. Add sliced sausage and pepperoni. Drizzle with hot sauce. Add cheese. Steam over hot pot until cheese melts. Fold in half, then wrap in plastic for ten minutes before serving.
KOJI GOTO; “SPICY FRIED RICE DELIGHT”
Koji is from Japan, and has been in prison with us for ten years. I once mentioned Koji in a post because he translated for me the Japanese characters on an image of Saint Maximilian Kolbe above the mirror in my cell. Koji says today, “I’ve learned many lessons in life through good times and bad.”
Ingredients: In a hot pot combine 4 Tbsps. soy sauce; 1 tsp. ginger; 1 Tbsp. minced dried onion; 1 Tbsp. honey; 2 packets Splenda sweetener; crushed chipotle pepper; 2 shakes Italian seasoning (basil, parsley, oregano); one-half dill pickle chopped; two and one-half cups water; 10 ounces pork sausage coarsely chopped; 2 packages instant rice.
Bring mixture to a boil and simmer for a few minutes. Unplug hot pot and add 4 cups instant white rice. Stir until blended. Cover, and let stand 10 minutes. Serves four.
JOEY CALL: MAFUNGO FOR FOUR
Joey is 23 years old and has been in prison since he was 17. He obtained his high school diploma here, and is doing his best to stay out of trouble “with a little help from you older guys.” I have not yet tried Joey’s “Mafungo” recipe, but I watched it in progress, and I have no plans to partake.
Ingredients: 1 sleeve Saltine crackers; 3 8-ounce bags potato chips; 1 8-ounce bag white corn tortilla chips; 4 slices white bread; one-half pound turkey meat sliced thick; 1 package smoked baby clams; 2 packages sliced pepperoni; 2 summer sausages sliced; 2 bags instant white rice; 2 packages Ramen noodles; squeeze cheese; hot chile sauce; BBQ sauce.
(Joey wrote this recipe himself, and I believe it’s his own creation). With all chips in their unopened bags, smash them into fine crumbs. Then tear up the bread into crumbs as well. Next take a large plastic trash bag – one that hasn’t had trash in it – and cut the closed end, then also cut along one side. Sprinkle water on a table so the plastic will stick when you lay it down. Dump all the crumbs in a pile in the middle of the plastic on the table. Slowly add water while you squish the crumbs until you have a dough-like mass. Then squish some more for awhile until it is stretchy. Now wrap the dough in the plastic and use a shampoo bottle as a rolling pin. Make sure the shampoo is not open.
Before you start the dough, chop all meats and heat in a hot pot and add seasonings. While that’s cooking, mix rice, Ramen noodles, and baby clams in another trash bag adding hot water. Then fluff up mixture. Spread dough to a 3 or 4-foot by one-foot rectangle on the plastic on the table. Spread some hot sauce and BBQ sauce on it. Now mix the meat mixture into the bag with the rice mixture, and toss well. Then let it sit for five minutes. Then pour the food onto the dough in a single line like a huge egg roll. Then you roll it up and cover with the plastic for about five minutes. Then cut the roll into four equal sections.
Do not try this at home without Mrs. Patmore’s (or at least Daisy’s) supervision!