The Great British Baking Show is a big hit in America. Even in overcrowded American prisons, it has a captive audience. Is its addictive lure cinnamon or civility?
I heard a strange rumbling sound while watching PBS one night. It turned out to be the rumbling of my own stomach as The Great British Baking Show made its 2017 new season debut. I love this show, though I am at a loss to explain exactly why. There’s a new American version that is not nearly as popular in America as the British version. So its draw is not just its weekly array of biscuits, crumpets, and cakes.
Grown men all around me are riveted to The Great British Baking Show. Perhaps it’s the strange mix of drama and sugar that we crave, for both seem in equal abundance. This simple baking competition is a Shakespearean tragedy of collapsed cakes and deflated egos served with a heavy dose of British civility at its finest. Only the British can turn baking into an epic drama.
I find myself unconsciously smiling all the way through each episode. Well, almost all the way. My heart ached for the nice lady whose gingerbread walls collapsed at the height of a recent “Show Stopper” moment. I gripped the edge of my iron bunk as a rather rugged looking chap’s puff pastry refused to puff.
In its first episode of the new season, I watch mesmerized while twelve bakers – men and women, young and old(er) – labored over the second installment’s “Show Stopper.” It was a multi-layered cake with a mirror glaze created from scratch and presented with as much agony as ecstasy.
One might imagine that by this point in my life’s journey, I would reserve my empathy for far greater woes. But each episode leaves me in a state of hypoglycemic appreciation for how the competing bakers seem to genuinely applaud each other’s success and share in each other’s sorrow. Those sent home to bake another day do so with a grace that is becoming ruefully foreign to American ears.
I first wrote about this show in its previous season in a post for These Stone Walls entitled, “Thai Cuisine and The Great British Baking Show.” No where else in the on-line world would you find those two culinary topics together in a single title. It’s worth a visit for the sheer joy of cooking even as such opportunities arise in a prison cell.
THE HUNGER GAMES
When I wrote that post, I lived in a much saner, safer place. Since then, as most TSW readers know, I have been relocated to where I am “Writing Just This Side of the Gates of Hell.” Living eight to a cell, one of the most frequent questions I am still asked by the readers of These Stone Walls is, “What is the food like where you live?”
The short answer is that no sane person comes to prison for the food. One of my friends here works for the prison food service, and he recently told me that he asked the director of kitchen operations about the budget for food here. His answer shocked me. The budget for the actual food provided for three meals per prisoner per day is about 66-cents.
Fewer than half the prisoners here go to breakfast daily. It’s at 5:15 AN, and seldom worth the trip at that hour. Most – especially those who struggle to sleep eight to a cell – opt for the extra hour of sleep and skip breakfast or purchase their own. All meals are on a rotating schedule of four weeks. Here is the printed menu for breakfast last week:
- Monday: oatmeal and 2 slices of white bread toast
- Tuesday: cold cereal and a toasted bagel
- Wednesday: 3 donuts
- Thursday: toast and oatmeal
- Friday: toast and cereal
- Saturday: 3 pancakes
- Sunday: some unnamed pastry item and cereal. (On some Sunday mornings, scrambled eggs are served from powdered or a prepackaged mixture that comes in 5-gallon buckets).
Lunch is typically at 10:45 AM, and the fare is light. Here’s this week’s menu:
- Monday: turkey ham salad with 4 slices of white bread
- Tuesday: a bologna sandwich
- Wednesday: peanut butter and jelly with 4 slices of white bread
- Thursday: 2 hot dogs with white bread
- Friday: seafood salad with white bread
- Saturday: turkey salad with white bread
- Sunday: seafood salad again
Some prisoners like the scoop of seafood salad for its marine protein. It comes shredded from unidentified parts from an unnamed white fish pre-packaged with generic labels in 20-pound bags. I have found it to be sort of like going fishing then deciding to eat your bait.
The evening meal is daily at 4:00 PM. It’s usually edible, but scant. Spaghetti with sauce is a weekly staple (about once a month with meatballs), a 4″ x 6″ slice of pizza with a small portion of salad is a common fare, canned beans with a soy burger or two hot dogs is typical, and last night’s four breaded fish sticks is also a weekly event. Anything not consumed ends up in soup. Spaghetti soup, macaroni and cheese soup, and “The Week in Review” soup all make a weekly appearance.
All meals in this prison are optional. The dining hall is a lengthy walk up a series of outdoor ramps from where I live so I often go just for the walk outside even if I do not eat. I never have trouble finding someone hungry enough to consume his own tray and mine as well, but more often than not I eat what is served in the chow hall.
About once per month on Sunday evening, chicken is served. It is the only solid protein prisoners here will ever see. Burgers were also once on the menu, but were replaced with rice and beans after last year’s budget cut.
THE WRAP STAR
From 4:15 PM until 5:15 AM – a period of 13 hours – there is no food available. To fill the gap, this prison, like all prisons, sells food to prisoners in a commissary. I can place a weekly grocery order four days in advance. The prices are very similar to what you might pay when you shop, but the selections depend on a lot of factors.
Often the commissary is out of some items and substitution is not permitted so this requires some planning ahead. For example, the commissary sells three types of toothpaste and three bars of soap. If the brand on my preplaced order is not in stock, I cannot substitute for a brand that IS in stock. I have to wait another week or barter, which is technically against the rules. That means always having extra soap and toothpaste.
Most prisoners earn one to two dollars per day in prison jobs, and most count on family and friends to supplement their food budget. Twice per year, prisoners here can purchase a 25-pound food package from a pre-approved vendor that sells only to prisons. This is a very big event here, and last week the summer packages that we ordered in May arrived.
I purchase primarily coffee twice per year. Folgers has a one-pound jar of freeze-dried instant that is far better than the generic gunpowder that we can buy in the commissary where it is almost $5.00 for a 3-ounce bag. Two jars of Folgers will last about six weeks. I also purchase protein items that we cannot see the rest of the year such as dried beef, pork, and tuna.
This is the only time we ever see solid meats here. Pornchai Moontri does the same, but instead of the coffee, he orders a supply of Asian spices and an abundance of Thai noodles. We generally combine our purchases, and one or two evenings per week, we cook in our cell.
Some people find this very surprising. Cooking in prison requires overcoming many obstacles. I have described some of these in past posts about prison food such as “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner” and “Looking for Lunch in All the Wrong Places.”
Pornchai Moontri loves to cook and he has completed several culinary arts courses taught here in a continuing education program. As a master Thai chef, Pornchai accomplishes things with instant rice that are amazing. When our friend, Kewei Chen was with us, he and Pornchai would team up to make some terrific Asian meals from a simple electric hot pot that we can purchase.
I wanted to share with you one of Pornchai’s signature dishes. He originally called this “Thai Wraps,” but that changed when he saw a news item awhile back. CNN announced that President Trump plans to send all deportable immigrants to Mexico even if they are not Mexican. It turned out to be fake news, but the next day Pornchai started calling his Thai wraps “burritos,” and it stuck. I’ll walk you through the recipe just as he makes it on the concrete floor of an 8-man prison cell.
PORNCHAI MOONTRI’S THAI BURRITOS
- Four 10-ounce bags of instant white rice
- Four 11.25-ounce bags of hot & spicy chili (It’s a good product with 16 grams of protein, 12 grams of fiber, very little fat, and enough sodium to melt the Polar Ice Cap)
- Two packages sliced pepperoni
- Two 8-ounce packages spiced pork meat and/or four Siam Chinese pork sausages (may substitute with beef summer sausages sliced)
- One half package dehydrated refried beans
- Velveeta processed cheddar squeeze cheese (not because we like it, but because it’s the only cheese we can purchase)
- Sriracha hot chili sauce
- Siam Sweet/Hot chili sauce
- Some secret Asian spices
- Six packages of Chi Chi’s soft flour tortilla wraps (eight to a package)
- Very clean hands
- Two 2-quart electric hot pots
- A clear plastic latch box for unanswered mail
- A plastic foot locker cover stretched across an open metal drawer welded to the bottom of an iron bunk
- A large plastic mixing spoon
- A durable gluteus maximus for long spells sitting on a bare concrete floor stirring stuff
(Note: You probably have a nice countertop to work on, but if you insist on replicating our reality, we have no counter space, and no furniture except the floor. So we open the metal drawer welded to the bottom of my bunk and place across it a plastic footlocker cover retrieved from Lord knows where. That becomes our countertop.)
Pre-heat the four packages of chili (unopened) in hot water in one of the hot pots. Bring the other pot of water to a near boil for the rice. Slice the Siam Chinese sausage and open the packages of seasoned pork.
Retrieve the clear plastic latch box and remove its contents (which, in my case is several months of not-yet-answered mail – though this is not my only excuse for not yet answering it). Now thoroughly scrub and rinse the inside of the latch box.
(There is no running water in our cell. Keep a large jar of water on the floor for adding water if needed. If you are sharing your floor space with eight people as we are, have towels ready for when some klutz accidentally kicks over the jar of water. I’ve done it twice, causing a deluge on the concrete floor where Pornchai is sitting. When Kewei Chen was with us, he was in charge of flood control).
Add near-boiling water to the rice in the latch box and close the lid. Then use the remaining water in the hot pot as the base for simmering the meats. Add in the seasoned pork, Siam Chinese sausage, refried beans and Asian spices. Simmer to thicken the mixture.
Now add the meat and sauce mixture to the rice, stir in the four packages of chili, then stir in half the cheddar squeeze cheese. Stir the mix vigorously to fold in all the contents of the latch box. This is the tedious part. (We told Chen that it’s an American tradition that the youngest in the room has to do the stirring – and wash the dishes. Yes, we lied, but he caught on after two weeks).
Once the mixture is thoroughly combined, place the latch box on the footlocker-cover/counter top. Open the packages of Chi-Chi’s tortilla wraps. One by one spread sriracha hot sauce and Siam Sweet/Hot chili sauce on each wrap. Place a scoop of the meat/rice/chili mixture on the near end of the wrap. Top with slices of pepperoni. Now fold over once, tuck in the ends, and roll until wrap is sealed into a sort of envelope.
The yield is 48 wraps – enough for everyone in an 8-man cell to stave off hunger on nights when four breaded fish sticks just don’t fill the void. We even have a few left over for another day. This is how Pornchai Moontri became known as “The Wrap Star.” They’re awesome!
When the project is over, the latch box has to be thoroughly cleaned and dried. Then all my unanswered mail is restored to its proper place. I’m getting to it little by little. Thanks for your patience!
The British have nothing on The Great Thai Burrito Show. We expect an Emmy nomination this year.
Editor’s Note: For another set of recipes inspired by British television drama, you may wish to see: “Return to Downton Abbey: A Feast for Ordinary Time.”