U.S. News

06.21.14

Tales of a Jailhouse Gourmet: How I learned to Cook in Prison

When it comes to food, convicts are ingenious. Dried pasta and canned goods are prepared with nothing more than a pair of nail clippers.

In prison, food takes on a significance that’s nearly unimaginable in the outside world. Sometimes it’s a scarce resource that confers power; everywhere it’s a status symbol and a form of currency. Cooking behind bars, was one of the few kinds of freedom us convicts could enjoy. On the flip side, food symbolizes a rigid social order. It doesn’t matter what kinds of friends you had on the outside, in lockup you don’t eat with other races. Period. So, food is a powerful thing for convicts, both a daily reminder of your awful situation, and one of the only outlets for creativity and sources of pleasure.

Me, I was a jailhouse gourmet.

In some countries getting arrested means starving half to death, or making it the whole way there. But my own expertise is in American prisons, where obesity is actually a problem. We channeled all our criminal smarts into finding ways to con the food system. We got so good we actually managed to prepare dumplings, pupusas, and handmade pork rinds.

The implements used to cook in the New York state prisons where I spent a decade are a testimony to human ingenuity, and the desire to eat something special is yet another way that men preserve their individuality and humanity. Most everyone in prison cooks, and some convicts reach an incredible level of craft, considering that they are using nail clippers hooked to a power outlet.

The food that is served by the state is uniformly vile; it is an expression of hatred in soy-protein. I always felt especially despised during holiday meals; Thanksgiving was three slices of processed turkey, and I always seemed to get a beak in mine. After all, I did consume eleven of these meals, one on every holiday I spent inside.

Convicts do have favored items. Where I served people looked forward to the Jamaican beef patties, fried chicken legs and hamburgers. However, apart from the poultry, which is of the lowest FDA grade, soy protein plays a role in everything served. That is not the tofu you see in groceries or even the meat substitute sold in vegetarian places. It is the ‘whey’ left over from making such things—essentially a waste product—dried out into sheets that are folded and refolded until chunks are created. Brazil makes this stuff out of their enormous soy bean plantations and sells it to places that provide food for refugee camps and prisons. It has an enormous dose of estrogen in it, leading to many voluptuous prisoners in New York state prisons.

Given that the food they are served uses soy waste as a staple and is almost universally disgusting, convicts turn into cooks. At the commissary there was always raw spaghetti and rice for sale along with summer sausage (which strangely does not need to be refrigerated), chicken hotdogs, cans of mackerel, onions and garlic.

The luxury items in most commissaries are the three dollar pints of Ben and Jerry’s and the six dollar boxes of Tyson’s Fried Chicken. Considering that commissary is once every two weeks and the average state pay is three dollars, these items are only for those who get money from home.

Most everyone in prison cooks, and some convicts reach a level of craft unimaginable, considering that they are using nail clippers hooked to a power outlet.

The absence of fresh foods in commissary always astounded me, but I made up for it with monthly packages and made friends with other inmates who were getting the good stuff sent from home.  One friend of mine who came from Syracuse introduced me to wonderful bratwurst and weisswurst made by hand in his town; I lived for his package days. On the other hand, he found my wasabi seaweed a bit off-putting.

I lived for my packages from home of eggplants and asparagus and tomatoes and broccoli and elephant garlic. Once I even got a Durian—Asian fruit notorious for smelling like a sweaty sock—which did not make me popular that month. Most other prisoners got meats, as much processed meat as they could, because that is what they believed men should eat. But I hungered for live green things. And the only reason the whole prison population does not have scurvy is because there is an arch-nutritionist somewhere in a Kafkian Castle in Albany who figures out the minimum amount of vitamins necessary to inject into the food to keep the medical costs down.

Heat is required for most forms of cooking. Not all; you can ferment, you can make ceviche, you can dry and salt… but for the limited array of foodstuffs we had access to, heat was required. In ‘non-cooking’ prisons they still sold raw macaroni but if you boiled water to cook it you were breaking the law. To cook the macaroni the commissary sold hotpots, which you needed a permit to possess and could only buy one a time. And for all that trouble, the hotpots were specially designed so they wouldn‘t actually boil water. You could tinker with them so they would boil but then the cops could take it away for being an ‘altered item’. In Mediums they had communal microwaves.

With time I learned to disassemble the entire hotpot and mount the heating coil on a roast beef can with a whole punched in it. My own personal prison grill. We called this rigged device an ‘eye’, and since the cops know that it is just for cooking, they mostly left them alone. The next step was to steal one of the six pound tuna cans from the warehouse. I had to retrieve the tin from a special compacter before it was crushed, an exercise in timing. Once the can was smuggled back to my cell, it became my wok and the stir fry was on.

But not every prison even sold hotpots. What then? Jailhouse ingenuity conquers all. It turns out that a nail clipper, divided into two halves and hooked up directly into a power socket will boil water. Dropping live wires into a plastic bag of water is terrifying, and you can’t forget to add a pinch of salt in order for the current to flow faster. Of course, this causes the nail clippers to oxidize and the water turns rusty, but it boils. The ochre spaghetti you get looks steampunk, but tastes just fine. And no worries about your iron content.

I had an awful episode when I boiled two pounds of fresh broccoli in a plastic bag with the nail clipper for heat. I poked holes in the bag to drain off the rusty water over my toilet, only to watch the bag burst and the broccoli fall into the bowl. I was about to rescue it, but Chino, my cooking partner at the time, said that I’d used the toilet much too recently to apply a ten second rule to this atrocity.

But what do people actually cook with these arcane methods? All of the Italians I knew sliced their garlic with highly illicit razors, a nod to the prison scene in ‘Goodfellas.’ Even behind bars life imitates art. A lot of spaghetti with marinara-type sauces are made with the packaged meats. The tomato sauce is ‘gravy’ to many Italian-Americans of a certain class.

The Hispanic population does wonderful things with the cans of octopus and squid available in commissary, and I never missed a chance to eat some of their paella, even if they just called it rice and beans. The fried chicken was the official celebratory meal, and fried jack mack, which involves battering and frying mackerel already parboiled and canned, is also popular. Meals like this were sold as ‘set-ups’; for a pack of cigarettes you got a full meal plus a cold soda. I never bothered with them, except for when the Chinese opened shop. They would soak bags of macaroni to make dough, roll it out and create dumplings, which they sold with a side of lo mein. Worth a pack of Newports every time.

Those were the common meals, but my eating-team went for the exotic. I always looked for people who got packages with fresh and novel treats. As a result, I’ve cooked my share of choucroutes and bouillabaisses and linguini a vongole (clam juice comes in cans), on days when my fellow inmates were being served another helping of slop by the kitchen staff. Of course, these were only knockoffs made with substituted ingredients and they required some suspension of disbelief, but it was a small joy to cook for our selves and find clever ways to create our favorite dishes.

Experiments were tried; stewing chicken in condensed milk, sesame noodles made with cold spaghetti and peanut butter, and cookies baked in a microwave on bacon fat. Which were excellent. Considering the monotony of our lives, when I could only tell one day from another based on how far I got through whatever tome I was reading at the time, anything new and different was great.

But this was the incarcerated world, and eventually someone always goes too far. Alcatraz had its birdman, and Greenhaven had one too; a real connoisseur.

Seagulls do not, as their name suggest, live only at sea. In fact, wherever there is a steady source of garbage, seagulls flock. American prisons, unlike gulags, Nazi camps and the third world prisons of today, throw away an enormous amount of food, which attracts the winged scavengers. Our population of birds was large, healthy, and preyed on.

Our birdman snared, lured, and captured by hand the squawking seagulls. The cops knew he was doing it, but found it so gross and bizarre that they left him alone. He would smuggle the live birds inside his shirt to get them back to his cell, where he had a killing basin. It is against the rules to keep an animal inside, a prohibition I witnessed enforced when one fellow kept a snake as a pet only to find himself in solitary and the snake stamped to death by gleeful guards. So the birdman dispatched the seagulls quickly. He plucked them and flushed the feathers carefully, so as not to block up the toilets and draw attention.

The birdman sent the blood down the drain, while he carefully bagged the heads and most of the organs and hid them for later disposal. I say most because he had a taste for livers. The seagulls were then processed into meat; the legs were left whole, as were the wings, but the breasts were stripped down. The birdman cooked the flesh in his ‘kitchen’, which was a tuna can on top of an ‘eye’ just like mine.

When he first started, he tried to sell plates of seagull as ‘set-ups’, but no one would touch it. The meat is black as our hearts, and smells gamey. With a tinge of garbage. He tried soaking it in milk, but nothing could improve it. After no one bought his meals, he mostly consumed the seagulls himself, but offered some to anyone willing to try.

I ate a plateful. At least two thirds of a seagull. It was the most disgusting meat I’ve ever eaten. It is oily, dark and almost rotten tasting, but it did not make me unwell.

When I tell this story, I am always asked why I did it. I do not recount the homily of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, as Richard Bach is not as popular as he once was and many no longer care that he actually won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album in 1974. I did it so that I could tell the tale later. That was just how I lived my life, even in prison; half in my head, a character in my own novel.

The birdman was doing it partly out of mental illness; he was not much of a reader, didn’t play any sports, had no money for a walkman or anything from commissary, and spent most of his waking hours plotting on how to capture and consume more seagulls. He had a lot of time to do and was clearly not well but I understood his impulse to eat food that was alive recently.

I was lucky enough to have a family that brought broccoli; birdman hunted the local seagulls. I am sure that no one in a Gulag or Kanz-lager would have turned their nose up at some fresh poultry. I still would never put another morsel of seagull anywhere near my mouth again. But in the end, the craving for freshness was the same. Birdman and I were not all that different.