Pen Pals

Cooking in the Cooler

By Bert Burykill

Before I went to a super shitty prison with no kitchen, I never realized that you could cook a whole meal like you might with a stove, but using the microwave. It sounds cheap and gross, but after dining out of the micro for two years, I can’t complain too much. When cooked properly (by me), the meals were borderline bangin’.

The main problem for the prison gourmand is that since my joint technically wasn’t a “cooking facility,” there was no cooking oil in the commissary and it wasn’t allowed in the care packages we got from the outside. The only butter we had was from margarine packets stolen from the mess hall and mildly poisonous margarine from the commissary that most people couldn’t afford anyway. The only oil to be found was in canned octopus, which I ended up using a lot—more on that later.

I usually cooked solo. In prison, concepts like sharing become complicated. And even if I get along with someone, that doesn’t mean I wanna eat the same shit as him. Most dudes eat summer sausage or pepperoni with every meal, while other guys go the canned seafood route. But my recipes are bugged the fuck out. For example, I used to get a monster ginger root in my monthly 35-pound packages from home. I would try to put it in every meal. It scared a lotta heads away because of its pungency, and that stroked my boat just fine.

In the warmer months I stayed tight with dudes who worked with horticulture and had access to herbs and vegetables. It wasn’t a bad setup. July through September I would often eat a raw zucchini, cook spaghetti squash, and munch on monster 15-pound cabbages. Heads thought I was nuts, but most prisoners don't even know what healthy is. I took my health serious while I was in there. But it was damn difficult to get any fresh food in the clink-clink. I still get my knickers in a knot over the fact that nearly everything I ate was packaged, processed, or quick-chilled. That can’t be good for an inmate.

One of my signature dishes was Ginger-Molested Coconut Rice with Canned Seafood. I had a couple Tupperware containers, which held about two quarts each (there was a limit on the size of bowls, ‘cause, again, it wasn’t a cooking facility). In one I would mix coconut milk, fresh ginger, and Uncle Ben’s instant rice. Sometimes I was lucky enough to have some fresh herbs to toss in. When I had time, I would finely dice garlic, onions, and peppers into the rice and sometimes add canned corn or beans basically out of boredom. I could just put the beans and veggies in the seafood creation and that would’ve been more efficient, but there was an ongoing competition to make the most banging rice. For my seafood concoction, I would chop onions and garlic, and sauté them in the microwave with the soybean oil from the octopus. Pretty gross. Sometimes, when I felt like treating myself, I would have my parents send me seafood canned with olive oil. After three minutes in the microwave or so the onions and garlic were soft and smelling pretty damn good.

Even though there was an official ban on seasoning, I would have pepper and salt smuggled from the mess hall and maybe some leftover dried seasoning from the prison garden. I would try to stock up on dried basil and oregano, but I always used it up quick ‘cause I’m a flavor fiend. I’d add some red and green pepper that we bought from the inmate Latino fundraiser group. It was awesome to get peppers, onions, and bananas/plantains every other week and not have it add to the 35-pound limit. For two years I ate a banana or plantain every day, and I’d eat red peppers like apples. Once the nice veggies are fried up microwave-style, I added my canned octopus or canned “wild” Alaskan salmon. It wasn't the tastiest shit Baby Jesus ever provided us with but it didn't matter because in the end I would put honey on everything. We used to smuggle habanero peppers from the garden and make all of our meals with heat, so smothering it in honey was my go-to move.

Eventually, it got to the point that canned salmon almost made me puke, but that was after ingesting maybe 80 to 100 cans of the funk. The wild Alaskan was really the healthiest thing I could find at the commissary. Canned octopus just tastes good and only costs 80 cents for a can. The jail’s brand was from Morocco, so I was feelin’ it like feelin’ tits. Occasionally I foxed with tuna, mackeral, clams, oysters, sardines, or whatever other canned shit appeared before me, but my go to grubs for almost two years were salmon and octopus. I don’t want to eat those at all now, unless it’s some super mega-bone grilled octopus from a fancy-pants Mediterranean restaurant.

My other main meal was Chicken Spaghetti a la Grubbalicious. It took specially ordered items from the street to chef it proper. Similar to the seafood dish, I would microwave-sauté the onions, garlic, peppers, and other veggies. I used canned mushrooms, tomato paste, and sometimes tomato sauce from the store, but the rest of the stuff would be real-world ingredients. My folks would send me a decent brand of bagged chicken breast, canned olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and sometimes some spiced Muir Glen canned diced tomatoes. It was dope in the summer with the garden items like fresh basil, zucchini, and tomatoes.

The microwave worked fine for making pasta and melting the cheese at the end to make it all come together grubbalish. In a controversial move, I would sometimes use the octopus oil in addition to margarine to sauté the veggies and then add a tin or two of octo to the sauce at the end. I couldn’t really taste the ocean in the meal and it was just added protein, but this kind of variation repulses the average prison knuckledick.

When I made the sauce I just heated each ingredient for a couple minutes and then added another one, stirred, then zapped for two more minutes. I’d turn the power down sometimes and think I was slow cooking, but I’m pretty sure attempts were futile ‘cause that’s not how micros work.

Like I said, I cooked solo almost all the time, but heads knew my shit was gourmet on another level, so every now and then I would cook for someone. It’s the type of thing you can’t make a habit of, though, or else people will expect to get fed all the time and catch feelings when they’re not included in your dining plans. I became the greedy monkey who’d huddle into a corner and devour my meal before anyone even noticed.

Previously - Uncle Jamm Wants Yous!

@burykill  

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