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Prison Food Is Pure Power in ‘Orange Is the New Black’

The thing that makes me most anxious when I think about the possibility of going to prison is the food. The kitchen is the seat of power in Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black. And food is the currency of power that is used equally as both...
Illustration by James Braithwaite

The thing that makes me most anxious when I think about the possibility of going to prison—and here I'm speaking for increasingly chubby, mustachioed, culturally privileged food writers everywhere—is the food.

Most aspects of life in prison are probably completely different than they are on the outside. But food is food. I'd guess it's probably one of the few areas where you could make a straight one-to-one comparison. Runny eggs are still runny in prison. If you don't eat, you get hungry. And there are no cauliflower tacos in prison—which bums me out, because I know a couple places that opened recently with really good cauliflower tacos in my area (Colonia Taco Lounge and Guerilla Tacos).


Of course my deepest fears about prison food, which are truly harrowing, have nothing to do with the cauliflower tacos. I joke. The point is that it may be a matter of scale, but we all have to eat—and how and what we eat can shift the tenor of our lives dramatically.

Picking up on this idea, the kitchen is the seat of power at Litchfield prison, the setting of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black. And food is the currency of power in this prison. It is used equally as punishment and reward. There's starvation, drugs being run through produce deliveries, Snickers traded for (fake) abortion tea, a juice fast (in flashback), a C.O. micturating in the turkey gravy, moldy bologna, an inmate named Tasty, house-made pruno (a.k.a. prison wine), and on and on.

The key thing about OITNB remaining an interesting and humorous show is watching the protagonist, Piper Kernan, uncover the various rules and secret codes of prison in a charmingly naïve way. Piper is a skinny, privileged, blonde girl who in real life could easily be part of my peer group. It's this aspect of her personality—that she's the kind of person who could be friends with a chubby mustachioed food writer—that provides a lot of the show's dramatic character development as Piper adapts to life on the inside.

When it comes to food, if it were 4 PM and she hadn't had anything since her morning granola, Piper might proclaim unironically that she is "starving." She and her fiancée live in Brooklyn, have tried a juice fast, and know people who know people who know (a fictionalized) Ira Glass. Piper's brother cooks a "heritage bird" for Thanksgiving.


So, shortly after arriving at Litchfield, Piper criticizes the kitchen's food. The kitchen boss—a hard-edged Russian mafia inmate called "Red"—summarily takes away her privilege to eat. When Red "starves her out," Piper is forced to adapt and appeal to the system of power within the prison for the first time.

More power struggles unfold in and around the kitchen throughout the first season, and the inmates who run the kitchen are continually portrayed as the most powerful at Litchfield, with Red being the respected and feared figurehead.

The drama ratchets up toward the end of season one when Mendez, a reviled correctional officer referred to mock-affectionately by the inmates as "pornstache," plots to run drugs into Litchfield through the kitchen's produce delivery around the Thanksgiving holiday.

Protective of one of her favorite kitchen workers who has a drug problem—and generally being a chef-type with integrity who likes to run a tight ship—Red elects to flush Mendez's drugs down the toilet. When Mendez finds out what's happened, he ruins Red's gravy by relieving himself in one of the kitchen's gigantic crockpots—"just a little something extra for the holidays"—and threatens to take her kitchen away from her.

Mendez and Red are ultimately mutually destructive—the season ends with Mendez on unpaid leave and Red being starved out of her own kitchen by Gloria and her Latina crew. (Who, incidentally, make a mean spicy eggs. Are they migas? One can dream.) In a desperate attempt to exert control over her kitchen domain, Red tries to sabotage Gloria's kitchen and things turn violent.


For a show with such a harsh institutional setting, it seems a bit incongruous that OITNB is so disproportionately concerned with food. Whereas Mad Men makes me crave rye old fashioneds and wedge salads like crazy, OITNB doesn't make me the least bit hungry. But I bet I'd be driven to drink if I did ever end up in the clink.

I know a guy—his name is Josh Wolf—who spent the better part of a year in prison. I went to grad school with him. I remember talking to Josh once about making and drinking pruno, a.k.a. prison wine. So I asked for his recipe. Here's what I got:

Hey Richard,

Good to hear from you. Sounds like a fun story you're working on.

I don't have a recipe per say—there was no way to measure anything in prison and people just used what they had—but basically you squeeze as much juice as you have into a bag. Add a cup or two of sugar and keep the bag warm for a few days—I think it's around three days to reach peak alcohol content. There should be enough wild yeast to create the fermentation process, but I know some guys would put a bit of bread in the mix to try to harvest the yeast from the bread.



PS - Another prison food anecdote is that one a couple occasions they served us baked chicken. The chickens were the size of turkeys, with the weight of a single chicken breast being enough to make it tricky to carry the plate. We joked that they were testing the effects of growth hormones.

It's been reported that an OITNB cookbook is forthcoming. As somebody who likes to cook and eat delicious food, I don't think I would ever buy this book—there are too many cauliflower taco options in my area and non-promotional cookbooks to buy. But, if the publisher would like to send a copy to me, I promise to try out a couple recipes and write about it here, in a further attempt to conjure what life in prison would actually be like.