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The Art of Gourmet Cooking in Prison

In prisons and jails, inmates use chips, Cheetos, and instant noodles to create recipes that remind them of life on the outside.

by Arielle Pardes
09 December 2015, 7:00am

Karla Diaz and Emilio Venegas Jr. recreate a recipe for prison "tamales." Photo courtesy of Karla Diaz/Prison Gourmet

Karla Diaz and Emilio Venegas Jr. recreate a recipe for prison "tamales." Photo courtesy of Karla Diaz/Prison Gourmet

Karla Diaz is not a chef, but she's gained a dedicated following for the food she makes. A performance artist in Los Angeles, Diaz has spent the past six years demonstrating how to cook dishes like tamales made out of of Cheetos, soup from Corn Nuts and pork rinds, and orange chicken made with instant ramen and strawberry jelly. She doesn't use a stove, a blender, or conventional utensils – just tools that can be built out of trash bags and toilet paper, and ingredients she would find if she were incarcerated. She calls it "prison gourmet."

Cooking in prison is a rite of passage for inmates, and Diaz isn't the first one to bring it to the masses. There's The Convict Cookbook, a collection of recipes from prisoners at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington; Jailhouse Cookbook: The Prisoner's Recipe Bible, written by a chef-turned-convict; and From The Big House To Your House: Cooking in Prison, 200 "easy to prepare" recipes written by inmates at a woman's prison in Gatesville, Texas. In Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange is the New Black, there's a recipe for prison cheesecake – graham crackers, lemon juice, vanilla pudding mix, margarine, and coffee creamer – that inspired a scene in the television series, in which Chang fashions her own croquettes from smashed-up peas, Fritos, and hot water. Even Martha Stewart reportedly learned to cook for herself in prison.

For those who haven't been inside, it may be hard to imagine how crunched-up Cheetos and hot water, moulded into something vaguely reminiscent of a tamale, could be worth the effort . But Diaz, and others who've studied DIY prison recipes, say cooking meals in prison isn't really about the taste – it's a reminder of humanity, community, and the person you were on the outside.

Back when Diaz was still an art student, her mentor, Manazar Gamboa – a well-respected poet in Los Angeles – introduced her to his "special recipe," a makeshift tuna casserole that he'd developed during the 17 years he spent in and out of state prisons. He maintained that was his favorite thing to eat. "I think it was tuna, mayonnaise, hot sauce, pickle juice, and then crackers," Diaz recalled. "It was... not good."

But it stuck with her, and when her brother was sent to prison in 2010, she started thinking about what he would eat. The commissary selection horrified her – all chips, Cheetos, and ramen. So she decided to start writing letters to people she knew who were in prison, or had served time, asking them if they'd ever made DIY meals from commissary food.

She turned the exercise into an art piece for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's EATLACMA in 2010, giving a two-hour performance that demonstrated how to make one inmate's version of cell block orange chicken. The recipe was a stomach-churning combination of pork rinds (a substitute for chicken) and strawberry jelly mixed with Kool Aid, which best replicated the colour and consistency of orange sauce. At the end of the performance, she offered free samples.

"It tasted terrible," she told me. She wrote back to the inmate who had sent her the recipe and said, This is terrible. How did you get used to that?

She was surprised by his reply. "He said the reason he made that was because it reminded him of the times he used to make orange chicken with his daughter. When he ate it, he thought of the time he spent with her. It was really sweet."

Orange chicken made with commissary food items, based on a recipe from Jason Talavera. The recipe was sent to Karla Diaz by Talavera's daughter Sheris. Photo courtesy of Karla Diaz

To date, Diaz has received over 200 recipes from prisoners in California. Most of them are extraordinarily precise, and get inventive in their cooking techniques: "I use a six-by-six paper box, a 12.5 oz cereal bag (with no holes), a plastic bowl as lid, and a stinger (a utensil for boiling water with electricity)," wrote a man in Corcoran State Prison, detailing his method for cooking beans and rice to make burritos. An inmate from Tehachapi State Prison described using a towel to insulate cooking items: "Add two 16 oz. cups of hot water, then tie off the bag and warp it up in a towel and set it to the side for up to 30 minutes to let it fully cook through."

There's a recipe for menudo, a traditional Mexican soup, that substitutes in pork rinds, chili lime-flavoured Corn Nuts, and a package of tortillas. Another recipe, for tacos, uses the flavour packet from a chili-flavoured Top Ramen package to add spice to refried beans and instant rice. There's one for makeshift sweet and sour pork, which combines pork rinds with a sauce made from jelly, Kool Aid, plus one Top Ramen seasoning packet and a healthy dose of imagination.

"All of these letters are from inmates in California, so it's all West Coast recipes, Mexican recipes," Diaz told me, adding that she plans to expand the Prison Gourmet project next year, during a residency at Tulane University in New Orleans. "I'm excited to go down to the South to see what kind of special recipes are there."

The most common recipe Diaz receives is for something called "spread." Making spread is a highly customisable process, but it usually involves a base of instant noodles, topped with crushed chips, Cheetos, or whatever else an inmate has on hand.

Sandra Cate, a professor of cultural anthropology at San Jose State University who has studied the culture surrounding spread and wrote a paper on the subject in 2012, described the meal as an alternative to a jailhouse diet that's typically "bland, monogamous, and insubstantial," and said it reminds inmates of their life on the outside.

Cate's paper, published in Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Cultureleans heavily on interviews conducted by her husband, Robert Gumpert, who has spent the past nine years working on a portraiture project based in San Francisco County jails. He goes into jails and offers to take portraits of inmates in exchange for their stories – and often, they wanted to talk about food.

"Most spread is made by boiling water and throwing ramen noodle sin it, and you use those noodles as a base and you combine that with whatever interests you," Gumpert told me. "Whatever your taste buds want – ground-up Cheetos, jalapeños, canned oysters, tuna, Cheez Whiz, Slim Jims, any number of things."

Back when jails were more permissive about microwave use, Gumpert said, he met an inmate who made Chinese-inspired spread by frying noodles in mayonnaise in the microwave. "I had some of it and it was completely... different," he told me. "I mean, we're talking about people who are experimenting."

"In a situation where you have basically zero control of your life, [making spread] gives you an opportunity to have some control of your situation." — Robert Gumpert

According to his research, inmates make this kind of food for a variety of reasons: Food in the jail cafeteria is bland; mealtimes are awkwardly early (dinner in the San Francisco County jails is delivered by 4 PM) and inmates get hungry at night; eating spread reminds them of the food they ate on the outside. But it's also about having control, in an environment where everything else is decided for you.

"You decide what you buy at the commissary and what you're going to make out of it and how it's going to taste," Gumpert said. "In a situation where you have basically zero control of your life – you're told when to get up, when to shower, when you're allowed to talk – this gives you an opportunity to have some control of your situation."

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According to Gumpert, you can go to nearly any jail or prison, in any nearly country in the world, and find its inhabitants making their own version of spread. "I've talked to people in England, and it's there. I've seen it in Mexico, in Asia," said Gumpert. "The recipes are different, but the ingredients are similar."

One place where it doesn't seem to exist is Denmark, where inmates are allowed to prepare their own meals. Last year, Linda Kjaer Minkea, a law professor at the University of Southern Denmark spent 13 months interviewing prisoners in a Danish maximum security prison to evaluate the "self-catering" system, and found that not only did inmates appreciate the opportunity to make their own food "according to their taste and cultural diversity," but Cooking was correlated with better behaviour in the prison, and greater self-esteem among inmates.

Karla Diaz and Antonio De Jesus Lopez recreate recipes from "Prison Gourmet" as part of the group show Let them Eat LACMA by art collective Fallen Fruit. Photo courtesy Karla Diaz/Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), 2010

The inmates interviewed for Cate's anthropology paper said spread was what helped them get through their time behind bars. One inmate, Max Hackett (who was known as "the pie guy" for his "legendary" DIY apple pie), credited spread for helping him overcome his addiction problems and "focus on good qualities" in his life. "It's like this premier meal of the day," said Trent Mohammed Prader of spread, when interviewed by Gumpert. "It's a top-of-the-line meal, like a filet mignon."

Brennan Owens, another inmate interviewed for Cate's paper, said spread wasn't "something you'd put in a gourmet book. It's something for the jailhouse."

Diaz disagrees. "The idea of 'gourmet' is something high-quality, high taste. That's not what this is," she explained. The ingredients aren't fancy; the technique, although creative, is improvisational. The DIY recipes are special, Diaz said, because of what they represent to the inmates – a chance to feel like a human being again.

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