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June 21, 2014

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

1403315752152.cachedThe title of this post is the headline of this new intriguing and entertaining new Daily Beast piece authored by Daniel Genis.  Here are excerpts:

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....

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.

June 21, 2014 at 08:48 AM | Permalink


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In "Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption," one thing that was covered was the various uh gourmet cooking that is done in prison. So, I can see this.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 21, 2014 10:45:31 AM

There is no utilitarian reason prison time must be miserable. All misery is caused by awful retributionists. The taxpayer does not want to pay a lot, understood. Alternative revenues should be permissible, 1) prisoner fees for the extras, paid to the prison rather than to corrupt guards; 2) much higher value added products and services by the talented inmates, such as death penalty substances, customer services in this country; 3) then pay fair market wages, and deduct prison expenses. Structured time reduces incidents. Acquisition of marketable skills. Impose a one third savings rate on net gains.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 22, 2014 9:30:20 AM

Anything run by government, a wholly owned subsidiary of the criminal cult enterprise that is the dumbass lawyer profession, will not run well. The lawyer is too stupid to grasp the self evident. If some rehab is achieved, so be it, I say. However, prisons will never get productive while policy is made by the lawyer dumbass.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 22, 2014 7:27:31 PM

I have seen them cook in their stainless steel toilets, using milk cartons (wax covered) as the flame source. Using their hot pot electronics, I have also seen them cook entire hams in a bucket.

I would add that the administration is not trying to make inmates "miserable" with their restrictions. If you let them have hot pots that boil, it is harmless until someone gets angry and throws boiling canola oil on his bunk mate. Watching someone's skin melt is not fun. And "alternative revenues" is naive. It creates "classes" of inmates and increases violence as poorer inmates and their gangs will kill those among the "haves" for a package of chicken.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jun 22, 2014 7:31:31 PM


I would also give the prison administration the physical tools to properly run the prison, asin Japan.

Top dog of a gang gets the lash daily, whether needed or not until he learns who is boss. I would limit the rounds to three, for humanitarian reasons. after which the warden should have the power to hang him. Should a warden be able to hang an inmate after a brief hearing? A warden by training and experience knows a lot more about penology and control than any judge. So the answer is yes. Decisions will becomemore rational and informed. If the staff fears retaliation, hang him first. The deceased behave well.

One problem. The violent, professional criminals will all be gone. All the lawyers will lose their government make work jobs, and this practice will be declared unconstitutional to restore make work jobs. Yet no amedment is needed, just legislation.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 23, 2014 11:11:03 PM

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