Prison fare isn’t fair to anyone. People say it’s unidentifiable, but they’re wrong. I can identify all of it. It is mostly texturized vegetable protein (or ‘TVP’ to those in the know) either formed into soy-edified patties of various shapes and sizes or loose and sanguinous “slop,” which comes in different flavors and colors for each day of the week.
In prison, food is more than a pastime or a preoccupation; it is a passionate obsession for almost all of the inmates. I am not one of them. I do enjoy good food but I am not a picky eater. I have always seen food as nourishment, not a hobby, artistry or sport. Cereal for dinner or cold pizza for breakfast never left me dissatisfied.
This practical and measured approach to food distanced me from my immediate family for most of my life. They are foodies, live-to-eat people whose televisions are almost always tuned to the Food Network and who store Zagat’s guides to various regions next to their yellow pages. A conversation like the following is not unusual with my family:
“Hi Daddy. What’s new?”
“Well, Mommy had the butternut squash risotto at Scozzi’s tonight. She said it was pretty good, maybe had too much chicken stock in it. I had the osso bucco, which was delicious. The meat was very tender, almost fell off the bone. I had that sparkling water and Mom had a glass of wine; they have a seasonal thing going on there with wines from Connecticut. And we just stopped at a new cupcake place in West Haven on the way home. Just opened up. They have strawberry cupcakes. Mine wasn’t great.”
“O.K., well, good. That’s good. Glad you enjoyed it. Anything else going on?”
“No, why would there be?”
Obviously, food is paramount in my childhood home. So paramount that one night after my first arrest, my parents were convinced that a psychiatric evaluation would help me with my case. But rather than sitting their eldest daughter down and asking her to couch it with a shrink, my parents called 911, telling the dispatch operator that I wasn’t taking my psych medications.
They weren’t lying then; I was not taking psych medications because I had not been prescribed any. I learned exactly how this phony emergency transpired from an Emergency Room doctor after a fireman knocked down my door and drove me to Yale-New Haven Hospital. My parents weren’t there to tell me themselves. They had gone out to dinner at Lenny’s Indian Head in Branford after placing the 911 call. That night, their food-fix was more important than their first-born.
A similar isolation and resentment simmered in me when I met the culinary kookiness in prison. These women were more than die-hard foodies; they were die-for foodies. Abandoned by her husband at his drug dealer’s house as payment for some type of debt, one inmate had been beaten and raped days before she was arrested. She approached my cell door one day, her orbital socket fluorescent purple from bruising.
“I’m dying for something…. anything chocolate,” she whimpered at me.
It looked like she almost died from something else. “Is that all right?” I asked pointing to her eye.
“Oh, …yeah.” She touched her eye gingerly. “But I haven’t had, like, anything chocolate in, like, six months.”
“Well, if you got through six months without it, you can wait until you get your own bag,” scolded my roommate Sally’s voice from behind me. ‘A bag’ means different things to disenfranchised women. It can mean a baggie of heroin; it is often the luggage you pack when you move shiftlessly from place to place, sponsor’s apartment to stranger’s floor. On the inside, ‘a bag’ means a purchase from the prison commissary that sells hygiene items and junk food. Although strikingly pretty, Sally had a Body Mass Index of about 45. She liked bags of Now & Later candies. She liked a lot of them in the past six months.
One of probably hundreds of death ransoms presented to me by women who wanted a snack, this type of incident always pissed me off. It embarrassed me to see women behaving like this, so desperate and so desirous of such utter crap. Going out in search of food in such a debased way seemed so primitive, so carnal to me that I almost felt an evolutionary setback happening around me, putting homo sapiens back to times when the hypothalamus – the gland that controls one’s appetite – was so underdeveloped that it had to fire constantly to remind those cretins to keep eating in order to stay alive. They all couldn’t possibly be this hungry, I thought to myself, much like I thought at home.
I should have been more compassionate toward these women because the reasons for their behavior are multiple and sad. First, many women come to jail after prolonged “runs” – periods of occasional homelessness, probable substance abuse, definite chaotic behavior and absolute anorexia. They have, somewhat comfortably, not eaten a full or functional meal in months. Satiety is one of the few upsides of crack and heroin use and these women walk into prison after these runs with skinny, foal-like legs, drumstick arms and backs bumpy with ribs protruding.
Second, because drug use usually ceases in the relative safety of incarceration, another addiction often takes its place – an addiction to food. Many of the same behaviors associated with substance abuse rear themselves on the day that commissary bags fall into the inmates’ anxious clutches: stealing, secretive bingeing, lying, bargaining, prostituting and eschewing one’s usual responsibilities, even if those responsibilities are only to brush one’s teeth, wash one’s face and make one’s bed every day.
Lastly, as on the outside, food supplants boredom and feeds another addiction that has taken hold in many inmates’ lives: an addiction to excitement. Some people call this compulsion to look for drama in prison institutionalized behavior and I understand why. In a place where almost everything is rote, days get spiced by arguments and analysis about who’s eating what, with whom, how she got what she has and why she did/did not share her pile. The question of “What will I eat tonight?” could distract the most troubled inmate from her problems. Currency, banter, power plays and procrastination all spring from food in prison. It was so much like home I couldn’t stand it.
As expected, my mother was somewhat excited when she learned that I had been assigned to work in the prison kitchen with other inmates. “Are you learning something new about cooking at least?” she inquired hopefully. I burst her bubble when I told her that we only bake things off or boil bags of prepared food.
A prison kitchen is hardly a Mecca for culinary artists. It is a distribution center that the Department of Correction uses to meet its daily human rights obligation of feeding people who, at least for the lengths of their terms of confinement, are not going to enter a grocery store or restaurant. As you might guess, the impersonal and industrial tone of a prison kitchen does little to refine an inmate palate.
For example, “Chicken Sunday’s” offering, quartered chicken legs that swim and bob in grease, is a four-star favorite.
Another top pick meal, French toast, is bread sprayed with yellow and brown coatings to make it look like it was egg-battered and browned. These slices, served not with maple syrup but with “Pancake and Waffle Syrup” (the sticker on the bottle qualifies: “Assorted Syrups with Maple and Other Flavors”) draw big crowds, as do the ham “steaks” – chicken-based ham butchered one-quarter inch thick to reach “steak” status.
When the inmate kitchen workers have the opportunity to cook for themselves in the prison kitchen, rather than just finishing off some other kitchen’s work, cereals, breads, diced chicken and beef are elevated to gourmet status by dumping melted margarine, brown sugar and/or processed cheese food on them.
Fresh fruits, surprise pans of salad greens, or a real peach cobbler appear from time to time in the kitchen, proving that working in the main dining room of a prison had its perks. I would see the kitchen supervisors treat the more experienced workers to special selections – hand-cut French fries, béchamel sauce for whole-wheat pasta. Not really tempted by this more upscale food and totally disgusted by the prostrate acts of begging I had seen, I never asked to join in. Seeing these other workers receive a special benefit didn’t exactly anger me but I did vow, after witnessing a few others’ furtive feasts, that I would never take any of those benefits reserved for only a few inmates. Selective treatment like this seemed unfair to me, but this promise was no noble sacrifice. I would have been embarrassed to take food I did not even want, knowing that other inmates, some of whom were actually hungry, and others merely caught in the desperate game ofprison snacks and hungry for another type of satisfaction, could not partake.
One Sunday morning, as other inmate workers sat in the dining hall eating cake and oatmeal, I went back to the kitchen area for some paper towels. Ms. Badlee, the supervisor who affectionately forgets my name, asked me if I wanted some chicken. I expected the usual “Chicken Sunday” chicken and started to shake my head when my eyes followed her hand. She pointed to a big, artfully seasoned, perfectly glistening breast of chicken that had never seen a day inside an institutional freezer. Even from a distance I could tell that this breast had reached that ‘juicy but not greasy’ apex of poultry. Pure white meat waited underneath thin, crispy skin. Meat like this had not graced my spork in over two years. There was enough for only me and, according to my ethics, eating it was not fair, but, boy, was this some fare. I broke my contract with inmate egalitarianism and bit it.
“No, you gotta eat that shit up in the closet,” Ms. Badlee said, meaning the dry good storage closet just feet away from me. Ms. Badlee knew that my treat was unfair too, and she did not want the other inmate workers to see the chicken that they would not eat that day.
Hiding in a closet to eat something smacked too much of a bulimic binge, of the desperate and maladaptive behaviors associated with illicit ingestion. Even though every salt grain and pepper flake danced into position to highlight the pure chicken-y goodness of my snack, this was only chicken after all.
“In da clovet?” I asked incredulously, my mouth full.
“Yeah. I ain’t getting up to open no motherfuckin’ cooler” she replied, speaking of the only other viable hiding spot in the kitchen.
Desperate. Primitive. Primal. Carnal. I opened the closet door and stepped in.
I felt like Pee Wee Herman in a darkened theater: Just finish before they see you, I kept repeating in my mind. I didn’t close the door all the way so that it locked; that would have been a solid tip to any inmate that undetected food was afoot. Then, through the partial opening, came another worker’s voice.
“Because I need more brown sugar,” she defied one of the cooks who probably wanted to know why she was entering the closet. She opened the door halfway because she had paused, her stillness and stance a tacit question to the cook: “And what are you going to do about it?”
I weighed my options. I could put the chicken down – but where? – and offer to help my kitchen colleague retrieve the sugar, ushering her out so I could continue with my hidden pleasure. My presence in a darkened closet would trip serious silent alarms and other inmates would interrogate me ruthlessly for days as to what I ate and where I got it. So I jumped up on some uneven bags of Wheatena, quite skillfully I might add, one hand holding my chicken, the other placing light pressure on the door so it would not swing all the way back, my right butt cheek creased by a case of Sysco Imperial Sauerkraut. I held this painful position and never dropped the bird. My co-worker slipped out of the closet with her sugar and without seeing or smelling me.
They say it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up that trips up perps, and I have quite a few friends and neighbors here in the prison who can attest to this canon of criminal enterprise. After I finished, I knew had to bury the bones. I could have abandoned them somewhere in the closet only to be found days later by some inmate nosing around the closet in an archeological expedition to find something to steal from the kitchen or a place to stash what had already been stolen. The same round of questions would pop up then and besides, it’s a totally institutionalized deed to leave detritus like that for someone else to clean up. Simply walking out with the bones hidden in my hand wouldn’t work either. How would I explain having to wash the grease off my hands? I spied a bottle of fruit punch concentrate. Grabbing a large plastic food cover (we call them ‘body bags’ here in the prison), I drizzled the sticky red liquid on to the plastic tarp and dragged my hands through the puddle.
“Who did this?” I demanded as I exited the closet, pinching the plastic bag between two fingers of my right hand and holding the sticky mess away from me. “You spilled juice and didn’t even clean it up? Who does that?” I shouted to no one. I looked over to Ms. Badlee’s desk to catch either a shared smile of complicity or a disappointed shake of her head. She was asleep.
‘Fine, I’ll take it outside,” I sighed and left for the dumpster, chicken bones hidden in my three clenched right fingers. I flung all of my evidence into the dumpster and held my soiled hands away from my even-more soiled shirt. Out! Out damn better-than-Sunday-Chicken grease covered with toxic juice syrup, I thought to myself at the small stainless steel sink. Lady Macbeth never scoured or scolded herself like I did because she was never institutionalized. What the hell has become of me?