In 2008, I was allowed inside a county jail in the Chicago suburbs to report on the living conditions of inmates and immigrant detainees.
Many men told sad and perplexing stories about how their lives came to be on hold. But the detail that has always stayed with me was that several of them described the “cooking” they did to pass the time and enjoy some small comfort.
“You take bags of hot Cheetos, crush them up in the bag, pour water in and mix until you get a thick paste,” one gentleman told me. “Then you roll it out and cook it over a heating grate until you’ve got a tortilla.”
At the time, this seemed unbelievable. Shortly after, a U.S. Justice Department report found that Cook County jail inmates had been setting fires beneath their beds in order to utilize the metal bunk as a hot plate, lending an air of truth to the phenomenon of prison-cell culinary arts.
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The new book “Prison Ramen” – certainly the bleakest cookbook ever imagined – tells us how it’s done, and why.
Spreads remind us that we belong to one another. The dollars get corralled, the ramen and Cheetos get combined, the stuff magically blows up, and rivals who used to shoot at one another slurp this red mess into a newfound sense of belonging.
Father Greg Boyle, who ministers to former gang members through his Los Angeles-based nonprofit Homeboy Industries
Written by Clifton Collins Jr., a film and TV actor of German and Mexican descent, and his good friend and prison-food expert Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez, the slim tome is not the kind of cookbook you seek out for ideas with which to energize your next family meal. It is an object lesson on doing without.
Yes, there are recipes – odd, cringe-inducing recipes, all involving the dried Japanese ramen noodles that the lucky among us remember strictly from the shoestring budget days of college. But, really, this book is about maintaining one’s humanity in a system that takes it away.
First some background: Many jails have commissaries where inmates can purchase snack items like Cheetos, pork rinds or packets of Kool-Aid. This is where the ramen and associated ingredients for the recipes in this book are typically procured. And prisoners have varying degrees of access to cooking tools such as warm tap water, microwaves and improvised hot plates.
Now to the spartan recipes. “PB&J Ramen,” for instance, is nothing more than peanut butter and jelly spread on a square of dry ramen. “Jailhouse Popcorn” is uncooked ramen, crushed up in its bag and tossed with the accompanying seasoning packet.
Other recipes are quite aspirational. “Soldier’s Salute Ramen” calls for baby clams and avocados – difficult to find in most urban food deserts, much less in a jail’s commissary. But that’s not to say the authors haven’t gotten creative with the items they have access to.
“Parole Day Cheesecake” calls for crushed chocolate chip cookies, honey, French vanilla-flavored creamer and Kool-Aid powder, though getting access to the refrigerator long enough for the concoction to set sounds like it might take some creative bartering.
Mixed in with the prison-cell dishes – including jailhouse hooch, a trusty hangover cure, a cold remedy, and various ethnic offerings such as burritos, tamales and even goulash – are the stories of the isolation that drives the human hunger for food’s special comforts.
Describing the ritual of creating “spreads” – large quantities of a meal to be shared – Father Greg Boyle, who ministers to former gang members through his Los Angeles-based nonprofit Homeboy Industries, says: “Spreads remind us that we belong to one another. The dollars get corralled, the ramen and Cheetos get combined, the stuff magically blows up, and rivals who used to shoot at one another slurp this red mess into a newfound sense of belonging.”
And, between a lot of jailhouse vulgarity, you’ll find some plain good advice for life, such as: “Never stop learning. Seek out all the learning you can – formal and informal.” And: “The two essentials to cell living are mutual respect and common courtesy.”
“Prison Ramen” is harrowing. And, possibly, an excellent gift for the teenage boy in your life who plays a little too much “Grand Theft Auto” or seriously admires the riders on the motorcycle drama “Sons of Anarchy” and needs a reality check on what the outlaw life can lead to.
It’s also an unvarnished look at how, even in the strict confines of a prison cell, the people we lock away find the industry and resourcefulness to connect to their better selves, and to others, through a humble offering of food.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.