KRISTIN DAVIS: What We Eat in Prison and the Wonder of Cellblock Cooking

The ingenuity of my fellow inmates is inspiring. They can take simple food items and a microwave and create masterpieces.
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Kristin Davis
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The ingenuity of my fellow inmates is inspiring. They can take simple food items and a microwave and create masterpieces.

There are people in this world who enjoy cooking. I am not one of them.

For the most part, I've never been much of a cook. I stick to making things like chicken seasoned with Mrs. Dash or scrambled eggs. Easy things to make because I usually maintain a low-carb diet and these foods work for me. Simple meals.

However, being in prison has forced me to alter my normal diet. It has also forced me to be creative with commissary items. And I have totally embraced the microwave wonders created by other inmate cooks within my cellblock.

In prison, you are provided 3 meals a day that are eaten in the cafeteria. We call this mainline. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) operates a national 5-week menu. What this means is that we have semi-different meals each week for 5 weeks then we repeat them all over again. We eat these same meals for an entire year.

Prison food leaves a lot to be desired. I'm not going to say it's awful because it's not all bad. There are some meals that I really enjoy. 

However, a large part of the time the food is over-cooked or under-cooked. There are never any fresh vegetables and most meals are based around starchy items like pasta, rice and bread. Obviously, this makes being on a low-carb diet next to impossible.

For example, this week we are on week 4 of the national menu. Tomorrow's meals are oatmeal and bread for breakfast (served at 5:30am), hotdogs and tater tots for lunch (served at 10:30am) and chicken fried rice with black beans and corn for dinner (served at 4:30pm). 

The next day is only slightly better: grits and breakfast cake for breakfast, chicken patty sandwich and pasta salad for lunch and pork roast and sweet potato for dinner. The dinner is my favorite meal.

Most of the items they feed us upset my stomach. I've learned from my friends, that are cooks in the kitchen, they cook with lard, use MSG, and other additives in the food. I am not sure if these things are the culprits behind my stomach pain or if it's something else. Perhaps the quality of food.

Some of the food that they feed us has expiration dates on it. The packaged pancakes they serve for Sunday breakfast expired in 2011. The individual ice creams they give us once in a while, bear an expiration date of 2012 but we happily eat these because we are lucky to have them. 

I know some foods are still edible after the expiration date however I’m not sure it is OK in terms of years. Regardless, I have never had more constant and intense stomach pain in my life. I have learned to identify some of the culprit foods and try to avoid them which is not always possible. But I keep trying.

Even our commissary is lacking in any healthy or fresh items. It's mostly chips, cookies and crackers. No fresh fruits or veggies. We do have a few choices in packaged meats: summer sausage, mackerel, tuna and chicken.

When I first arrived here and I realized most of the food made me sick, I started eating packaged items from the commissary. But after dozens of meals of tuna and mackerel I was sick of them and desperate for something delicious. 

And luckily for me there are plenty of women in prison who love to cook. I am continually amazed at the creativity and resourcefulness of these women. They can take simple food items and a microwave and create masterpieces.

One such amazing woman I like to call the "Iron Bar Chef of America." We met at the microwave because she is always there cooking. After repeatedly seeing me warming up water for Top Ramen she took pity on me and fed me. 

That day she was making a Mexican dish called "Mole" which has a sauce that is made from peanut butter, chocolate, and V8 juice, a substitute used in place of tomatoes. It was absolutely delicious. The next day she made Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo from Ramen noodles, milk, butter, packaged cheese and nondairy coffee creamer which is used as a filler in a lot of dishes made here.

The Iron Chef cooks 3-4 times a week and sells her food (no exchange of money, just commissary goods). She has a cult-like following here. There is even a waiting list for her scrumptious meals. 

I am a frequent purchaser of her tamales that she makes from crushed tortilla chips, chicken and homemade salsa, and her burritos and chili con carne. 

She also makes sweet and sour pork from pork rinds, cherry Kool-Aid mix, V8, ketchup, sugar and an Asian sauce, although I have yet to try this. I have no idea where she gets these ideas but I am thankful that she does. She should write an Iron Bar Chef cookbook.

We have another woman here who bakes. She makes some of the most wonderful cakes, cheesecakes, peanut butter fudge and makes ice cream cones. A prison ice cream cone is not like a purchased ice cream cone. We don't really have ice cream nor do we have the capabilities to store anything cold. However, this is just about the next best thing.

The first step in making a prison ice cream cone is to make the actual ice cream mix. This is made by mixing cream cheese packets, vanilla pudding, sugar and nondairy coffee creamer. Then the mixture is put on ice in one of our cleaning buckets to get it near freezing. Ingenious.

Next, you have to make the cone itself. This is done by warming up a tortilla for 30 seconds in the microwave and while it is still warm bend it into a cone shape and then the edge is sealed with butter. It is again warmed in the microwave for up for 20 seconds until you have a hard tortilla cone. 

Finally, you fill the tortilla cone with the ice cream mixture. Most prison chefs also roll the outside of the cone in the ice cream mixture that way they can add crushed Oreos and caramel to the outside to make it extra special. 

While this may initially sound strange, it's actually quite good. And it is just amazing that you can take the most unlikely ingredients like creamer, cream cheese packs and tortillas and make something like an ice cream cone. 

Everyone contributes items for the ingredients and it becomes a joint effort. We are all excited and salivating in anticipation of a special treat.

The ingenuity of my fellow inmates is inspiring. It is fascinating to watch these women in action. Some of us might look at a bag of pork rinds, powdered cherry Kool-Aid and soy sauce and see non-descript food items while others see sweet and sour pork. I guess as they say “necessity is the mother of invention” and that proves to be very true here.

And it’s all about perspective. Being in prison has taught me that I can have very little but still have so very much.