The Fine Art of Cooking in Prison
I was a good cook before I went to prison. I’d cooked all my life, seducing girls with my culinary skills and impressing college ramen eaters by flipping and dicing without ever looking. I was also well traveled and proud of having sampled an array of unmentionable organs and hideous fish. In better days, I’d beaten an octopus to death and grilled it on a Greek beach.
Now I can’t open a can of beans without thinking of the scar its lid could leave across a face. But I am twice the chef I was; I can cook everything out of anything (and do it with a sheared-off power cord and some garbage bags).
When I went in -- sentenced for a decade thanks to a week’s worth of robberies committed at the rock bottom of my heroin addiction -- I figured I could cook at least as well as the killers, pimps, pushers, and con men who routinely skipped the chow line and made their own meals in their cells. All I needed, as far as I could see, was one of the $18 hot pots they sold in the commissary and the staple carbs and proteins. But, I learned, as I watched the instant coffee leak out of my hot pot while still ill from the previous night’s failed attempt at mac ’n’ cheese, none of my previous kitchen experience had prepared me for the challenge of cooking food in prison. You may have fed an army or a family, but once locked up, you have to learn to make even the simplest things all over again. From killers. I spent a decade learning from them, cooking my meals in my cell most nights of the week. Here’s what I picked up.
Recipe: Neighbor Rusty’s electrified crackhead soup
From the beginning, I looked forward to commissary day, because I had money, and because the state-supplied “chow” in the mess hall, prepared with only nutritional quotas in mind, was inedible -- blobs of unseasoned soy protein that tasted like it was prepared by someone who hates you. (Which is probably true.) You could shop at the commissary every two weeks with money earned from jailhouse jobs -- the plastic factory paid the best, porter or teacher’s assistant paid less -- or “idle pay,” a couple of bucks a week they give inmates without jobs. But whatever their employment status, everyone except for the men held in solitary ate “crackhead soup” -- instant ramen noodles, so named because, at 10 cents a pack, there is nothing cheaper in the joint.
The problem: you needed hot water to cook it in. The inmates who had the money could buy a flimsy plastic hot pot for $18 from the commissary, but that had a thermostat installed that kept it from reaching boiling temperature. You could remove the thermostat or rewire the thing to go around the sensor, but the guards would always figure it out eventually and confiscate your pot. (I lost dozens of them.) Some prisoners didn’t have the $18. But what they did have was running cold water in their cells, an electrical outlet, nail clippers, a power cord, and the courage to drop a live wire into a cup of water. They call it a “stinger.”
During my bid I ate as well as it was possible for a prisoner to eat.
My neighbor early on was a guy named Rusty. He was a grizzled tinkerer with few teeth, less education, and more time behind the wall. He lived on crackhead soup for years. You can learn from a guy like that. I bought the soup and the steel, and he showed me how to do it. He separated the clippers' two metal slabs, attached them to the positive and negative wires of the cord, and fearlessly dropped them into the water. I screamed the first time I saw this casually done, expecting a violent short circuit or worse, but instead, the cup of water just started to bubble.
In the most useful example of high school chemistry I had ever experienced, Rusty then dropped some salt in the water. The tiny pinch made it boil furiously. The current from the stinger was ionizing the salt in the water, making each molecule cast off an electron as heat. It was a technique discovered by the man who first measured conductivity in liquids: Michael Faraday.
“Ionization,” I said. “Wow. So are we in a Faraday cage?”
Rusty looked at me.
“No, man! You put the salt in the water and it boils quicker. I don’t know about them cages. In 'Nam it was bamboo.”
Rusty had a foot of Vietnamese writing tattooed on him, and refused to say what it meant. All you’d get out of him was “so I never forget.” Thing was, the piece was on his back.
Rusty lived by his wits, but they weren’t enough when a crackhead soup drought hit. Commissary ordered an industrial-sized amount of the usual flavor, but when “Cajun Chicken” arrived instead of the ordinary kind, delivery was refused. For that entire winter I had to keep Rusty fed, as there wasn’t a lot of the mess hall food he could stomach. Sending my neighbor a can of tuna every evening was getting expensive, however. I had to switch to spaghetti. And I had to learn to cook it.
Recipe: Jailhouse sous-vide pasta and toilet broccoli
The major obstacle to cooking in prison is not a lack of food: the kitchen was the scene of a daily heist that went on under the guards’ noses, silently and profitably for the inmates who were in on it. Bags of 50 hot dogs cost two packs of cigarettes each, and a 5lb block of cheese was only one. It was your problem if you got caught with it, but the price was right.
No, the big obstacle, if all you had was a cheap hot pot/stinger and a plastic spoon, was gear. And the solution was in the garbage.
Every trash can had a plastic bag, and underneath it was a clean one ready for replacement. Beginners had to dive in and under to snatch out the extra before the guards noticed, but Rusty had friends who were garbagemen who supplied him with full rolls. He had the bags; I had dry spaghetti, canned tomato sauce, a stick of pepperoni, and a broken hot pot. He took the ingredients, and half an hour later handed half of them back in the form of a hot, greasy red bowl of delicious.
I had my own stinger by then, making coffee with it every day, but I was amazed by the feat. I knew it was electricity at work, but how did he boil a whole pound of spaghetti? I pounded on the wall to get his attention. I needed to know.
“Ain’t you been paying attention to the TV?” he yelled back. “You gotta watch the commercials. They got the same things out now that we been doing for years in here. Boil-in-the-bag rice!”
We had the cheapest and thinnest garbage bags known to man; a lit cigarette could poke a hole through a dozen of them. The stinger could have melted the whole roll -- unless there is water in the bag. The smallest bit will absorb the heat and boil safely. The spaghetti is more dangerous -- when dry, at least -- than the stinger. Rusty dropped the spaghetti in a bag of boiling water, then combined the rest of the ingredients in another bag, tied the bundle real tight, and dropped that in as well, like jailhouse sous vide. It looked like he was simmering a softball, but it was decent marinara. When he was done, he released the water with a few holes carefully poked through the bag.
“Don’t do it,” said a neighbor. “You get cancer from shit like that.”
Rusty died of cancer before he made it to the parole board, but he would have been pleased with my progress. I used bags to make ziti and rice, and warm up canned foods and leftovers, which the double-bag system did as fast as a microwave oven. You just needed to have garbagemen for friends, and after Rusty died, I inherited his.
This went on for about a year, until the broccoli incident. Every once in a while my family, who sent me canned goods monthly, would lug up some fresh produce. Broccoli was something I ate once a year. The last time I got some, I had a pseudo-hollandaise sauce ready, made out of mayonnaise, lemon juice, mustard, and two hard-boiled egg yolks I smuggled back from chow in my sleeve. I was draining off the water into the toilet Rusty’s way, but without his patience. I figured the process would be faster if there were more holes. It took twice the number in addition to the weight of the water to blow my bag open and dump my precious broccoli in the toilet. I went after it, pulling the hot pieces out while trying to remember when I had last used the bowl, and for what.
“Don’t do it,” said an inmate in a neighboring cell, watching through the bars. “You get cancer from shit like that.”
I retired my roll of bags and put out a call for the parts I would need to build a stove. From now on I would be frying. First on the menu was mackerel.
Recipe: Jack Mack and the jailhouse fry-o-lator
Every nation has its signature dish. In Italy, it’s pasta. In Hungary, goulash. In prison, it’s Jack Mack. Mackerel in a can. As familiar as Jack Mack was to my fellow prisoners, I had never seen it before (since my release I’ve come across the dusty cans only in bodegas). Inside, the fish is already cooked, flash-boiled into readiness like tuna, but it doesn’t look like any chicken of the sea. The brine is foul-smelling and the skin is a layer of slime; most of the innards are gone, but not all.
For years, I bought my Jack Mack in “set-ups.” Set-ups were meal-sized portions of Jack Mack, breaded with potato chip crumbs and deep-fried, sold by entrepreneurs to inmates happy to avoid having to eat the stuff straight out of the can. Those cooks prepped and fried all day long, and the block porters, who were let out of their cells all day to clean, ran around like waiters, collecting customers’ bowls, getting them filled and serving the meals. (Porters were paid in Jack Mack at every meal for their trouble.)
There was a duo I’ll never forget, because their fish was the best and they were such opposites. The white porter never shut up, advertising all day long by singing a Jack Mack song while he mopped. The cook was black and silent, frying from morning to night. I knew I could bring him to life by praising his work. “What’s that?” he’d say, as if he just woke up over a cauldron of bubbling oil. “You liked it? That’s the garlic powder. I knew it. Goddamned garlic powder. Should’ve been using it all along...” The rest of the conversation went on without me.
My first stove blew out the power for 300 men.
For half my bid, the price remained the same: a pack of Newports. Then cigarette prices went up, and set-ups improved. At first one was just deep-fried fish with yellow rice. Then a can of soda came with it. When sin taxes were raised again, the rice became seafood paella.
But by then it was getting expensive; I had to make my own. The challenge required theft, smuggling, whittling, 110 volts, and manual dexterity.
The problem with making your own Jack Mack was twofold: you can’t deep-fry in those $18 plastic hot pots, and even if you could, almost all of the prisons that held me banned cooking oil at some point. A week before I got to my first max and “home” of four years, an officer had been splashed in the face with boiling oil. After that they stopped selling it at the commissary.
What they didn’t stop selling was mayonnaise. And in yet another instance of the limitations of the incarcerated man inspiring feats of ingenuity, a workaround was discovered. In the summer, you boiled the jar until the mayonnaise separated, and painstakingly skimmed the oil off the top. In the winter, you put the jar out on a window ledge overnight (it fit through the bars), and everything but the oil froze solid. Then you just poured it out. I used to do 10 jars at a time.
I can probably get an iPhone battered and crisped with the technique I perfected making Jack Mack.
Then you need something to cook the fish with. A rigged hot pot is small, good only for coffee and soup. What you need for Jack Mack is a stove. To make one, you pulled the heating element out of a hot pot and mounted it, rewired, on a can. Your frying pan/wok was an industrial-sized can that could only be smuggled out of the mess hall. Mine usually traveled in the mop bucket of a porter cleaning the halls and doing me a favor. Once you’ve scored the oil, check again so you don’t blow the fuses. My first stove was perfectly wired, but sitting on a steel sink. I blew out the power for 300 men that night. Hope they’re not reading.
To stir, you need another piece of contraband. The plastic spoons from commissary seemed sturdy but they’d melt in hot oil. A wooden spoon is required. I whittled my own and bought some finer implements from the local carvers for the price of another pack of Newports. My favorite model was engraved with a motto: “Boof me or lose me.” “Boof” is jailhouse slang for hiding something up your ass, though no one bothers to smuggle spoons.
Making the dish requires a knack for cleaning up the chunks into fillets that can be battered with crushed crackers and potato chips. Crispy nuggets of fish, even if twice-cooked, are fantastic. I learned how to batter by getting potato chip crumbs to stick without eggs; I can probably get an iPhone battered and crisped with the patting and palm pressure I perfected making Jack Mack.
From there, I graduated to frying on a heating element from a guard’s coffee maker. I had joked about taking it every time he left for the weekend. On the day he retired, he called me over to leave me his farewell present. “You’re always telling me there won’t be no more coffee when I come back,” he said. “Well, I’m not, so if you can get that thing in pieces before the sergeant comes, knock yourself out. But remember...”
I did and still do. The coil was mine, meaning it was my problem if I was caught with it. Which I was, eventually.
The cycle rolled on like this for the better part of a decade: improvise a cooking device, cook for a while, get it confiscated, start over again. But during my bid, I ate as well as it was possible for a prisoner to eat. When I walked out a free man, I was 30lbs heavier, with a taste for mackerel and an ability to cook anything using everything. Prison made a master jerry-rigger out of me.
Old habits die hard; free for a year and a half now, I see the contents of my kitchen multiplied by their alternative uses. I easily slip back into thinking “I could fry with that coffee maker, mayonnaise, and the electric socket.” Unfortunately, the cans and cooking oil and knives and trash bags also remind me of scarred faces, and cancer, and fear and death. It will pass, but it hasn’t yet. With all the brilliance comes all the tragedy.
Daniel Genis lives with his wife in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in The New York Daily News, Deadspin, Newsweek, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Vice. His memoir, The Last Beat, will be published by Penguin next year. Reach him via danielgenis.net. Follow him @DanGenis.