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.