Prison Cookbook

Not that toasting a marshmallow over my apartment’s gas stovetop flame was a first, but I thought I could get pretty wily in the kitchen. I’m reasonably good at casting a gourmet light on the ordinary (mostly with food—but don’t get me started on cocktail innovations). Adding seasoned Kalamata olive brine to tuna salad, dabbing wasabi on cold leftover fish fillets to pretend it’s sashimi, and my crowning jewel of broke-college-grad creative cuisine: poor man’s tikka masala—tomato soup, curry powder, and shreds of deli chicken over rice. Don’t worry, I didn’t forget the essential coconut—the coconut-flavored Bacardi and mango cocktail beside my plate is nearly passably Indian.

But all this was done with regular access to a grocery store; the only hindrance was my bank account (and admittedly limited cooking skills). Six women inmates in a Texas prison, however, had to be craftier when preparing meals. Not that the inmates aren’t fed already, but if all you’ve got is time on your hands, devising new uses for Fritos and distilling “wine” from fruit are arguably more productive ways of spending time in the slammer. It’s nice to learn that plastic ID badges are being used as ingredient-chopping tools behind bars, rather than shanks. Their collective culinary wisdom is available in their new cookbook titled: From the Big House to Your House.

This inspiring display of resourcefulness got me wondering about my own relatively lazy approaches to cooking. Since anything frozen in a “microwave-ready” plastic tray freaks me out, and I’d rather turn to culinary inventions using combined or separate canned and fresh goods (with limited actual cooking time—I’m impatient), maybe I’m not so lazy. But if prison inmates fashioned a stove out of a toilet bowl full of burning toilet paper—then published a cookbook about it—maybe I can learn how to use my oven for more than just storage. Rumor has it even renowned jailbird homemaker Martha Stewart found a way to whip up some crab apple jelly when she was locked up.

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