It's hard enough to eat healthy even when you have access to grocery stores, sharp knives and refrigerators. But for those in prison, it can be almost impossible.
Behind bars, it often takes ingenuity, a hodgepodge of commissary items and food shipped from loved ones to even approximate a proper diet. This is what Albert "Prodigy" Johnson, of the influential hip-hop duo Mobb Deep — you might remember their '90s hit single "Shook Ones, Part II" — discovered after he was sentenced for illegally possessing a firearm in 2007.
Knowing what to eat and how to make it is evidently such an important part of prison life that there's an entire cottage industry of cookbooks written on the subject. Inmate survival guides often have a section on food and how to use the commissary to augment prison diets. Commissary Kitchen: My Infamous Prison Cookbook, which will be published this month, is written by Prodigy and journalist Kathy landoli (she prefers to lowercase her surname).
In the book, Prodigy describes how his lifelong battle with sickle cell made him hyper-conscious of what he ate while incarcerated.
"I couldn't afford to get sick in prison," he writes. "My sickle cell is no joke, so I couldn't eat poorly or not exercise. And everything in jail is designed to do the exact opposite." This is just a hint of what sets Commissary Kitchen apart from other books in the genre — it's about Prodigy's experience of prison as much, if not more than, about the food itself. Unlike most cookbooks, there will also be an audio version read by Prodigy — recipes included.
While the prison menus did change, he writes that there was only one green vegetable that made it onto his cafeteria tray — green beans — and it was served only once a week. Even though he tried to eat healthy, readers of the book will notice the recipes are a far cry from anything Gwyneth Paltrow would whip up in her kitchen. "It's not all healthy stuff," Prodigy told NPR in an interview. "There's a lot of butter and seasonings — it's as healthy as I could get in the prison system."
Just because inmates have access to the prison cafeteria doesn't mean that they have enough to eat. Prison meals are often so cheap, meager and bad that they've incited riots, caused starving inmates to supplement their diets with "toothpaste and toilet paper," and sparked investigations from human rights organizations, according to the Marshall Project, a criminal justice advocacy nonprofit.
Access to food is such a part of prison life that inmates use ramen as currency to trade for gifts and services. As punishment, guards can restrict access to the commissary or dole out portions of the cardboard-flavored food brick known as Nutraloaf in lieu of regular meals.
Prodigy says that the prison "day room" — a common area of sorts — was where inmates did all of their cooking. "In the building I was in, there was about 30-40 inmates in that particular dorm, and we'd all have to share one microwave and one toaster oven and take turns cooking there," he says. Those who try to cook during allotted times to avoid prison fodder might have to use a knife so dull that "it only works as a stirrer," Prodigy writes. Some inmates try to save can lids — "the sharpest object you can get" — because they can be held sideways to chop food.
Only correctional officers can access refrigerators. But despite this, Prodigy managed to make curry gravy, macaroni and tuna salads, baked seafood with vegetables and sweet potato pie – all recipes that are available in the book.
In addition to wanting to eat better food, there's another reason cooking is such a popular pastime in prison. "It's just relaxing and you almost forget where you're at for an hour or two," Prodigy says. "It helps people get along, too. Sometimes if you've got a group of people in there that are cool with each other, we'd order a chicken [from the commissary] together or make a dinner."
The further you go into the book, the less healthy (and, in Prodigy's estimation, more disgusting) recipes become. Near the end, there are recipes like "Prison Surprise:" a mixture of ramen noodles, Doritos, Jack Mack (canned mackerel) and hot sauce. Prodigy ends his cooking instructions for these dishes with "Good luck, yo."
The most important part of prison cooking, Prodigy writes, is the seasonings. Luckily, the commissary offered a lot of them: hot sauce, soy sauce, sugar, mayonnaise, ketchup, barbecue sauce and honey. He could also get spices like Goya Sazón and Adobo, as well as garlic, onion and curry powders. Ramen seasoning packets were popular behind bars, he says, but because each packet contains about 1,000 mg of sodium, he stayed away.
Prodigy credits the success of his prison recipes to an inmate from the Virgin Islands who had been a chef on the outside. Prodigy and others gave this inmate food to cook, and soon the chef started explaining how to do things like debone canned fish or create a sauce.
"He was showing me different techniques and eventually I started making up my own recipes and cooking them," Prodigy writes. "I found that preparation is everything when you cook." He says that even people on the outside heap on spices when food is done cooking rather than during the prep stages, when you can get the best flavor.
Despite the cooking tips, Commissary Kitchen is as much about the politics of prison life as it is about making meals from almost nothing. Prodigy writes about difficult relationships between inmates and corrections officers, whom he alleges were running prostitution rings and asking for sexual favors in exchange for extra food.
Ultimately, these aren't recipes you're likely to try at home — though they might be just the thing when your refrigerator is bare. (Prodigy says they are marketing the book on college campuses, since dorm-room cooking implements aren't so different from what inmates are allowed.) Unlike most cookbooks, this food is not about beautiful recipes or seasonal ingredients. Prodigy writes that "in a world where prisoners are treated like animals," preparing food made them feel human.
And perhaps reading Commissary Kitchen and other prison cookbooks can "give people more of an understanding of the kind of people that are locked up in jail," Prodigy says. "You have people there from all walks of life: people who made mistakes and have to deal with the consequences, mothers and fathers. You wouldn't expect them to be behind bars." But there they are, feeding themselves and just trying to get to know each other over a home-cooked meal.
As Prodigy writes, "This book won't make you a better cook, but it might make you a better person."