Cooking in prison
Image by unsplash
Cooking in prison
Image by unsplash
“Who’s a big, tough gangsta making Girl Scout cookies in the penitentiary?” I ask the students standing before me, trying not to laugh.
Today, we had already discussed how yeast works as a leavener in bread. We also tackled a recipe for a delicious cookie a family member sold me when I was on the outside: the Samoa.
“C’mon, man,” L.X. says, practically blushing underneath his multiple face tattoos. “Stop it,” he adds, cracking up.
I am the best chef whose food you can’t try. That’s how a former warden and my cellblock’s self-appointed food critic described me.
As a chef and tutor in my facility’s food technology and hospitality class, it is my job to teach the basics of cooking and baking so soon-to-be ex-cons are prepared to enter the workforce. Studies have shown that prisoners trained in trades have lower rates of recidivism.
The instructor, a state employee, grants me enough freedom to pick the meal of the day and teach students how to prepare it. I try to find creative ways to help them learn not only how to follow a recipe, but also the techniques and knowledge they need to do so effectively.
While many of the students I work with are under the age of 21, even the older ones have rarely cooked for themselves. I too had never used an oven before coming to prison. I was incarcerated at 15, before being taught any employable skills. I didn’t know how to take care of myself.
The food technology and hospitality course changed my life when I enrolled at age 22. As a student, I busted my backside for a year — volunteering to do all the grunt work — so I could learn as much as possible from the teacher, who is the best chef I’ve ever known. Now, nine years after getting hired to work underneath him, I try to teach students both cooking basics and how to use their skills to take better care of themselves and their families.
Step into the classroom with me. The scent of baking bread fills the air. The sharpness of the yeast combined with caramel notes complements the smell of actual sugar caramelizing on the stove. The bubbling, viscous liquid darkens slightly in the aluminum pan. I tell J to remove it from the heat and bring it to our stainless steel worktable. He stirs the mixture with a rubber spatula while I pour in cream, going slow to avoid giving him a steam-burn. As it cools, I add a couple drops of artificial vanilla. (No real vanilla extract allowed — the real stuff contains alcohol and staff are rightly concerned that someone will try to drink it.)
The shortbread base comes out of the oven before our bread is done. After it cools slightly, we remove each cookie from the pan, spread some of our caramel over top, sprinkle on the toasted coconut, and place them on another pan. We will eventually drizzle the cookie tops, and dip the cookie bottoms, in chocolate.
I can’t help but tease L.X. some more: “Do you want to take some cookies to your little homies? Let them know you can bake just as well as a first-grade girl?”
“Heck yeah, I’ll take some to my friends, and I’ll be the man,” he says, laughing. “But seriously though, I’m gonna make these with my daughter when I get out.”
ALSO READ: Prison journalism: Free Mind…
Now the bread’s ready. I show J how to slice it with a serrated knife, which is tethered to a padlock welded to the table. Only my boss has the key.
For the rest of the class, we assemble 15 grilled chicken sandwiches, using lettuce and tomatoes locally sourced from a guy named Grump, who works in the prison garden. I’m a stickler for cleanliness, so I make L.X. put on gloves and transfer a sandwich to a new plate after he accidentally handles the top of a plate with his bare hands.
In so many ways, I have one of the best jobs. I’ve learned to cook from an amazing chef, and I get to eat some delicious dishes despite being in prison. But I also work hard every day. I teach, I cook and I still do hours of grunt work myself: washing dishes, scrubbing piles of pans, cleaning oven hoods.
One of the biggest challenges, however, is managing people. This job has landed me in almost five fights — one of which was over chocolate. People can be quick to resent you for having something they have never tried to pursue themselves, especially in prison.
But there are memorable moments too. I’ve had former students reach out to me after their release to request recipes, and a friend on the outside recently asked me to create an original hors d’oeuvre for their wedding.
A prison job has transformed who I am, and who I will be, when I get out.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.
Should you wish to assist in the rehabilitation of former inmates and help put money into the pockets of those who have struggled to earn a living during and after incarceration, click HERE
Do you have any question you would like to ask our prison journalists, WhatsApp us on 060 011 0211
Do you have contact with a prison inmate who would like to write for The South African website?