How a Prison Cooking Show Connects Residents to Life Outside
By Emma Schwartz, Bon Appetit
Walk into any cell block in San Quentin State Prison, and you might smell chicken frying, mackerel croquettes sizzling, adobo chile powder, a hint of fish sauce. One whiff and it would seem the corrections and rehabilitation facility just north of San Francisco is full of amateur chefs.
Determined to eat something other than the bland food they’re served daily, incarcerated residents in prisons everywhere have found ways to cook for themselves using some makeshift cooking equipment and ingredients from the mess halls and commissary. The residents at San Quentin are no different, making apple pie crusts out of cake, tamales using crushed tortilla chips, and pasta with tomato-less marinara, all with little more than a plastic spoon and a hotpot (essentially a hot-water kettle, and the only piece of cooking equipment allowed in San Quentin).
Since spring of 2018, a group of these cooks have been showcasing their inventive techniques and telling the stories behind their favorite dishes on the San Quentin Cooking Show. The project, organized by the first prison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, is part of a video journalism program with a rotating class of roughly 20 students. The show, which started as a simple way to teach the basics of video storytelling, has evolved over the years into a therapeutic space for incarcerated residents to open up about their backgrounds and reconnect with their own cultures while incarcerated.
The show isn’t yet available to watch outside the prison (though the ultimate goal is a YouTube channel), but four of the students I teach were willing to share an inside look at their dishes and the stories behind them. Here, they tell us about the recipes that remind them of life outside the prison walls.
Being locked up, I miss a lot of celebrations con mi familia. The one I miss the most is making tamales on Christmas, a tradition shared by a lot of Chicanos like me. For many of us, it’s the same scene. Familia gathers at a tia’s house. The aroma of spicy shredded beef and pork wafts through the air. The sound of women’s laughter and squealing children fills the kitchen as masa is spread across corn husks, a dollop of meat in the center, the little package rolled, sealed, and steamed. No men are allowed inside the house while the tamales are made. They’re outside or in the garage keeping watch over two pots the size of small children filled with boiling water to steam the tamales. They play darts or horse shoe, cook, taste test, and drink cerveza.
I didn’t want to lose that tradition, so I found a way to make tamales for special occasions here in the joint. There’s no local taqueria to buy masa de maiz, but I improvise using what I can get: tortilla chips, a hot pot, and a few plastic trash bags.
Sharing the tamales gives us a sense of self, of community. It’s a way we hold onto our roots, our family values, and humanity. It’s a time to come together and enjoy what people enjoy most—a meal made con amor.
I’m half Black and half Puerto Rican, but there’s nothing I love more than Italian food—especially marinara. Something about it thrills my tongue, and I adore the red sauce poured over chicken cutlets, meatballs, or any type of pasta. But at San Quentin, where I’m serving a life sentence, the sauce I love is forbidden.
In 2004, the year after I arrived, officials identified tomato-based products as a possible ingredient in Pruno—a cell-made alcoholic drink. Due to incidents between drunk men and guards with anger management issues, the administration deemed ketchup and marinara sauce menaces and banned them both. The chow hall still serves spaghetti every so often, but it tastes and looks like punishment: Sticky pasta with dried sauce spots that are more like reddish tint than anything that was ever liquid. It’s nothing like the dish I miss with all my heart.
Determined not to go without, I scoured the catalogs of vendors that sell approved products to incarcerated people and figured out how to recreate Skillet Spaghetti, one of my favorite Italian meals to make before I arrived at San Quentin. In place of marinara I used a can of chile with no beans, and instead of a skillet I used a hotpot. (Forget about the jumbo shrimp I also used to add.)
The result, while not quite the same as the original, is the next best thing. It costs me $19.70 to feed three people—the equivalent of a month’s salary in prison—so I can’t make it often. But it’s worth it at least once every 90 days to treat myself to a dish that reminds me of home and everyone I love.
Back when I was six or seven years old, I would watch my mother and grandmother cook. I learned a lot seeing them throw down in the kitchen together, and loved their cooking—especially the sweet apple pies my mother would make every Christmas. The aroma of freshly cooked apples with the slightest hint of cinnamon and butter would permeate the entire house. I hated sharing them, they were so good. After my mother and grandmother passed away, I stopped having those pies. I’ve had relationships with people who knew how to cook, but not like momma did. They would try to make her apple pies, but they would never compare.
When I came to San Quentin in August 2015, I remember walking by a cell and catching an aroma that smelled exactly like my favorite dessert. I stopped dead in my tracks and peered through the bars of another guy’s cell to find lunch boxes holding a square shape with a brown crust. When I found out he was making prison-style apple pies, I was blown away with excitement. I bought one—it was delicious. Then I bought another to figure out how he made it.
To recreate it, I got all the apples I could find along with clean trash bags, because that is what we use to cook our food in; some substitute sugar from the mess hall, because even though officials don’t allow us to have real sugar anymore, we’re smart enough to improvise; and whatever cake I could get from guys who didn’t eat it for dinner. The seasonings and spices, I bought from the canteen. I had to get creative with my tools, and softened the apples by cooking them in a trash bag in the hotpot with some butter, cinnamon, and sugar. To toast my crust, I took a piece of square plastic, buttered it, laid some cake I’d smashed into a thin layer on top of that, and then cooked on top of the water in the hotpot.
It doesn’t taste quite like the one momma used to make, but my Cake Crust Prison-Style Apple Pies still give hers a run for their money.