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Canteen list at San Quentin State Prison as of Feb. 2021

As a child, Anthony Williams’s favorite dish was Gumbo, which his mother always cooked during Thanksgiving and Christmas, the time of year he enjoyed most. You could smell the Gumbo cooking, and it made him feel good inside. The house was full and alive with holiday spirit, and his mom’s Gumbo was full of everything he liked: chicken, shrimp, andouille sausage from Louisiana, and crab legs, and he’d eat until he could eat no more. 

Here at San Quentin, where he’s served the past four years of his life sentence, Williams, 53, is the go-to-guy for cooking in North Block. 

Prison cooks, especially Williams, cook because they like food and are willing to make the effort. Recipes are generally adapted to what we have on hand. He prepares food for all special holidays and events and is known on the yard as “The Cook’s Cook.” 

Even in prison, he still makes gumbo two or three times a year. He can’t get the fresh seafood, but it is still tasty. “He puts his foot in it,” as they say, meaning that he does a really good job. 

Growing up in Pasadena, Calif., Williams, 53, had hoped to earn a scholarship to play basketball for University of California, Los Angeles, but that dream ended when he was injured in a motorcycle accident that left his left leg impaired. He said he fell into the wrong crowd and ended up getting convicted of murder and conspiracy to distribute drugs. 

Williams had always liked to eat but had never made any effort to cook until he got to prison because his mother and aunt were good cooks known throughout the neighborhood. When he arrived in prison, however, he found the food to be unpleasant and began cooking. His two signature dishes are tacos and tamales, the latter which is made with two bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and one bag of regular Fritos in lieu of masa. 

Even in prison, where he has been for the past 25 years, he has been involved in sports, both playing and watching. His favorite is football. He is also working on two vocational programs: machine shop and plumbing. He is preparing for release by participating in self-help groups.

When he is released, he will be looking for gumbo without a doubt. Williams said he hoped to pursue a career as a chef. 

Below are his recipes for “Envy of the World” and prison-style tamales. 

Envy of the World

(A rice/pasta/mashed potato bowl)

You can interchange the ingredients to your taste, but you can’t miss with this recipe. 


Chinese sausage
honey pepper turkey sausage
beef summer sausage
Sweet Sue chicken breast
Rip’n Ready shredded beef brisket
whole Mackerel filet
smoked oyster
tuna and salmon
baby clams
bell peppers

  1. Prepare the rice, pasta, or mashed potatoes as desired. Choose the meat and fish combination you like. 
  2. Julienne the vegetables, then add in meat and fish and cook in a combination of butter and olive oil, adding the cabbage last. 
  3. The sauce is everything, so choose wisely. You could go with a packaged sauce such as these: 

Siam Sweet/Hot Sauce
Hoisin Sauce
Panda Express sweet and spicy or triple citrus
Lee Kim stir fry sauce
honey sesame sauce

but I like to make my own, cooking the following in a pot, until thickened:

¼ bottle of Siam Sweet/Hot sauce
4 ounces of mixed fruit jelly 
1 tablespoon of garlic powder 
black pepper, to taste 
one small pinch of celery salt 

Place sauteed vegetables and fish, meat, and sauce in a serving bowl over rice, pasta or potatoes and enjoy. 

Bonus Recipe: Anthony’s Tamales

(Serves 8)

What’s needed:

Plastic bags cut into eight 12×8 inch squares
2 bags of Flamin-hot Cheetos and 1 bag of regular Fritos, crushed
Chicken, pork or beef 

  1. Mix the ground Cheetos and Fritos in a plastic bag. 
  2. Boil 4 cups of water. Slowly pour in most, but not all, the water to the crushed chips in the bag. This is your masa for the tamales.
  3. Knead the mixture. You want to end up with a stiff paste that you can shape, so be careful not to add too much water. 
  4. Now for the stuffing: Choose either chicken, pork or beef.  I prefer beef. No need to heat the stuffing. That will come later after you form the tamales. 
  5. With a spoon, scoop out the masa from the bag and place in the center of one of the 12×8 inch plastic squares. 
  6. Flatten the masa with the back of the spoon to a similar size as the square. 
  7. Add stuffing. Fold the masa over stuffing, so that the stuffing is tucked inside. 
  8. Roll up the rest of the plastic square, shaping the tamales as you want them. Fold up both ends of the rolled tamale. 
  9. Repeat till all 8 tamales are ready. Set aside to set. 
  10. About 15 minutes before you serve, heat water to a boil. Place formed tamales in another plastic bag, then gently place the bag in boiling water.
  11. Simmer tamales for 5-10 minutes. Remove, unwrap and serve. 

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.

Alfred King is a writer and contributor to San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.