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A metal serving tray with lid featuring a square of dry ramen noodles.
Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi

Prison culture already permeates so much of life on the outside. From prison movies (“The Green Mile,” “The Shawshank Redemption”), to prison TV shows (“Orange is the New Black,” “Mayor of Kingstown”), to thug memoirs and gangsta literature. 

Now add food to the mix. Prison and jailhouse cookbooks have exploded in recent years. Out with recipes from yo’ Mama and yo’ Mee-Ma. In with recipes from yo’ prison sweethearts. 

In other words, move yo’ tail feathers off the menu, duck a l’orange, and make room for le prison cuisine. 

Jail grub — from chefs in Rikers, Attica, Folsom and San Quentin — has wormed its way into the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere. 

Now you might ask, what is jailhouse grub or prison cuisine? It’s a kind of comfort food that swills, dances, stomps and raps on your taste buds long after the meal is gone. One of the cookbooks, “Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars,” was written by Clifton Collins Jr. and Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez and published in 2015. It features such recipes as Hitman Burritos, Sloppy Ramen Joe and Shawshank Spread, and features celebrity interviews about their stints in the big house. 

Prison cuisine is brutal on the blood sugar and the intestines. But the delights of high-sodium, sinful cholesterol, massive mounds of white sugar and mammal lard will lure you back again and again, smothering you in a sensuous assault and battery that will lock you down in the throne room for hours of constipated delight.

This culinary fare is not exclusive to prisoners. Not terribly long ago, before Americans became health-conscious and fastidious about what they stuffed into their piehole, ladies of a certain class lunched on similar foods in ritzy hotel restaurants in New York City. 

The writer Dorothy Parker nailed it with her observations on high society in her 1941 short story “The Standard of Living.” She wrote:

“They had lunched, as was their wont, on sugar, starches, oils, and butter fats. Usually they ate sandwiches of spongy new white bread greased with butter and mayonnaise; they ate thick wedges of cake lying wet beneath ice cream and whipped cream and melted chocolate gritty with nuts. As alternates, they ate patties, sweating beads of inferior oil, containing bits of bland meat bogged in pale, stiffening sauce; they ate pastries, limber under rigid icing, filled with an indeterminate yellow sweet stuff, not still solid, not yet liquid, like salve that has been left in the sun.”

This could be a description of prison cuisine, minus the ice cream. 

Just substitute the bland meat she describes for the mystery meat served daily to nearly 2 million incarcerated people. Most of us have no clue what we’re eating when served a three- or four-ounce portion of genetically engineered and chemically altered meat patties made in secret and delivered in clear, label-less plastic bags. 

This mystery meat is utilized for many purposes. Like enterprising line cooks, prisoners think outside the box. They appropriate, purify, reconstitute, reengineer and repurpose the “bland meat,” washing and rinsing the suspicious “stiffening sauce” away, then frying and refrying the meat, adding bits of green and beige leftovers, chilies, cayenne and garlic powder re-appropriated from the prison kitchen. The result is a spicy reduction — and don’t worry, the mice in the kitchen do not hinder the process. 

The concoction is sometimes used to create some approximation of Chinese food — mix with ramen, coffee and sugar, and you’ve got Chinese burritos. Or mix with ramen, cabbage and lettuce, and it’s tacos. 

All prison cuisine served by chefs in their housing units are accompanied with fine linen (torn paper towels confiscated from the supply closet); one spork for each hand (besides uniting the global prison population, the spork is the only way to thoroughly enjoy le prison cuisine); and the vino of choice (from someone’s old bag of hooch).

Hooch is prison moonshine. It can be made from anything that can be fermented (including old socks from that weird guy who never showers in the next pod). Most often, people leave an old bag in the shower for days on end, while others keep it in their gray box, which is probably shared with a pet lizard.

Then it’s time for the good stuff. To introduce the uninitiated general public to the warm and fuzzy delights of le prison cuisine desserts, I present for your discerning palates: double-iced, jumbo honey-buns. 

Slathered with peanut butter on both buns and affixed with colorful M&Ms along the outer walls of the colossus, the top of the cake has a crushed and compacted chocolate almond bar or two and at least two molten Snickers bars, whose caramel oozes over the mound of fats, sugars, starches, soybean oil, flour, unknown glazes, nuts and assorted milk byproducts. 

Heat your buns in the microwave for 30 seconds, and enjoy. Then get ready for your body to go into simulated cardiac arrest. 

This obscenely caloric decadence is not for the diabetic, geriatric or weak of heart. But it is a favorite inside and has been for decades. 

The double-decker, iced honey-bun colossus trumps not only the Eiffel Tower, but French pâtisseries, like chocolate croissants, Napoleons or bonbons. 

For ol’ timers, you’re probably scratching what hairs are left on your head after decades of these daily desserts, wondering why I haven’t mentioned the key ingredients used in nearly every jailhouse or prison meal? 

The secret ingredients are: ramen noodle soups (prison currency), creamer, margarine, white sugar, mayonnaise, cocoa, coffee and Mountain Dew. Sometimes, the chefs mix all the ingredients together with bits of mystery meat, boiled, fried and reduced to an American consommé. (Take that, vichyssoise lovers.)

And now, thanks to the growing ubiquity of prison cookbooks, you don’t even have to commit a crime to eat the food that comes with serving time.

So, foodies, push that croque monsieur ham and cheese sandwich off your lunch plate, grab the Hitman Burrito, with a sexy side of Murder-One Chili and indulge in criminal pleasures from the real shot-caller: le prison cuisine.

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.

L.T. Henning is a writer incarcerated in New Mexico.