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Silhouette of man in prison eating a pie with steam rising up
Illustration by Graham Sisk

On Sunday morning, like clockwork, I wake up at 7:15. The temperature will push into the high 90s by this afternoon. The prison’s tiny cells are built like old pizza ovens made of concrete and iron, retaining so much heat that even the walls sweat. Despite the heat, I made a birthday promise to my cellie, Hoover (a nickname he earned because he eats like a high-powered vacuum). I need to start cooking my special Piggy Prison Pie soon.

Hoover leaves for an early-morning medical visit, which is my cue to get to work. I have between two and three hours before he gets back. It is going to be close.

First, I need to set the mood. I grab my tablet and select my cooking playlist. It is classic ’80s pop, the music of my youth. I need to be in the right mindset when I cook, otherwise it shows through in the final product. The heart-thumping intro of Huey Lewis and The News’ “The Heart of Rock & Roll” begins and I am ready.

I put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign — a makeshift swatch of cardboard that blocks my sliver of a cell door window — and change into cooking attire. I’ve even got a pair of green operating room gloves I secretly procured from one of the deck porters. 

I pull my small garbage can from under the sink for easy access, set two hand towels and a stack of paper towels at the ready, and clear my bed, chair and desktop to create as much prep room as possible. 

I plug in my large hot pot to heat up the water and collect my array of plastic multipurpose bowls — collected over five years of hoarding — and my selection of plastic spoons, forks and butter knives. Setup is complete.

I start pulling ingredients from my plastic, 4-by-2-foot property storage box. An inmate’s whole life must neatly fit into what is essentially a medium-sized Walmart storage container. 

I have to dig into the back corner of my box where I hide specialty items. I organize the meats on my bed: carnitas, pepperoni and fried pork skins. They look like a beautiful heart attack rainbow in their colorful packaging. Then I find Gouda cheese, ranch dressing, barbeque sauce, ketchup packets and seasonings. 

For the pie crust, I grab some ramen noodles and a sleeve of saltine crackers. Finally, I pull out one fresh onion and four jalapeño peppers from a secret stash even Hoover doesn’t know about. 

Fresh fruit and vegetables are considered contraband in prison (hooch-making cons ruined it for the rest of us health-conscious inmates). So I had to go to the black market and pay an exorbitant markup for these delicacies. I quickly tuck them under my pillow to avoid prying eyes until I am ready to use them. At that moment, I am startled by a knock on my door. It’s my neighbor, Santa. 

“Santa, you see my sign up. I’m busy. I’ll holler at you on the walk to chow,” I tell him as I close the door in his face. I feel a guilty pang in my stomach, but I need to stay in the cooking zone.

I look around my makeshift kitchen. What am I forgetting? Oh yeah, I need my baking dish: an empty foil-lined chip bag. In prison, we are nothing if not creative. 

I throw the meat, still in the packaging, into the heated water of the hot pot to soften and get their juices flowing. I fill a small bowl with hot water and add a half bag of fried pork skins to rehydrate them.

I crush a sleeve of saltines and a package of ramen noodles until they are almost dust. I mix them in an empty chip bag with a cup of hot water and begin kneading them into a “dough.” I roll the dough into a softball and leave it in the bag atop my desk light to bake. 

Prince’s “When Doves Cry” is playing as I get ready to chop the meat and vegetables. The sun is starting to come around my building. I have less than an hour before it will become too uncomfortable to continue. I put a cool towel around my neck.

I clear a space on the desk to roll out the crust with a plastic pop bottle. As I gently massage the crust into the bottom of my cooking bowl a familiar ache starts to radiate from deep in my spine. I must hurry before my back locks up.

It is time to put it all together. The Gouda goes in first. Loads of it. Gooey deliciousness coats the bottom crust, creating a thick layer. The meats are separated into quadrants: carnitas, pepperoni, summer sausage and rehydrated soft pork skins. 

Everything is topped with chopped onions and peppers and drizzled with ranch dressing. I place the top crust on the pie and tuck in the edges. I smear a thin layer of cheese over the top, then coat it with barbecue sauce and ketchup before adding the pepperoni slices. Finally, a quick dusting of garlic powder and onion flakes. Voila! My signature pizza top crust is complete.

I hear Hoover at the door. “Cellie?” he asks. 

“Come in buddy, just finishing up,” I yell out.

He walks in and I can see his face drop as he looks over the cluttered cell. “Don’t worry man, I’ll clean it all up,” I reassure him. 

He tries to play it off. “No problem, I just came to grab something and then I will get out of your way. Smells good though.” 

Hoover is surprisingly graceful for how bulky he is. He passes by me and heads to his bunk without so much as a grazing touch. We have learned to anticipate each other’s every move and adjust accordingly in our tiny home. He closes the door behind him to Madonna singing “Borderline.”

Nothing left to do now but throw the pie in the oven. I cover the bowl and place it inside my hot pot so that the bottom of the bowl is submerged in the hot water. 

The sun is pouring in through my window; the heat is stifling. I grab both of our small fans and place them strategically as I open my cell door to try to create a crosswind. Now I begin my least favorite part of the process: cleanup. My only salvation? Bruce Springsteen is crooning about his “Glory Days.”

The cell is spotless. The pie is done. The Chicago Bears game is minutes from starting. Time to eat.

Hoover wolfs down his food like he’s protecting it against foreign invaders. I worry he isn’t enjoying it, savoring it or tasting it. Hell, I worry he’s going to choke on it. 

Minutes later he finishes, looks over to me and says, “You showed your ass on this one, cellie.” I have no idea what he means, but his demeanor and bright smile tell me it’s a good thing.

Fifteen minutes later I’ve licked my bowl clean and we’re both sitting on the edges of our bunks catching up on the prison gossip. Finally, Hoover puts his fist out. “Thanks again, cellie. I’m gonna watch the Bears for a while.” I tap his fist with mine and wish him a happy birthday.

Tomorrow is Monday and the rumor mill is saying we are scheduled to go to the commissary store first thing in the morning. I look at my list. I already have the cheese and meats, but I forgot to add the chips. See, Santa’s birthday is next month, and he’s asked me to make him one of my famous nacho bowls.

I head to the showers before afternoon count begins. As I wash away the grease, sweat and grime, I close my eyes and hum along to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” I’m so happy I let myself forget where I am and start singing.

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.

Leo Cardez is a prison journalist and prison reform activist who has written for various newsletters and newspapers. His work has been selected for various anthologies. He is the editor of the prison newspaper, Dixon Digest. He volunteers as an Advisory Board Member of Prison Health News and serves on a committee for College Guild. He is incarcerated in Illinois. Leo Cardez is a pen name.