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An array of cutlery against a background of prison bars
Illustration adapted by Teresa Tauchi (Source: Depositphotos)

If you have ever lived in a housing project as a kid, gone to college or lived on your own, you may have struggled with hunger. It’s one of the hardest sensations a person can experience.

In prison you have to be creative when it comes to food. Otherwise, you will face an endless cycle of the same bland and flavorless meals week after week.

Knowing the tricks of the trade to make meal time pleasant is essential, especially if you have little to no money and no outside support system. 

Here are some of my best methods to make the most of your meals whether it uses state food, items purchased from the commissary, or a little bit of both. 

[Jump to recipes]

The “musts” of a prison chef

Two things are vital: You need friends who work in the kitchen, and you must never throw away free food. Even the most unpalatable food items have untapped potential. 

Most prisons, like my facility in Arizona, have a calendar of meals planned for the week. This means you can make arrangements to have the items you need days before you intend to make a spread. 

Still, you’ll need a “plug” — a cook in the kitchen hooking you up with food — to help you smuggle ingredients for your meals. Believe me when I say this: Taking something like an onion or a bell pepper is not an easy task for most kitchen workers, and they may charge an arm and a leg for their services, so make sure you break bread with them to stay on good terms.

We can also purchase food in the prison commissary, which functions like our general store. 

Must-have prison foods

Make no mistake: Ramen is your saving grace when you are hungry. It is an item on every commissary store list. Even if you are not a fan of ramen, ramen seasonings are an alchemical elixir that can transmute any meal into gold. 

Ramen is a basic currency among prisoners. In prison, you can use ramen to make bets at the poker table and pay for services like haircuts and housekeeping. If you have a hustle, like I do, you can charge your clients ramen soups as payment. 

Another bestselling item in Arizona are chicharrones, or pork rinds. They not only have flavor, but are also crunchy and act as a filler for many meals. 

Menudo kits — a mix of chicharrones, cheese, pretzels and hot water — are a popular meal inside Arizona correctional facilities. This inexpensive meal can help anyone survive when a cafeteria meal is unappealing, no matter how much seasoning or commissary enhancements you add to it. 

In prison, chicharrones are also used for more decadent meals like orange chicken. The ingredients will cost more, but with white rice, chicken and the right blend of flavors, you will immediately be transported to Panda Express.

Prison cooking makes friends

Great food is the way to a person’s heart. If you are trying to impress a special friend or show off your cooking talents, and you’re not too worried about the cost of the meal, you can do wonders with a bag of tortilla chips or state-provided bread and cookies. 

As a kid, I had fun making masa, a corn and flour dough used for tamales or tortillas. In prison, a very rigorous few hours making masa, coupled with the right ingredients, will make a tamale huge enough to feed multiple people. 

For dessert, a whole bag of smashed-up cookies — preferably vanilla wafers — can make the base of a delicious cake. Choose the right flavor, and you have the perfect dish for the perfect occasion.

Prison cooking makes money

As you become more experienced making quality meals, you can up your game and start selling food. You’ll probably get a lot of business: When people are bored or stressed, they choose food as the go-to remedy. 

If you are charging your customers just for the labor, and not the ingredients, make sure your profit margin is 50% to 60%. For example, if it costs $20 to make the finished product, make sure you end up with $30 in your pocket. Otherwise, if you are given all the ingredients upfront, charge a piece of the finished product as payment.

Anyone who is driven and willing can do their time comfortably if they put forth the effort. You may have to start at the bottom, but with patience and hard work, you can make it to the top. 

Before long, your prison sentence will end, and you’ll leave as a creative and savvy chef.

Four prison food recipes

Most items for the recipes below can be found in the kitchen, served during chow, or purchased at your facility’s commissary or Access Securepak, if your facility participates in the Securepak program, which allows people to receive packages. 

Menudo Kit
(Servings: 1)

  • 1 small bag chicharrones
  • 1 bag crushed pretzels (preferably jalapeño-flavored)
  • 1 can Easy Cheese
  • 2 cups hot water

Pour the chicharrones in a bowl or slit the packaging to make into a bowl. 

Add crushed pretzels, hot water and cheese. Stir and enjoy.

Nova’s Orange Chicken
(Servings: 2-4)

  • 1 bag white rice
  • 1 20-ounce 7 Up or Sprite
  • 2 packs orange Kool-Aid
  • 4-6 jelly packets (any flavor)
  • 2-4 packets mustard
  • 1 bag chicharrones 
  • 1 bag packaged cooked chicken (or chicken from the chow hall)

Cook rice and set aside.

In a separate bowl, mix 6 to 8 ounces of soda (about 1/3 of the bottle) with the Kool-Aid, jelly and mustard to make the sauce. Set aside. Add chicharrones and chicken to the rice and mix well. Cover with sauce. Lightly incorporate all the ingredients, and serve. 

Nova’s Very Berry Strawberry Vanilla Cake

  • 1 bag vanilla wafers
  • 1 bag Berries Bunch O’Krunch cereal, divided
  • 1 20-ounce 7 Up or Sprite
  • 1 box strawberry drink mix (8 packets per box), divided
  • 2 packs vanilla shake mix or 1 cup powdered milk
  • 1 cup strawberry purée (optional)

Crush vanilla wafers as finely as possible.

Crush 1 cup of Berries Bunch O’Krunch cereal and add to crushed vanilla wafers.

Pour 6 to 8 ounces of soda (about 1/3 of the bottle) and 4 packs of strawberry drink mix into the mixture, and stir to the consistency of cake frosting. 

Microwave for 3 to 5 minutes, checking after 3 minutes to verify soda has evaporated. Set aside for about 2 minutes and flip before it cools completely.

Add vanilla shake mix with the 4 packs of strawberry drink mix in a separate bowl. Add 1 ounce of soda to mix and stir to consistency of frosting.

Frost the cake, then add more cereal (or strawberry purée) on top. 

Let cool and serve.

Nova’s Tamale Extravaganza

  • 1 bag corn tortilla chips (or Doritos or 1 loaf of bread)
  • 1-2 cups water
  • 1 pouch Chilorio (shredded, seasoned pork meat) or beef barbacoa
  • 1 summer sausage, chopped
  • 1 jar chopped jalapeños
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 1 bag white or brown rice, cooked
  • 1 can spicy refried beans, cooked
  • 1 bag chili beans, cooked
  • Tapatio or any hot sauce, to taste

Squeeze cheese, to taste

Crush tortilla chips as finely as possible while still in the packaging. 

Using a trash bag or the chip packaging, add water to chips and roll out like masa dough. Flatten the dough to the size you  want your tamale to be. Let the masa sit until set (about 2 to 3 hours).

Once set, add the meats of your choice, chopped jalapeños, onions and green peppers, rice, refried beans and chili beans. Top with Tapatio and cheese. 

Roll the tamale like a giant burrito. Top with additional cheese if desired. 

Serve and enjoy. 

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.

Chastyn “Nova” Hicks is a writer and artist incarcerated in Arizona.