Cooking With Commissary: Artist Collects DIY Recipes From Inmates

After first visiting her incarcerated brother in 2010, LA performance artist Karla Diaz immediately noticed the abysmal snack options in commissary. Mostly a selection of chips, Cheetos and ramen and the occasional meat stick, prisoners are only offered a limited assortment of oversalted snacks as the only alternative to their routinely flavorless meals.

Diaz immediately referenced her mentor from college, Manazar Gaboa, a respected poet who had spent 17 years in and out of prison. She remembered him talking about his favorite recipe, a DIY tuna casserole he’d taught himself to make during his time as an inmate: it combined tuna, hot sauce, pickle juice, and crackers, and Diaz remembered it didn’t taste conventionally good, but that wasn’t the point.

For Manazar, and many inmates before him, the act of making food himself while stuck in prison served as a reminder of his individuality, his culture, and a way to share a controlled experience with other inmates. Whether the meal’s flavor actually rivaled food on the outside was missing the point, this was about maintaining your pride, your humanity, and showing an incredible amount of resourcefulness. So with this thought in mind, Diaz began writing letters and reaching out to inmates, in order to collect their recipes and anecdotes of cooking from commissary.

After receiving a great deal of thoughtful and detailed responses, Diaz performed a 2 hour demonstration at Los Angeles County’s Museum Of Art’s EATLACMA, in which she demonstrated how to make one inmate’s recipe of orange chicken. The recipe itself combined pork rinds (in lieu of actual chicken), and strawberry jello mixed with kool-aid comprising the sauce. The inmate said it was his favorite thing to make because it reminded him of cooking with his daughter before incarcerated, it served as an emotional ritual reminding him of those he loved and missed. When Diaz finished the demonstration, she offered free samples to the audience.

The orange chicken recipe is just the tip of the iceberg. Diaz has continued her correspondence and is expanding her project, now deemed Prison Gourmet – so far, she has collected over 200 recipes from just California alone.

“All of these letters are from inmates in California, so it’s all West Coast recipes, Mexican recipes,” Diaz told VICE. “I’m excited to go down to the South to see what kind of special recipes are there.”

According to many inmates, of the most common recipe styles is called a “spread.” The spreads usually start with a based of ramen noodles (often using hot water, but occassionally raw), and whatever crushed topping the heart desires —  canned oysters, tuna, cheetos, jalapenos, Cheez Whiz, Slim Jims, many times an inventive combination of toppings. The popularity of this method has been found in prisons spanning from England, Mexico, Asia, North America and beyond, despite increasing restrictions placed on prisoners (no microwaves, no options to cook in a kitchen), people are sharing methods and finding ways to cook and share something their own.

Diaz’s project certainly isn’t the first public sharing of this past time, there are a small crop of books detailing prison-cooking, including The Convict Cookbooka cookbook sharing recipes from prisoners at Washington State Penitentiary; Jailhouse Cookbook: The Prisoner’s Recipe Bible, written by a chef-turned-convict; and From The Big House To Your House: Cooking In Prison, which includes recipes from a woman’s prison in Gatesville, Texas.

When compared to what is normally considered gourmet, Diaz clearly stated the point of this project goes way beyond the idea of cooking itself,

“The idea of ‘gourmet’ is something high-quality, high taste. That’s not what this is.The DIY recipes are special, because of what they represent to the inmates—a chance to feel like a human being again.”