When I tell people that I enjoy studying food habits of different cultures, they automatically assume I am talking about different ethnic cuisines. But in reality, there are a lot of non-ethnic subcultures in the U.S. that form their own distinctive cuisine, and the most interesting one I have researched thus far has been the cuisine of “spreads” that have formed in U.S. prisons. It’s not a new topic (inspiration came from an old issue of Gastronomica magazine), but that doesn’t make it any less intriguing…
Prisoners around the country are making prison food a bit more palatable by creating their own food from typical commissary items and food leftover from prison meals. The base of most spreads is Top Ramen noodle, but from there, spreads can be themed anywhere from a Hog Spread to an Asian spread to a pie spread.
Some spreads are simple as mixing top Ramen with Cheetos and beef sticks, but other more elaborate spreads clearly test the creativity of the inmates to make the most of what they have. One inmate from the article I read does a take on Thai noodles by extract peanut oil from his peanut butter at lunch, and mixing it with Ramen noodles, leftover vegetables or meat and hot sauce. Another prisoner’s going-down-south-spread involves pork rinds, beef sticks, jalapeno pretzel sticks and Cheese Crunchies ground together and served with Top Ramen.
A spread plays many different purposes in a prisoner’s life. First and foremost, the creation of a spread gives the prisoner a sense of control over a life where they have little actual control. When you are locked up all day and have nothing else to do, food becomes very important to people, and can make or break their days. The ability for prisoners to bring themselves some joy in the form of flavors they enjoy is powerful and sustains many.
If you plan on eating a spread, odds are you have to donate some food for the spread, either in the past or the future. Since most spreads are prisoner-funded, spreads are invite only–no buffet line here. A lot of ethnic groups within prison will only share spreads with their group, like Caucasians share spread with other caucasians, blacks only share spread with other blacks. But some people share spread because they are lonely and need a sense of community, even if it is just someone to eat with for a few moments.
Perhaps the most important benefit of prison spreads is the ability to give the prisoner something else to focus their energy on and look forward to. Some prisoners invest all of their creativity and energy to creating and perfecting spreads, like the “Pie Guy” from the article.
The pie guy uses fruit leftover from prison meals, cookies, cakes, even jam and crackers to recreate favorites like apple pie and various sweets. The Pie Guy even makes his own candies by microwaving jelly with a bit of sugar until it gets really thick, then cooling it off before rolling the resulting gel into various shapes for gummy bears.
I think that is what surprised me the most–the amount of creativity it takes to adapt to cooking in prison and the crazy amount of people doing it every day. Who knew apple jelly with hot sauce equals a fairly decent Asian spicy and sweet sauce? What do you think?