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Prison Cuisine: A Creative Challenge

By: John Mandala "The Jailhouse Gourmet"

Sing Sing Prison, New York

Welcome to the "Cellblock Cafe!" As a person who never imagined being a gourmet cook (or a prisoner), the last 15 years have not been easy, but they have been an interesting culinary journey.

In 1986, upon my arrival at the county jail, my cooking lessons began. There, I witnessed men using empty toothpaste tubes as spoons, and burning toilet paper to heat up coffee or reheat the food served. I was amazed the first time I saw a man using a metal dinner plate as a skillet to prepare grilled baloney and cheese sandwiches or using a radio antenna to broil hot dogs for an evening snack.

Eventually, I learned these "tricks of the trade," and added my own creations, such as shredded fried roast beef with ketchup and mustard or fried mashed potatoes in butter. Within a few months, I was nicknamed, "Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee." I soon realized that creating and sharing a tasty, nourishing meal was one of the few enjoyments prison life offered. Surprisingly, I began to experience another kind of nourishment, one of the soul. Creative cooking opened up an avenue of communication, which transcended prison politics, and a healthy meal crossed most cultural barriers as well.

More than a decade later, as a result of good behavior and other accomplishments in prison programs, I am now at Sing Sing Correctional Facilities medium security annex. I share a single stove with 75 men who are Jamaican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Asian, African-American, Italian and Caucasian. This experience has allowed me to be exposed to different cooking methods, recipes and to taste various types of food.

In addition, on a daily basis, the smell of sauteed onions, fried garlic, fried fish or toast permeates the cooking area as two or three men share the cost, preparation and enjoyment of a great meal. A unique bond of trust, respect and friendship is evident, which brings back pleasant memories of home and time shared in the kitchen or at the dinner table. This is an important process towards transformation of men who will someday be returned to society. Here, men who break bread together, share ingredients, stories, recipes and time, are an extended family, and keep alive the social skills they will need to use upon their release.

Creativity has become my most important seasoning. With a dash of kindness, a sprinkle of laughter, and a teaspoonful of patience, my culinary journey has reached plateaus beyond mere nourishment.

Enjoy this section of the web site. It features not only some of my recipes, but recipes from prisoners all over the country, and we would all like to share them with you...

Sincerely,

John Mandala

*** Excerpt from an unpublished manuscript ***
View Recipes (click image to your left)




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