Look who’s Cooking!

I do a lot of web-searching on various prison ministry programs and I am always looking for innovative and exciting new ideas to share with churches and other faith-based groups. When I found this article on a program developed by several women behind bars in the Texas prison system, I just knew I had to share it!

These women may not have an oven, refrigerator, stove, knife, or even the ability to boil water, but they do have plenty of time on their hands.

Decades, in fact. And that, combined with a few (admittedly peculiar) ingredients and a desire to cook despite the odds has resulted in a rather unusual cookbook – “From The Big House to Your House,” a collection of 200 recipes by six Texas prison inmates.

The women all are serving at least 50 years at the Mountain View Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, all but one of them for murder. And a hankering for foods they enjoyed on the outside prompted them to get creative on the inside.

For example, they’ve found that an empty potato chip bag works for cooking in a quart-size electric warming pot, their only source of heat for cooking. A plastic ID card – similar to a credit card – makes an acceptable cutting or chopping implement. And tuna and mackerel can be made into great-tasting nachos.

“I know it sounds disgusting,” said Celeste Johnson, 49, one of the authors. “But I love tuna nachos. And I’ve got so many people here converted to it.” 

The spicy gumbo they concoct entirely from commissary purchases is an especially impressive feat!

The book was produced with the help of Johnson’s mother, who typed the recipes and submitted the manuscript on the women’s behalf to The Justice Institute, a Seattle group that works with convicts who maintain their innocence. The group published the book and now sells it online. prison

The book puts into print a long tradition of the joy of cooking behind bars, where generations of Martha Stewart wannabes have concocted legal and illegal brews and stews with a variety of success and failure. Inmate cooking is not confined to women’s prisons. Former Texas corrections officer Jim Willett remembers his days working in a men’s unit, walking through a cell block and getting whiffs of simmering foods.

“You knew when there were certain foods cooking, just like being in your house,” says Willett, now director of the Texas Prison Museum. “It would make you want to stop and join them, but that’s not legal.

“Something like a Frito pie they’re certainly not going to get in the chow hall.”

This makes me think of all those wonderful church cookbooks on my kitchen shelves! And on each page, the authors have included small, informative fact boxes. These “Did You Know?” installments appear after every recipe, revealing a glimpse into the harsh realities of life behind bars and the systems that have inspired these cooking projects.

“From The Big House to Your House,” say in the book’s preface: “This book is the result of our cooking experiences while confined at the Mountain View Unit, a woman’s prison in Gatesville, Texas. We met and bonded in the G-3 dorm, housing only prisoners with a sentence in excess of 50 years. While there isn’t much freedom to be found when incarcerated, using the commissary to cook what YOU want offers a wonderful avenue for creativity and enjoyment! We hope these recipes will ignite your taste buds as well as spark your imagination to explore unlimited creations of your own! We encourage you to make substitutions to your individual tastes and/or availability of ingredients. We are confident that you will enjoy the liberty found in creating a home-felt comfort during unfortunate times. Happy Cooking!”

When asked why work to publish and share these recipes, one of the women replies “It shows people how we survive in here.”

Barbara, Celeste, Ceyma, Louanne, Tina Marie, and Trenda have created a document that sets an example of survival in an environment that is harsh and oftentimes has removed all acknowledgement of our humanity. Although the recipes may excite the imagination (and the taste buds!) it is still difficult for readers to imagine themselves fully within this system. The facts that have been included should inspire us to challenge and critique the penitentiary system. Ultimately, these women have shared an inspiring example of how to take lemons and make Lemon Coconut Bars while telling all of us a very complicated and compelling story.

To order your copy of the book, click here

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