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A Cookbook for Prisoners, by Prisoners
Nutrition, labor, and life inside the prison system.
Howdy cookbook fans!
Today we have a piece that’s been in the works for quite awhile: Green Bay, Wisconsin-based journalist John McCracken looks at Canteen Cuisine, a community cookbook written by prisoners, for prisoners. The recipes explore the kinds of dishes incarcerated individuals can make with what they can buy in the canteen, using very limited equipment. And, as many community cookbooks do, the book gives us a glimpse of life within a specific community. John is the author of The NEWcomer, a newsletter looking at Green Bay arts, politics, and culture—if you like this piece, give it a read.
(CN for brief mention of disordered eating.)
Today's issue of Stained Page News is brought to you by What You’re Eating, a new podcast from FoodPrint.org that is here to help you understand how your food gets to your plate, and see the full impact of the food we eat on animals, planet and people. From practical conversations with farmers about the true cost of raising chickens to discussions with policy experts on the barriers to sustainability, to tips from chefs about how to reduce kitchen waste, What You're Eating covers everything from the why to the how. Listen wherever you get your podcasts and follow along for more stories here.
Canteen Cuisine: A Cookbook for Prisoners, by Prisoners
By John McCracken
Instant ramen noodles. Strawberry jelly. Saltines. Honeybuns. Kool-aid.
These ingredients, which sound like the contents of an adolescent’s dream after-school concoction, are a sampling of what incarcerated individuals use to add some spice to their life behind bars and can be found in a community-compiled cookbook.
Cooking in prison as an incarcerated individual is not easy. Depending on the institution, ingredients are limited to whatever the cafeteria is serving and what is available for purchase (at a steep cost) in the prison’s canteen. Some Wisconsin institutions limit incarcerated individuals' access to heat sources down to just hot water, no microwave or hotplate to be found.
Canteen Cuisine was created in 2019 by Wisconsin Books to Prisoners, a volunteer-run community group that has been connecting incarcerated people to donated books and resources since 2006. The cookbook is filled with recipes ranging from full-blown chicken fingers to milkshakes, and even a rendition of surf and turf.
Wisconsin Books to Prisoners co-founder Camy Matthay said the idea to produce a cookbook came up because the organization continually receives requests for cookbooks to be mailed to inmates. Matthay said she was confused at first, and asked a former inmate why people on the inside would want to look at glossy photos of cuisine they couldn’t have.
“I said, ‘Well isn’t it kind of eye candy? Isn’t it tortuous?’” said Matthay. “And he laughed, and he agreed with me, but he mentioned that there were some really amazing creative chefs in prison, which startled me.”
Wisconsin Books to Prisoners began to solicit recipes from the inventive cooks inside prisons. Canteen Cuisine features 45 recipes written by currently or formerly incarcerated individuals who resided in institutions across Wisconsin and Alabama. There are also a handful of historical meal lists and recipes from the famed Alcatraz and Sing Sing facilities, dating from 1946 and 1823 respectively.
“There’s clearly been sort of a decline in the quality of food since that period of time,” Matthay said.
In December 2020, national justice-system reform nonprofit Impact Justice released a report analyzing how rarely incarcerated people have access to fresh fruits or vegetables. The report also detailed accounts from formerly incarcerated individuals, their family members, and prison staff about how the trauma of eating in prison continues in the form of eating disorders outside of prison. According to the report, the majority of prisons across the country spend an average of $3 per day on food per inmate. At $1.02 per meal, Wisconsin spends the smallest amount of any state.
Matthay said the recipes inside of Canteen Cuisine are not supposed to, and rarely do, act as a way to supplement an inmate’s typical diet. Instead, the act of cooking and tinkering with recipes is a form of escape and community for those on the inside.
“A lot of them do it for the reasons any of us out here enjoy cooking,” said Matthay, “to share and establish some kind of conviviality with the people they’re in touch with.”
She said the cookbook puts the economic conditions and nutritional value of the recipes under the microscope.
James Terry II of Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (Supermax) in Boscobel, WI had the most expensive dish in the book. His recipe for “Sports Enthusiast Faux Pas Chicken Fingers” lists $7.42 worth of ingredients needed from the canteen, such as two packages of 9oz of chicken breasts, horseradish sauce, and honey-roasted peanuts. Wisconsin prisons, much like many prisons across the country, allow incarcerated people to work in a variety of industries—from agriculture to building state-sanctioned and used furniture—to earn dimes-an-hour wages which can be put towards hygiene products, paying fines, and food/snack items. Terry’s dish costs 62 hours of labor to make 16 chicken fingers.
“The economic life of prisoners was the most important part to me,” Matthay said.
Wisconsin Books to Prisoners also partnered with an intern from UW-Milwaukee’s Nutritional Sciences Department to create food nutrition labels for the recipes. These labels show the food items available for purchase inside prisons lack adequate nutritional standards and provide guidelines of how to improve nutrition in prisons.
An anonymous inmate’s recipe for “Kool-aid Pie” was the most tooth-destroying recipe in the collection, clocking in at 44.9 grams of sugar. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends 50 grams per day of added sugars based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet.
Wisconsin state statute is vague in its definition of the food served in prisons, stating “the department shall provide nutritious and quality food for all inmates.” State statutes also outline that prisons must provide alternatives for inmates with dietary and religious food exemptions, and the cookbook provides a section of Kosher recipes made by prisoners.
Canteen Cuisine illustrates the limited cooking tools incarcerated individuals have access to when they make supplemental meals and test recipes. The majority of the book’s recipes can be cooked using only a microwave. Green Bay Correctional Institution, a 124-year-old maximum security facility with a long history of outdated facilities and large numbers of complaints, allows inmates to purchase hot pads. Taycheedah Correctional Institution, a maximum- and minimum-security adult women facility, only allows inmates to use a hot water tap for cooking.
Matthay said the project was inspired by other cookbooks, such Commissary Kitchen: My Infamous Prison Cookbook, written by Mobb Deep's Albert 'Prodigy' Johnson. Canteen Cuisine closes with a quote from Johnson, taken from his collection:
“This book won’t make you a better cook, but it might make you a better person. Because in a world where prisoners are treated like animals, we made our experiences there feel more human by how we prepared our food.”
A physical or digital copy of Canteen Cuisine is available to purchase by contacting Wisconsin Books to Prisoners. All of the cookbook’s proceeds benefit the organization’s continued work. Wisconsin Books to Prisoners also accepts book donations of paperback books, but asks individuals to contact the organization before donating cookbooks or other items.
John McCracken is a Green Bay, Wisconsin journalist who covers environmental concerns, business development, community issues, music, art, and Midwest culture. His work has appeared in The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, Great Lakes Now - Detroit Public Television, UpNorthNews, Bandcamp Daily, Loudwire, In These Times, The Capital Times, The Press Times, Tone Madison, Belt Magazine, Green Bay City Pages, Milwaukee Record and more. He writes a local Green Bay news and culture newsletter on Substack called The NEWcomer and can be found on Twitter @jmcjmc451.