by Joe Watson, Edible Baja Arizona
The men at Tucson’s state prison get comfortable cooking
Every Saturday afternoon, Matt Patton helps me escape from prison, 18 ounces at a time.
He stops at my bunk inside this institutional warehouse and reaches into the Styrofoam ice chest he has in tow. His hand swims around and brings to the surface a recycled plastic jar filled with something fuchsia inside and capped with a twist-on lid.
“Nope, this one’s cherry-chocolate brownie,” Patton says, and tosses it back into its icy pond. He tries again. “And this one’s cappuccino—not your flavor, either,” he says, his arm now multiple hues of blue.
And then, finally, eureka!
Patton towel-dries the winning jar and hands me a prison miracle: chocolate ice cream.
Made within the confines of the minimum-security Whetstone Unit at Tucson’s state prison complex, Patton’s ice cream—made of milk, ice, instant cocoa, and other ingredients of dubious origin—is more like a soft-serve Wendy’s Frosty.
As I twist off the top, I wonder if this stuff is safe to eat. Is the milk still good, or past its expiration date? How many unwashed hands did Patton include in the process?
Who cares? I decide, as I swallow the first creamy sporkful.
Nothing against Patton, but there are risks to eating food prepared by unsupervised prisoners. Still, like almost everyone else here, I’m willing to take those chances in exchange for a little comfort.
Once I’m satisfied this treat won’t kill me—not immediately, anyway—I reach into my locker for the $2.50 I owe Patton for his work. Not with cash, of course, but with the gold standard in prison wampum: a variety pack of ramen noodles.
With agreeable head nods, our transaction is complete. And I’m left to my mental furlough, which—including a 30-second head-splitting brain freeze—ends just six minutes later with me pitifully sporking the bottom of the jar.
When prison life hums along in relative peace, it’s largely thanks to guys like Matt Patton. The hustlers and hawkers with their ice cream, no-bake brownies, steamed tamales and burritos, plying the captive audience with high contents of sodium and sugar.
The fair-trade system of Whetstone—where the entire population is nearing the end of incarceration—helps perpetuate an off-the-books economy that gives everyone the chance to make prison life less miserable.
But this sort of fast-food fare only fills a niche. Most prisoners cook for themselves “at home”—their bunks and cubicles—almost every day, even if it’s just a bowl of ramen or tuna casserole. More commonly, though, it’s something heartier and more elaborate, using ingredients only available by purchasing them from the prison store.
“I doubt people realize how much time and money we spend cooking,” says Nate Dixon, a Tucsonan serving seven years for drug trafficking and organized crime convictions. “Unless you know someone in prison, you probably think we just lay around and do nothing.”
Cooking in prison is a tedious, frustrating, and expensive endeavor. It’s also when many of us are at our happiest. But it isn’t something that, as a new arrival, you just show up and do.
For most, in fact, learning to cook for oneself in prison takes years—to acquire the resources, the prison IQ, and frankly, the courage to forgo the often-indigestible chow hall food the state serves, and to invest in better-tasting meals.
This all requires recipes, makeshift utensils, a shelf full of spices, and the bartering know-how to negotiate for last-minute accoutrements. Each of these is as much an indication of the length of time we’ve been incarcerated as are full-sleeve tattoos and stacks of letters from pen pals.
Matt Patton might be the most cerebral ice-cream man at Whetstone.
A former architectural engineering student, Patton tutors fellow prisoners trying to earn their GEDs, a state-sanctioned job that pays him just 40 cents an hour. Most of Patton’s income is bartered for, with his confectionaries filling his locker with up to $200 in trade items in a good month.
With those resources, Patton employs a pretty extensive menu of prison recipes, including beef pot pies, a crude interpretation of “Chinese” food (using instant iced tea mix to achieve a sweet-and-sour flavor) and a prison staple called a “Fat Bastard”—chili, sausage, Spanish rice, and jalapeños stuffed in between two halves of a bagel, and steamed for at least an hour.
“I don’t believe there’s really anything I don’t know how to make,” Patton says. It’s his lasagna that Patton is most proud to share—“maybe my greatest culinary creation,” he says.
Cooking prison lasagna is a weeklong affair that includes rolling out pasta “dough” derived from crushed ramen noodles and slow-cooking the meat sauce—summer sausages, beef crumbles, salsa, and leftover beef bouillon packets from the ramen—inside a plastic bag over boiling water for eight hours.
The secret to his lasagna’s authenticity, Patton says, is the cheese he learned to make “by accident” after reading a 1970s-era science book he checked out from the prison library.
He recites a nursery rhyme to explain the process of extracting cheese curds from lactose and whey, using a hairnet as a cheesecloth “to squeeze out as much of the whey as possible.” The first time he made his own cheese, however, “my hairnet started to break, so I didn’t get all the whey out,” he says.
“So it ended up being a sort-of ricotta cheese. And that is the key.”
Andrew Ross applies similar poor man’s chemistry in the creation of his so-called “red-velvet, chocolate-layered soda cakes,” which command up to $20 each in trade and are so irresistible that even prison guards submit requests for complimentary samples. And when dozens of diabetics’ blood sugar levels suddenly spike, they’ve probably just done business with “The Pusher,” the predatory sobriquet bestowed upon Ross by Whetstone’s medical staff.
“I compete with Andrew in the sugar trade,” Nate Dixon says. “And even I can’t stay away from the stuff he makes!”
A U.S. Army veteran who served in pre-Glasnost Berlin in the 1980s, guarding Checkpoint Charlie and the Wall, this is Ross’s fifth prison sentence since losing his wife to a fatal auto accident in 2002.
“After she died, PTSD kicked in,” says Ross, whose latest conviction is for car theft. “I coped with it by looking for danger, adrenaline. In the Army, I was rappelling out of helicopters, shooting people for a living.”
And now, he “bakes” cakes in a microwave, mixing his batter of vanilla wafers and chocolate chip cookies with strawberry soda to make the batter rise—in order to calm himself when days in prison are especially tense.
“It helps me get away for a while, helps me get out of my own head,” says Ross, who will have done 15 total years in prison when he’s released in 2019.
Ross has gastrointestinal problems that prevent him from indulging in most of the meals his fellow prisoners make for themselves. He blames chow hall fare he endured in previous prison stints for the ulcerative colitis that forced the removal of his small intestine and colon a few years ago.
Prison nutritionists have prescribed him a “low-residue diet” of hard-boiled eggs, pasta, mixed vegetables, mozzarella cheese, real chicken and turkey—a diet that’s unavailable except under a doctor’s order to the whole of Arizona’s 40,000-plus prison population.
“You know the only reason I go to the chow hall? To give my tray away to someone who’s hungrier than me,” says César Vázquez-Morales, a Mexican immigrant originally from Cuernavaca who, like me, is doing 12 years for armed robbery.
Vázquez-Morales cooks not only for himself but also for his “surrogate family” of other Mexican immigrants, which sometimes totals two-dozen mouths to feed. The most popular request? Menudo—which Cesar makes by substituting the beef stomach with pork rinds and summer sausage, and the hominy with Corn Nuts. It’s made in a couple of five-gallon sanitized wastebaskets, cooking inside plastic trash-can liners over boiling water that’s powered by immersion heaters, or “stingers.”
Cooking menudo is an all-day event, and everyone contributes something.
“There’s a reason you don’t see anyone eating menudo alone,” Vázquez-Morales says.
Nate Dixon is my closest friend and confidante at Whetstone, a place where both are found as rarely as the governor grants clemency.
Probably a dozen other prisoners would say the same thing about Dixon, a former Army medic who served in Afghanistan and now lives in a specially designated dorm at Whetstone with 100-plus offenders who are also veterans, including Andrew Ross and myself (a former Navy reservist).
Dixon is known for greeting almost everyone on the yard with a toothy, ear-to-ear smile and a bro-hug. The pained ecstasy of his current expression—as we inhale a dozen habit-forming chimichangas—is quite a different look.
“Oh my God,” he says with his mouth half-full. “This is so good.”
It should be noted that these chimichangas, admittedly, bear almost no resemblance to those served at El Charro, a more palatable kind of Tucson institution and the purported birthplace of the real thing.
Nonetheless, Dixon’s chimichangas are filled with sausage, peanuts (which give the chimis a distinctive crunch), and about 18 ounces of shredded pork containing 2.3 grams of sodium. Bathed in a tub of squeezable cheese sauce and then rolled in a batter of pulverized, chili-flavored nacho chips, they are finally steamed over boiling water for three hours.
“OK, let’s be honest. This is not healthy,” says Dixon, a graduate of the University of Arizona’s College of Pharmacy. “But it’s so much better than the chow hall.”
It isn’t healthy, I concur, nor is it routinely affordable for most prisoners. This particular meal costs about $10 per person, which is more, we speculate, than a majority of the Whetstone population earn every two weeks.
Thankfully, I have one of a handful of prison jobs that pay enough to afford this meal and to save for my imminent release. Dixon’s job maintaining the yard’s recreational equipment pays much less, but his mother sends him money on a regular basis.
I ask him if his mother’s generosity makes him feel any additional guilt.
“Sometimes, yes, I feel like a financial burden on my mom,” he says, swallowing hard, averting his gaze. “But she says she does it so I can eat well. It’s coming from a good place—she’s doing it to help.”
Anyone who spends enough time cooking knows there’s only one ingredient that could comfort troubled men at rock bottom.
“It’s love,” Vázquez-Morales says. “When I cook, I’m thinking about my kids and how I’ll make up for all this lost time.
“So when I’m cooking for this fellowship in here, this brotherhood, I’m cooking with love.”
When Dixon cooks, he says it’s as much of an escape for him as a jar of Matt Patton’s ice cream is for me.
“I get lost in my own little world,” he says. “I think about my mom. I think about all the guys who did time before me and gave me these recipes. It calms me, keeps me centered.
“And you know what I love the most?” he asks. “I love that we can all sit down together, even when it’s tumultuous on the yard, and everyone sets aside their differences and just eats.”
Menudo and Fat Bastards: the great peacekeepers of Tucson’s state prisons. Comfort food helps to make prison safer, but does it make prison better?
“There’s a Mexican country song,” Vázquez-Morales says, “and it goes, ‘If this jail was made out of gold, it wouldn’t stop being a jail.’ I mean, yes, cooking alleviates some of the stress, but it can’t make it better,” he says. “You’re still in prison.”
This article was originally published by Edible Baja Arizona; reprinted with permission from the editor.
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