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Convict Chronicles: Cooking
Leo Cardez was awarded 2nd Place in Nonfiction Memoir in the 2022 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.
They are only made for special occasions. They are expensive (by inmate standards), time consuming, labor intensive, and require extensive planning and clean-up. They are very much worth it. The resulting symphony of flavors is both crispy and tender, sweet and savory, and subtle and bold. It is, in short, a dazzling masterpiece. May I introduce: Leo Meat Pie.
On Sunday morning, like clockwork, I wake up at seven—fifteen. While I use the bathroom and drink my morning coffee I am thinking about my meat pie. The temperature is supposed to push into the nineties by this afternoon and, therefore, not a day I would typically choose to cook in my tiny cell. See, prison cells are built like old pizza ovens of concrete and iron. They are capable of containing so much heat that even the walls will sweat. Unfortunately, I made my celly a promise for his birthday and I keep my word. I know I need to start cooking soon, otherwise, risk sweating onto my food.
My celly, Hoover (a nickname he got because of how quickly he eats, like a vacuum), is rustling in his top bunk. Cell etiquette suggests I have about an hour to get myself together for the day before it is his turn and I have to hole up on my bunk while he gets ready for the day–only one of us can comfortably use the cell floor space at a time. This morning is a bit different, he has an early morning medical pass presumably for his yearly physical. I hurry up and finish what I ‘m doing and jump back on my bunk. I know he’ll feel the bed vibrate and will soon catch my passive-aggresive hint: I ‘m done.
As expected, seconds later, he swings his size sixteen land skis over the edge of his bed and in one fell swoop he hops down to the floor. He barely makes a sound. After twelve years of practice, he moves about the cell like a ninja. He looks at me and grunts. I simply nod in return. It’s still too early for anything more. He looks like he spent the night in a dumpster. He has a mean-mug, what the world might call a resting bitch face. He is a behemoth, six-three, bald, tattooed from ears to ankles, and a body like a shaved gorilla. He is from somewhere in Eastern Europe and talks like Drago.
Early in his bit he beat a guy to death with a book or so the rumors go. He is also the best celly I have ever had. He is respectful, quiet, clean, and considerate. In many ways I admire him. He is serving a fifteen year sentence for two kilos of cocaine and a handful of automatic rifles. In the twelve years he has served he has not had one visit, made one phone call, or received a single letter. He can’t even be sure he has any family left. Yet, he is quick and easy with a smile, always willing to lend a compassionate ear, and generous to his fellow inmates. All the more reason I have to make him a great meat pie today.
He leaves for his pass shortly after the doors roll which is my cue to get to work. I estimate I have between two and three hours before he gets back. It is going to be close.
First things first, I need to set the mood. I grab my tablet and select my “Cooking” playlist. It is classic eighties pop, the music of my youth. See, I need to be in the right mindset when I cook, otherwise, it shows through in the final product—don ‘t ask me how. The heart-thumping intro of Huey Lewis’ “The Heart of Rock and Roll” begins and I am ready to boogie.
I put up the “Do Not Disturb” sign (a makeshift swath of cardboard that blocks my sliver of a cell door window) . I change into my cooking attire: white tee shirt, grey shorts, flip-flops with socks (I hate getting food on my bare feet), a hat turned backwards to avoid the stray hair finding its way into the food, and a pair of green operating room gloves I secretly procured from one of the deck porters. I pull my small garbage can from under the sink for easy access, set two hand towels and a stack of paper towels at the ready, and clear my bed, chair, and desktop to create as much prep room as possible. I plug in my large hot pot to heat up the water. I collect my array of plastic multi-purpose bowls, collected over five years of hoarding, and my selection of plastic spoons, forks, and butter knives. Set-up is complete.
I start pulling ingredients from my grey, plastic, four foot by two foot property -storage box. An inmate’s whole life must neatly fit into what is essentially a medium-sized Walmart storage container. It would be sad if it wasn’t so ridiculous. I have to dig into the back corner of my box. I hide my specialty items from my late-night crave monster. I organize the meats on my bed: carnitas (80z.), pepperoni slices (40z.), pepperoni bites (40z.), hot summer dog (50z.), and fried pork skins (100z.). They look like a beautiful heart attack rainbow in their colorful, sealed, sodium drenched packaging. Next, I start to grab the condiments. I find the Gouda cheese—which is not so much a condiment which suggests it is a topping or optional, whereas the Gouda is a critical ingredient. I would go so far as to say, without it there would be no meat pie today. I also find the ranch dressing, barbecue sauce, ketchup packets, diced onion flakes, and garlic salt. For the pie crust I grab some Ramen noodles and a sleeve of saltine crackers. Finally, the coup de grace, one fresh whole onion and four jalapeño peppers pulled from my secret stash that not even my celly knows about. Fresh fruit and vegetables are considered contraband in prison (hooch making cons ruined it for the rest of us health conscious inmates, therefore, I had to go to the black market and pay an exorbitant mark-up for these delicacies. Always worth it if you can afford them. I quickly tuck them under my pillow until I am ready to use them to avoid prying eyes. At that moment I am startled by a knock on my door. I turn down Bob Marley’s gentle wailing, “No Woman, No Cry” and yell out, “What’s up?” I hear some mumbling behind my steel door and instinctively know it’s my neighbor Santa. I crack the door and sure enough I see his disheveled gray beard. Santa, presumably called so because he does kind-of look like a broke down bum Santa Claus, is 60ish with a pot belly and thick round rim glasses. He doesn’t have many friends and has attached himself to me—I always seem to attract the outcasts. He’s hopped up on caffeine and sugar and wants to rant about something he saw on the deck.
“Hey, I wanted to tell you about the new geechee on the deck. It thinks it’s a real woman. Yesterday, it was folding its panties on the dryer. Can you believe they are selling that on commissary now for them? That’s not right. They coddle them too much.” He’s on a tirade and won’t be done anytime soon, I have no choice but to interrupt him.
“Santa, I don’t give a shit. You see my sign up. I’m busy. I’ll holler at you on the walk to chow.” I tell him as I close the door in his face.
I can feel him fuming on the other side of the door and I feel a guilty pang in my stomach, but he broke my flow just as I was getting in the zone. Back to work.
I look around my makeshift kitchen.. .what am I forgetting? Oh yeah, I need my baking dish, otherwise known as an empty foil-lined chip bag. In prison, we are nothing if not creative–who needs MacGyver when you have inmate ingenuity? I finally think I am ready to start actually cooking just as Michael Jackson ‘s “P.Y.T.” (an underrated hit lost in an album of hits), starts to jam.
I throw the meat, still in their packaging, into the heated water of my hot pot to soften them up and get their juices flowing. I fill a small bowl with hot water and add a half a bag of fried pork skins to rehydrate them.
I crush a sleeve of saltines and a package of Ramen noodles until they are almost dust. I mix them in an empty chip bag while adding a cup of hot water and begin kneading them until they have a dough-like consistency. I roll them into a softball sized ball until it has the feel of an ice slush snowball. I leave it in the bag atop my desk light to bake.
Prince ‘s “When Doves Cry” is playing as I get ready to begin chopping. I peel the top layer off the bites and summer dog before chopping them into tiny cubes. They are oozing grease from their time cooking in the hot pot. Once finished, I begin chopping the peppers and onion and am thankful for my gloves. You’d be surprised how often we unknowingly touch our eyes–I won ‘t be making that mistake again.
Every now and again I hear the intercom click on as the correctional officer calls out for passes and movement. I strain to listen for my name. I can barely hear anything over the blaring Boy George. I sit for a quick breather and another cup of joe. I figure I am about halfway through. The sun is starting to come around my building. I have less than an hour before it will become too uncomfortable to continue. I put a cool towel around my neck and I am ready to get back to it.
I clear a space on the desk to roll out the crust. I take my dough ball, I can feel it has set. I break in two, take the larger piece and place it into another chip bag. I start to roll out the dough using a plastic pop bottle creating a large single layer. I gently remove the crust from the bag and place on the table where I can use the top of what will be my serving dish as a cookie-cutter. I gently massage the crust into the bottom of my cooking/serving bowl. I use the same technique to make the top of the bowl crust and set aside.
A familiar ache starts to radiate from deep in my spine. I must hurry before my back locks up and everything comes to a hard stop. The Karate Kid’s theme “You’re the Best” is pumping and it’s just what I need to hear.
It is time to put it all together. The gouda goes in first. Lots and lots of gooey deliciousness coats the bottom crust creating a thick layer of cheese. The meats are separated into quadrants: carnitas, bites, summer dog, and the. re-hydrated soft pork skins. Everything is topped with the chopped onions and peppers and drizzled with ranch dressing. I place the top crust on the pie and tuck in the edges. I smear a thin layer of cheese over the top then coat it with BBQ sauce and ketchup before adding the pepperoni slices and finally, a quick dusting of garlic powder and onion flakes and VOILA! my signature pizza-top crust is complete.
I hear Hoover at the door, “Celly?” he asks.
“Come in buddy, just finishing up,” I yell out over Tina Turner asking what love has to do with it?
He walks in and I can see his face drop as he looks over the cluttered cell. ‘ ‘Don ‘t worry man, I’ll clean it all up.” I reassure him. He tries to play it off.
“No problem, I just came to grab something and then I will get out of your way. Smells good though. He tells me in his thick every-Russian-bad— guy-in-a-movie accent. For being essentially a large mass of muscles with legs he’s surprisingly graceful as he passes by me and to his bunk without so much as a grazing touch. We have learned to anticipate each others every move in our tiny home. We can sense each other and adjust ourselves accordingly. He closes the door behind him as he leaves to Madonna singing “Borderline”.
Nothing left to do now but throw the pie in the oven. I cover the bowl and place it inside my hot pot so that the bottom of the bowl is submerged in the hot water. I look at my watch, 10:30 A.M. It should be ready by the time the Bears game kicks off just after noon.
The sun is pouring in through my window, the heat is stifling. I grab both of our small fans and place them strategically as I open my cell door to try and create a crosswind. Now I begin my least favorite part of the day: clean up. My only salvation? Bruce Springsteen is crooning about his Glory Days.
The cell is spotless. The pie is done. The Bears game is minutes from starting.
Time to eat.
Watching Hoover eat makes me cringe. He wolfs down his food as if protecting it against foreign invaders. I worry that he isn’t enjoying it, savoring it, or tasting it. Hell, I worry he’s going to choke on it. Minutes later he is finished, he looks over to me and says, “You showed your ass on this one celly. I have no idea what he means, maybe it’s a Russian compliment? His demeanor and bright smile tell me it’s a good thing.
Fifteen minutes later I’ve licked my bowl clean and we’re both sitting on the edges of our bunks catching up on the prison gossip. Who went to the hole yesterday? Have you seen the new female C.O. and do you think she’s cute? What’s new at store? Finally, Hoover puts his fist out, “Thanks again celly, I’m gonna watch the Bears for awhile. ” I tap his fist with mine and wish him a happy birthday.
Tomorrow is Monday and the rumor mill is saying that we are scheduled to go to commissary store first thing in the morning. I look at my list. I already have the cheese and meats, but I forgot to add the Nacho chips. See, Santa ‘s birthday is next month and he’s asked me to make him one of my famous Nacho Bowls. I jot it down.
I peel off my clothes, wrap myself in a towel, and head to the showers before the afternoon “count” begins. The cold water is a jolt. I stand under it until it warms, washing away the grease, sweat, and grime. I close my eyes as I begin to hum Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”. In that moment, I ‘m so happy I let myself forget where I am and start singing—I don’t even care who’s listening.
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