CHAPTER SEVEN, Food, Glorious Food
1. YOU WANT FRAYS WITH THAT?
You can always peg as a Midwesterner someone who celebrates a Cleveland-born holiday called Sweetest Day. A Cincinnati native reveals their natal roots when they refer to a green pepper as a mango or respond to something they haven’t quite heard with “Please?” a literal Anglicization from the “bitte?” that would have commonly been heard in Porkopolis, the predominantly German, Ohio River town that was Cincinnati’s fore-runner.
It was early in my virgin incarceration that I learned of a popular, regional diner item that first appeared in Rochester in the early 1920’s and which is still largely confined (with good reason, some spoilsports might contend) to eateries in upstate New York. It is aptly named Garbage Plate. While some might consider Kitchen Sink to be a more fitting name, a Garbage Plate is a combination of the diner’s choice of two or more of a hamburger, cheeseburger, red or white hots, Italian sausage, fried egg, fried fish filet or boneless fried chicken breast served over baked beans and/or macaroni salad (and/or sometimes, coleslaw) with some kind of fried potato (usually French fries) and an indigenous beef and onion hot sauce and/or mustard and onion topping (optional). Italian bread with butter is served on the side.
When the name of this regional delicacy first fell upon my ears it was in reference to the list of options that appeared on our weekly order form from jail commissary. Along with the overpriced toiletries, snack and other food items, playing and greeting cards, undershirts and socks, transistor radios and earphones, the commissary also offers up a limited series of “Hot Plates,” one of which, the Garbage Plate, is available on alternating weeks with Chicken Fingers or a Burger Platter.
I don’t quite understand why the “Hot Plate” is the pride of the commissary list unless it stems from the fact that, after twenty-one meals comprised of the barely edible, the prospect, once a week, of a large quantity of hot, fast food, even if its arrival time is 3:45 on a Tuesday afternoon, is too tempting for many of us to pass up. To me, since it is never hot and never served on a plate (OK, a paper plate), a jailhouse “Hot Plate” is more marketing phenomenon than food, so despite the fact that it arrives, a stone cold, greasy, expensive mess, it is legitimate, I think, to cite the power of American commercialism as a major reason why my better judgment is occasionally blindsided.
The other, more practical reason is because, whichever “Hot Plate” option is up in the rotation, it comes with a genuine, fountain Pepsi served over cubed ice. That may not sound like much, but if you have ever gone through a week in which the only liquid to go down the hatch has been drinking water sprung from questionable pipes in a poorly maintained facility built on the cheap from government-sponsored contracts, you cannot imagine the lure of a fountain Pepsi-Cola. As much as we all look forward to our weekly bag of whatever pre-packaged, standard commissary goodies, the “Hot Plate,” whatever our skewed reasoning, is the item on which most of my inmate colleagues and I spend the majority of our food fantasy time.
Not hailing from the area, the term “Garbage Plate” failed to register. Also, it is so generic a term as to be an accurate description of our every regular meal, and since, at the time of my incarceration, I had no idea that it was the name of a locally-born and, as it turns out, extremely popular diner food option, I could not see the point of special-ordering an item off of the commissary list that I thought would be the equivalent of any number of meals forced upon me during a week of the usual, crappy jail fare. Thinking as I did, it didn’t even occur to me to ask about it. I figured I’d try my luck one week when the Chicken Fingers were due to roll around again, and I didn’t give the “Hot Plate” idea much thought after that. I might, in fact, never have discovered the true nature of the “Garbage Plate” option at all, had it not been for Terrier Bob.
Terrier Bob is a forty-something white guy, who I would ordinarily assume is more like a fifty-something white guy except that he has that rode-hard-put-away-wet, haggard look common to most heavy drinkers who are also heavy smokers, and I feel it is only fair to subtract a decade if I’m going to make an estimation about his age.
Bob, who would ordinarily be in for a relatively short stint for a DUI, is actually facing considerable upstate prison time because, regarding the DUI thing, his status as a repeat offender moved into a more serious category with this last infraction, and he now qualifies as a gold-level member of the Frequent Driving Under the Influence Club. At the point of his last arrest, and including all of his priors, the total damage resulting from his drinking/driving infractions had been no more serious than the occasional totaled car or mangled guardrail, but, apparently, there is just so long that the State of New York will allow a serial drunk driver to be a manslaughter time bomb waiting to explode, and, with his last arrest, it was determined by the judicial powers that be that Bob’s bomb required defusing.
I do not know Terrier Bob under-the-influence, but sober Terrier Bob is a good guy of the hail-fellow-well-met school of good guys. Physically he is somewhat short of stature, but well-proportioned with a square jaw and a full head of only slightly gray-tinged brown hair; and I’m pretty sure that if it were not for his slightly walleyed look, he would generally be considered handsome.
I am always just a little bit amused, in general, by Terrier Bob. First of all, if there could be a name generic to the typical upstate New York “guy,” it would be Bob. Terrier Bob has an additional geographically based feature in that he possesses the quintessential accent typical of this region. The overall vocal production is one of extreme nasality, and it features vowel sounds of extraordinary brightness; so, for instance: Bob becomes Bab, night becomes nate, fries becomes frays, like becomes lake, white becomes wait, baseball becomes beeseball; a long o vowel becomes an oh-ooh diphthong and the “ing” syllable disappears completely and is replaced by “in’.”
And, yes (since you are probably wondering), there is a reason we call him Terrier Bob: he is one of those people who, once fixated on something, will not let it go. For some people, a typical, even laudable fixation might be a desire to become a great artist or statesman; or to find a cure for cancer or to eradicate world hunger in our time. Terrier Bob, God love him, tends, however, to clamp down on matters of a more mundane nature, a quality that would probably not be so bad, except that the things that seem to strike Bob as clamp-worthy are pedestrian in the extreme. The following recently-heard monologue is a Terrier Bob classic:
BOB: Ay just don’t understand whey this particular batch of briefs has fallen apart so fuckin’ fest. Ay got ‘em, let’s see . . . Ay think, was it, lake, fave weeks ago? No, yeah, seems lake six, . . . let’s see . . . Ay got here eete weeks ago, Fraydee, so, yep, rate at fave, six weeks. Ya should see ‘em now: a rip in the cratch, threads pullin’ all over. And gree! The lahndry here is reely bed. My briefs are so gree. But they were reely wait when Ay got ‘em. Ay mean, reely, reely wait, but this lahndry, my Gad, whey is it so bed? Ay should show ya how gree. Jeez.
(Translation: I just don’t understand why this particular batch of briefs has fallen apart so fucking fast. I got them, let’s see . . . I think, was it, like, five weeks ago? No, yeah, seems like six, . . . let’s see . . . I got here eight weeks ago, Friday, so, yep, right at five, six weeks. You should see them now: a rip in the crotch, threads pulling all over. And gray! The laundry here is really bad. My briefs are so gray, but they were really white when I got them. I mean, really, really white, but this laundry, my God, why is it so bad? I should show you how gray. Jesus.)
Or so goes the condensed version of the Terrier Bob monologue I must have heard delivered in passing to at least four groups of inmates, captivated out of politeness (or shock) over the course of one afternoon and evening.
I didn’t get off so easily during the forty-eight hour period in which Bob got the topic of the commissary Garbage Plate between his teeth. During most of the period of his fascination, I was playing cards with Justin, who has had direct experience not only with the commissary Garbage Plate (because he has ordered it on several occasions) but also with the version offered at the diner where he was employed as a short order cook in the days before his arrest. Justin, in other words, is more than just familiar with the “Garbage Plate” and its many mutations; he and this local, diner food phenomenon are on intimate terms.
An overview of the seemingly endless, make-you-want-to-blow-your-brains-out-but-eventually-highly-amusing conversational stream that resulted when Terrier Bob discovered the tongue and groove connection he had with Justin over the topic of the Garbage Plate went something like this:
BOB (who never actually sat down during this discussion, but, rather, stood just at my left shoulder, firing a new question at poor, patient Justin on the instant he had been delivered an answer): So, you’ve had the Garbage Pleete?
JUSTIN (who would dazzle me with a brilliant, double focus, on both cards and Terrier Bob, for the duration): Yep.
BOB: And . . .?
JUSTIN: And it’s good, pretty typical of Garbage Plates I have had.
BOB: Burgers? Does it have burgers?
JUSTIN: It has two burgers.
JUSTIN: Yep, one of them is a cheeseburger.
BOB: And beans? It’s gotta have beans.
JUSTIN: It has beans.
JUSTIN: Yep, it comes with fries.
BOB: And slah? Ya can’t have a Garbage Pleet without coleslah.
JUSTIN: Yeah, I seem to remember coleslaw.
BOB: And brats? Er, does it have dags?
JUSTIN: No brats.
BOB: So it has dags?
JUSTIN: No. No dogs.
BOB: No brats er dags?
JUSTIN: Not that I remember.
BOB: Cuz ya gotta have brats er dags.
JUSTIN: Not here, I guess.
BOB: Ay mean, dontcha? Ya know . . . gotta have ‘em: brats er dags, er it’s not a Garbage Pleet, ya
JUSTIN: We always served them that way at my place, but . . .
BOB: OK, so you know about the brats-n-dags, rate? Not a Garbage Pleet without yer brats er dags, ever. Nick wouldn’t stand fer it. Ya know, Nick? The Garbage Pleet at Nick’s? Ever have a Garbage Pleet at Nick’s.
BOB: Yeah, Nick’s. Nick’s is greet. Nick’s er the pleece on Meen Street. Used to go there every nate in may drinkin’ days.
JUSTIN: I don’t really know Main Street.
BOB: Oh, ya gotta know Meen Street. That’s the pleece. It’s on Meen, rate bay the Whey, men’s not women’s. Ya know, on Meen. Used ta go there every nate if Ay wuz drinkin’.
JUSTIN: Not sure.
BOB: They got dags on their Garbage Pleet. Ya gotta have dags. Er brats. Brats er dags.
JUSTIN: I agree.
BOB: But no dags here? Fuck, ya gotta have dags. Er brats. Ya gotta. I mean, dontcha? Gotta? Have ‘em?
I resisted the temptation, as Bob walked disappointedly away from that first conversation with Justin, to ask how he felt about hot dogs on his Garbage Plate, but I refrained. Little did I then realize the extent to which my will power would be tested during the endless Garbage Plate-oriented conversations that ensued over the course of that day and the next, but Justin, whose compassion skills easily surpass my own, caught my eye every time my urge to scream or sob or beat my head (or Terrier Bob’s head) on the card table became obvious; and with Justin’s restraint setting such a shining example, even my assholic tendencies subsided. Ultimately, my sanity intact, after all, and my compassion skills upgraded, I turned out not to be an impediment to Terrier Bob’s quest for solid information regarding his favorite diner food. Finally, finally his interest in the topic ran down like the Energizer Bunny you thought would never die.
2. OAT CUISINE
If, on the outside, bread is the staff of life, here on the inside, oatmeal runs neck and neck with boiled potatoes for the same distinction. So, early on in my stay, it made no sense to me that Quaker Instant Oatmeal was on the commissary order list. After all, as I have already mentioned in some detail, we have oatmeal for breakfast at least five times a week. I didn’t think it possible that, given what was served to us, anyone could possibly be inspired to want more.
But after a few weeks here, it did, after all, make sense that commissary oatmeal, if only by virtue of its extreme contrast to jail kitchen oatmeal, would be a big-ticket item, even if it is the artificially flavored, freeze-dried fruit, instant variety. Considering its popularity as a round-the-clock snack item in the pit, then, it also came as no surprise to learn that we have an inmate named Oatmeal (which is pronounced, OAT-MILL! and is always said in a loud, angry voice with both syllables getting the same stress), so-called because of his habit never to be without a bowl of the stuff.
During the day, oatmeal preparation tends toward the typical, straight-out-of-the-packet-as-directed expected: open packet into bowl, add hot water, stir, wait a minute, consume. Repeat (optional). It is in the evening, however, either as a post dessert treat (think after-dinner mint: same concept, less chic) or as a pre-bedtime snack, that you get a sense of the creative options open to any inmate with a little commissary credit and a sweet tooth.
In its most basic, nighttime version, you’ll see multi-packet bowls of the brown sugar & cinnamon variety heaped with extra (contraband) brown sugar (from what source I have yet to find) or various blends of any of the varieties of dried peaches, apples or (again, contraband from an unknown source) raisins. It is a slight problem that you simply cannot get oatmeal made with jail tap water heated to the same degree as would be possible if you had access to boiling water, but that doesn’t stop guys from attempting an ultra sweet version in which smashed bits of Snickers or Milky Way bars (or, come to think of it, Reese’s Cups) are mixed.
My friend Doughboy, who is, by the way, a serious diabetic, has developed what I think is probably the South Tower’s most successful version of a dessert oatmeal. His recipe is to open three packets of brown sugar & cinnamon oatmeal into his bowl. Top with one crumbled, Grandma’s brand large, soft, oatmeal/raisin cookie, one crumbled, Grandma’s large, soft, chocolate chip cookie and one crumbled, Grandma’s large, soft, double chocolate chip cookie. (Incidentally, these cookies come two to a pack, so in Doughboy’s recipe, the spare from each is reserved to be consumed as a kind of oatmeal chaser.) Add the appropriate amount of hot water, mix, wait. Top with half a bag of M&M’s (plain or peanut) or Reese’s Pieces, reserving the other half to consume with the spare cookies as you go. Serves one (well, one Doughboy).
Doughboy caught me gawking just as he was about to dig in to his enormous oatmeal masterpiece one night recently.
DOUGHBOY (seeing me see him, throwing back his head in typical DOUGHBOY fashion, and letting fly with his characteristic, “you caught me in the act” laugh, a high-pitched shriek followed by a series of growling chortles): I know exactly what you are thinking, my friend, and you are correct: yes, this is a shitload of sugar masquerading as a healthy, nighttime snack. But I am only thinking of poor Nurse Gloria. She gonna knock at my cell door at one a.m. in the small hours, with a syringe full of insulin she bring for me every night. You think I be able to sleep if I think I’m makin’ her haul that pretty ass of hers all the way up here without a excellent reason?
It’s a bit of a stretch, I think, from the original Quaker logo’s quote, but put a kind of a parallel universe-ish spin on it and “Nothing is better for thee than me” could still apply.
Interestingly (or not), the Garbage Plate is not the only jail cuisine item with a specifically localized point of origin. I’m referring (as will come as no surprise to any of you with jail-time experience) to that incarceration phenomenon and criminal justice system staple, equal parts craft fair, therapeutic forum, magnificent obsession and culinary lifesaver otherwise known as Jailhouse Gumbo.
I first became aware of what I would soon know as our nightly Gumbo-rama on my first evening in residence in The South Towers when it was just one of a hundred jail features of which I was completely ignorant. At the time, I had no idea what I was seeing, but, I do remember wondering while I wandered around the pit during that first evening rec time at the ritual-in-progress I saw unfolding at easily half of the dozen or so multi-purpose tables in our main dining area. At each of these tables, anywhere from one to three guys were intently focused on what looked (to my unenlightened eyes) like the work of a bunch of spice merchants in the act of creating displays for their colorful, aromatic wares. In spite of the fact that the majority of my attention that first evening went to basics like getting my bearings and scoping out potential allies, I couldn’t help noticing my extremely focused new inmate colleagues as they covered their tables with thin, dry cleaner bag plastic on which they piled powdery mounds in mustard, brown and ochre.
The next day, a Tuesday, was my first commissary delivery day. That meant that the strange, spice merchant behavior of the night before appeared again, but, due to the fact that the guys were all flush with new commissary loot, it all played out to a much larger degree. Most of my basic questions about South Tower life had been addressed the night before or during that day, so when the plastic sheets came out and the spice-piling activity began anew, I, having more attention band-width to spare, paid closer attention.
As it turned out, I was correct about the spices; and my assumption about the guys being, in a way, merchants wasn’t totally off either. On closer observation, I saw that each spice table was the scene, actually, of a one, two, three-man and up operation in which one task would be to break up the contents of several packages of instant ramen noodles to combine in a central pile on the plastic. Another guy would choose from the various flavors (chicken, beef, chili, etc.) of accompanying seasoning packets to sprinkle into the noodle pile for whatever flavor or combination of flavors (and potency) was desired.
This noodle/seasoning combination, as it turns out, forms a base to which is added, depending on the opinions and tastes (and demands) of the contributors, any number of additional items including but not limited to: rice, beans and/or vegetables, or crumbled up beef (well, soy) patties leftover from dinner, plus a wide variety of commissary items like packaged chicken, tuna, chili, crumbled corn chips of several types, crumbled cheese and or peanut butter crackers, various grated cheeses, packaged dill pickles and sausage sticks (chopped into many pieces) to which was added any of the several condiments available through commissary, like hot sauces (of several kinds), mayo, ketchup, mustard, even peanut butter.
In the gumbo tradition, when the desired combination of main and seasoning ingredients has been achieved, the corners of the plastic are gathered together, making sure that the resulting ball of ingredients drops below the level at which, when bound together, spun and tied off, the plastic will remain airtight. Once that is ascertained, the neck of the resulting bag is placed under the hot water tap.
This liquid-adding part of the process is a bit tricky, not génoise tricky, not Veal Prince Orloff tricky, but, nevertheless, tricky. Optimally, the water component should be as hot as possible, but remember, this is jail. Hot water is only lukewarm water in disguise as hot water because hot water that is actually hot could also be scalding, and if water can scald, that water can be a scalding weapon. Once the water reaches something like the desired temperature, the neck of the ingredient-laden plastic bag is held under the faucet until the correct amount of water (a hotly debated topic) has been added, after which, the penultimate step in the process toward the ultimate Gumbo, the kneading, can begin.
Kneading occurs when the water level has been deemed correct, and the bag has been securely tied off, a step in the process that, if sloppily performed, will spell disaster in the final, cooking stage. Once water has been applied, the plastic covered Gumbo blob is swaddled in a bath towel, and kneading can ensue.
Kneading the gumbo is a one-person job that, despite the fact that it could perhaps be more easily done (as many jobs requiring constant attention often are) by committee, it rarely is. This is due to the simple fact that the position of Kneader is a coveted one, generally claimed by the Muscle in the group. He is also the guy who generally controls the balance and amount of the various flavorings, and who (let’s face it) makes all of the decisions regarding the particular gumbo du jour. It is important to note that the muscle of the group is not necessarily the most muscular guy in the group, but he is almost always the loudest.
Gumbo kneading differs from the kneading associated with bread making in that it is much gentler. If the kneading of bread might be described in parenting terms as the paternal act of Dad grabbing a couple of pairs of boxing gloves and taking Sonny into the back yard for some instruction in self-defense, the act of kneading the gumbo is distinctly maternal. It is very peculiar, however, this maternal quality of Jailhouse Gumbo kneading. Give one group of inmates a sack of flour to nurture, as in the classic lesson of teaching child responsibility to teens, and by the end of the day, there is no doubt in my mind that the cell block would look like the tragic outcome of an explosion in the bakery supply pantry. Substitute for the flour, however, a warm, towel-wrapped bundle of gumbo to coddle, and watch the same group of guys morph into so many ferocious mama grizzlies in cub-protection mode.
Once the little bundle of joy is deemed by the Kneader to be mixed and ready, it hits the final step in the Gumbo process: the cooking. As with a soufflé, the greatest potential for disaster lies in this stage. I don’t know how it works in other cell blocks, but since ours is in the fortunate position to be a laundry hub, we, alone in The South Towers, have the technology to put our gumbo through this last, and some would say, most important, step (at least on nights when an understanding deputy is on duty).
There are two basic problems (aside from the need for a lenient deputy) which can arise during this crucial, final step in which, in order to achieve maximum blossoming of flavors, the Gumbo should spend at least twenty minutes on the same setting you would use to dry a load of whites.
PROBLEM 1--There are too many Gumbo orders for too few dryers and too little time. Invariably, guys underestimate both Gumbo creation time and nurturing/kneading time. With only two working dryers (and half of that if there is a load of laundry that actually needs drying) and the final lock-down time of 9:30 p.m. always breathing down the neck of all of those guys looking for their evening Gumbo fix, there is invariably a crush at the laundry room door. When Justin (who is a laundry trustee) is in charge, things generally run smoothly, but he’s not the only one with access to the dryers, and on nights where one of his lackeys decides to highjack the Gumbo schedule, someone always gets pissed off and causes trouble. More times than not, even the most understanding duty deputy will shut down the operation, thwarting all hope of Gumbo perfection for anyone.
PROBLEM 2--The technique of Gumbo cookery is either to heat the swaddled bundle on the stationary dryer rack while the dryer barrel rotates around it, or to rig it so that the Gumbo is suspended on the inside of the dryer door, out of the way of barrel divider flaps during rotation. With either technique, all it takes is one, unscheduled collision as a barrel flap goes whipping around, and what, one moment, was a large, beautifully contained, two quart batch of noodles, condiments and everything else that has gone into the mix becomes a whirling, three-dimensional, culinary Jackson Pollack decorating the inside of the dryer (and if that doesn’t turn the most reasonable jail deputy into an enraged, rogue law enforcement official, nothing will).
To serve Gumbo (if it has survived all of the above) you remove it from the dryer, take it out of its protective, terrycloth wrapping and, holding it over an individual bowl or large container out of which the individuals on your committee can help themselves, you tear a
small hole, or pop a hole through the plastic with a pencil or plastic spork (the spoon/fork combo utensil that comes with all of our meals). Squeeze, eat and enjoy.
This being my virgin incarceration, I have no idea where Jailhouse Gumbo actually originated. It may, in reality, not be a food/fun characteristic of jails everywhere. For all I know it exists only within the thick, reinforced steel and concrete walls of The South Towers, Level Three. But to me, I guess, it will always be one of those striking features of a certain time or place or phase of life that gives it universality, and without which, it feels impossible to imagine any comparable setting. For that reason, then, and, really, whether or not it is actually true, Jailhouse Gumbo is as much a staple of jail life everywhere as it is here.
I guess it’s like the native Rochesterians here who find it hard to believe that I, as a southerner, have never encountered a Garbage Plate, or like Midwesterners who can’t imagine that Sweetest Day isn’t a universally-celebrated, autumnal version of Valentine’s Day and as widespread an annual occurrence in the Deep South or the Pacific Northwest as it is in, well, modern day Porkopolis. So, I suppose, whether defined by city limits, borders, oceans or barriers of cast steel bars and bulletproof glass, any world can be its own universe.
COMING SOON: Chapter Eight,
Letter From The County Jail Number 3,