June 3, 2017
I thaw and peel a pound or so of large-to-jumbo size shrimp. I turn the stove on ‘high’ underneath the large skillet. I watch for a moment while at least one but no more than two generous pats of butter chase their way around the warming surface into sizzling liquid oblivion. I take a handful of shredded coconut from the bag I keep in the fridge and drop it into the center of the coated pan, distributing the pieces along the bottom like hash browns.
As soon as the coconut begins to fry evenly, I add the shrimp. The blending oils force the water out of the mix in wafting steam filled with the rich buttery smells of food happening. Before the shrimp can cook in earnest, I generously squeeze lime juice from a little green plastic bulb. The sputtering hiss of citrus from the milky white tropical broth transmutes the silence of my kitchen into the gentle breezes of an island coast.
Finally, I sprinkle brown sugar over the simmering reduction and marvel as it melts and disappears into my creation. The shrimp firms and the coconut crisps and it all ends up on the plates of my children. They scarf ravenously, unburdened by any distraction with craft. The smells of the cooking having triggered something primal in order to guide them toward joy.
My parents were not cooks. By that I mean that all manner of their food decisions and preparation were suspect. My mother labored under the delusion that she was able to make and keep a home (one of many similar delusions), including her ability to make delectable meals, or successfully bake anything that did not come from a box. My father suffered from none of this confusion. He knew he had no place in the kitchen.
For my mother this meant the persistence of the white, four-fingered mascot of Hamburger Helper on the boxes in our overfilled trash can. I was twenty before I learned how vegetables were supposed to be prepared (besides flavorless mush and fried in cornmeal), and began to love them. And there were a handful of occasions where, rather than shifting the morning menu around, she insisted on serving us Bisquick pancakes…with corn syrup, demanding we accept it was the same as maple.
My father was more gender-stereotypical. Breakfast meant breakfast cereal (occasionally in bowls of juice when we were out of milk). We went to McDonald’s on weekends. Lunch meant Campbell’s and Chef Boyardee. I grew up playing favorites with the different pasta shapes believing there was any difference in the sauce or noodle composition. When we were alone for dinner, we spent an inordinate amount of time at the Hardee’s that sported a ball pit. What can I say, the man knew his limitations. I respect him for that.
To their credit, my brothers and I never knew what it means to be hungry. I was fat the way that America is now fat. It matters that I never, ever worried where my next meal came from. I can bitch about the food, but at least I always had some.
It is also with some ambivalence that I join our modern chorus against the hyper-preserved, meal-in-a-box, fast food ubiquity, model of factory-farm-to-table. I embrace the movement toward healthy eating. I live it as much as I can from where I’m at now. Still, I wonder whether I owe the agribusiness of instant meals my life. I was raised according to their easy-to-follow instructions after all.
It will not surprise you to know that I exclusively ate ‘hot lunch’ at school growing up. I wasn’t on a program or anything. I just ate exclusively from the school menu at lunch time, for the twelve years I went to public school.
The food here is basically ‘hot lunch’ three meals a day, seven days a week. The culinary category, then and now, is “institutional”. There are a litany of inmate complaints that comprise a spectrum of legitimacy. As the DOC has wrestled costs over the past twenty years, the portions have gotten smaller, and processed food has taken over more of the tray. The closest we come to real cheese is when we get a shredded ‘fiesta’ mix that goes with most Latin-themed, sloppy joe meat selections. The food is not great. I don’t want to pretend we’re on the cusp of gourmet here.
The other night we had a breakfast meal for dinner. The scrambled eggs were a single mass in the shape they were scooped from the large pan they were steamed in. Jiggling and bouncing the way old mattress foam used to before it came with memory. You have to mash it into little rubber pellets before you can work clumpy salt and the dozen flecks of pepper from the single-serving packets still wet from your tray. The hash browns are soggy tater tots that sit in a greasy pile of potato gems that once held form in baked cylinders. The turkey bacon, a wizened pastiche of bacon, sits curled in its corner, begging for an end to the madness of its life’s charade. Last there were a few French toast sticks, holding to theme in their foamy composition. Their most surprising feature to me is their resistance to absorbing the kitchen-made syrup. You cut them into pieces and they just float atop the brownish puddle. You hold them under with your orange plastic fork and they bobber back up, surfacing in chemical defiance of design and expectation.
Switching to the spoon to foil the resistance of the bread, you notice your mouthful of cake and sugar is a little off. It takes a moment to place the flavor with the Karo label from a distant and backward memory…but you do.
The food is always enough to sustain, even if never to satisfy. Even apart from privation and hunger, the situation could be much, much worse. Have I lowered the bar in order to successfully navigate the chow hall? Absolutely, I have. Managing expectations is ninety percent of life anywhere and ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of survival in here.
My mother forgets our conversations these days, so she constantly worries whether I’m getting enough to eat. I always answer the question as though I am hearing it for the first time. Wrestling the notion in the back of my mind that whoever makes the syrup in the kitchen seems to think my mom was on to something.