Tupperware Top Chef: Cooking Your Own Food in Prison
By Olethus Hill Jr.
Below is a story by Olethus Hill Jr. about making one’s own food in prison. There’s more on the subject of why inmates are fed they way they are in my interview with Danny Trejo. —Katherine
Tupperware Top Chef: Cooking Your Own Food in Prison
by Olethus Hill Jr.
Before prison, I was a cook at my family's restaurant. I wasn't a Michelin-starred chef, but I've cooked for a wide range of notable people at different venues. It's safe to say I know my way around a kitchen, especially the one in the cotton-candy-blue and Pepto-pink building my cousins and I referred to as ''The Sauce.'' The Cleveland barbecue spot was better known to many as Hot Sauce Williams.
At The Sauce, I'd be outside in freezing temperatures grilling underneath a metal, soot-covered awning, or I'd be sweating in front of five deep fryers, trying to dodge grease burns, during a heat wave. My family taught me everything from smoking and deep-frying to making mac and cheese and barbeque sauce from scratch. I learned how to cook things that weren't on our menu: spaghetti and meatballs, roasted garlic red potatoes.
Then everything I thought I knew about cooking practically went out the window once I reached prison.
I could probably count on my hands how many times I used a microwave for something other than popcorn or reheating leftovers before arriving in prison. So it's no surprise the first time I heard the term "fry a soup," it hit my ears like a foreign language.
It was week two of my incarceration and I'd just arrived in general population from the intake dorm. I remember a guy shouting the term to his buddy across the floor as he made his way into a closet-sized room that contained two microwaves on a collapsible table – I quickly came to realize that was the kitchen. Little did I know that those microwaves would be the starting point of a culinary journey that would not only keep me fed, but introduce me to whole new ways of eating, cooking, and thinking.
Frying a soup starts with crushing a packet of ramen and pouring the rice-sized noodles into a small, plastic bowl, sprinkling on the seasoning, and microwaving. There are two methods, ''drying frying'' and ''wet frying,'' that are simply different routes to the same end.
Dry frying starts with no water; it’s more dangerous because you run the risk of not only burning the soup, but melting a hole in your bowl. Wet frying, on the other hand, starts with oil or a minuscule amount of water. To me it is the best method because of the lessened risk.
After what I now know to be about ninety seconds, remove the bowl from the microwave, shake it again, and place it back in for another ninety seconds. Then shake the bowl and pour some water into the bowl. When you hear the sizzle of the water hitting the dry noodles, you realize why it’s called frying.
Learning how to fry a soup was the first step to becoming a top-tier "prison chef:" highly skilled with a microwave. It took me years of trial and error before I was able to master the art (and yes, it is an art) of cooking in a microwave. I basically had to relearn how to cook.
My pots and pans have been replaced with Tupperware bowls, some of which I've thoroughly destroyed over the years. And I went from cooking with fresh ingredients to using ingredients you'd get at a gas station. Going from using fresh meats and veggies to having them come from a pouch was a culture shock. I had no clue which products were best, so each meal I made was more of a science project than a prepared meal.
I realized that in order to achieve the same level of confidence in myself and the quality of food I'd cooked and eaten back home, I'd need to use every research tool available to me. I watched other inmates' successes and failures, absorbed cooking shows, and read recipes wherever I found them. My best tool and teacher was, and still is, trial and error. It wasn't until I made a meal with tuna fish and chili that I learned it was a HORRIBLE combination.
Today, not only do I know how to fry a soup, I can also ''fry'' spaghetti, and I can crisp/toast just about anything using a potato chip bag and newspaper. Frying spaghetti is similar to frying a soup, just slower and more repetitive: since it's such a time-consuming process, I usually only fry spaghetti for big games or birthdays.
I didn’t set out to be a prison chef. Initially, all I wanted to do was avoid the chow hall and gain some semblance of home. Now, I have a menu of meals that could rival some restaurants and a slew of guys who get pissed if they're not invited to my meals. A few of them have even encouraged me to start a food truck when I get out. I'm still learning new tricks and meals to add to my arsenal. 'Cause who knows, I might just start that food truck once I get out after all.
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