For most prisoners, the comforts of a favorite meal are a distant memory. But the women of a prison in Gatesville, Texas felt recreating favorite meals was only a matter of ingenuity. Armed with the few cooking implements the prison allows — a warming pot, a credit card, snacks from the commissary — female inmates have taken to developing recipes that replicate the foods they miss on the outside. Their endeavors are now available in a cookbook, called From the Big House to Your House.
The women have joined forces, taking turns buying items from the commissary and writing down the successful recipes they create. “I know it sounds disgusting,” said Celeste Johnson, one of the women serving a life sentence. “But I love tuna nachos. And I’ve got so many people here converted to it.” Johnson uses canned tuna and chips bought in the commissary to make her favorite meal. For baked potatoes, the women rehydrate potato chips in their warming pot. “I don’t know if we’ve been away too long, but it does taste like a real baked potato,” said Johnson.
The women’s efforts underline just how innate an instinct cooking is, an activity that fundamentally makes us feel human. Whether preparing food with high-end appliances or repurposed, makeshift tools, the act of cooking provides a sense of home and belonging. Jim Willet, a former corrections officer, reminisces about inmates discovering ad-hoc methods of cooking within their cells: “You knew when there were certain foods cooking, just like being in your house. It would make you want to stop and join them, but that’s not legal.” Though the cookbook will not be a source of income for the women of the Texas prison, it is a testament to a facet of humanity that grounds and connects us all.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.