In commissary kitchen: my infamous prison cookbook, by Albert “Prodigy” Johnson and Kathy Iandoli, the authors lament the struggles of staying alive in “a system designed to kill you in many ways” (12). Upon further investigation of this cookbook, the language used to describe the recipes and the message describing the purpose of the cookbook speak volumes about the cultural language used in prison. For example, before the cookbook even begins Johnson writes, “THIS IS DEDICATED TO ALL MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS INCARCERATED-IN THE UNITED STATES AND THROUGHOUT THE WORLD-…” (7) The quote itself makes the intended audience very clear, by clearly stating the cookbook is intended for all incarcerated people. The quote is also rather interesting due to the use of all capital letters, as well as the use of a font that appears to be hand written.
Both the font and the all capitalized words are designed to make the excerpt more personable, as if Johnson had hand written it himself, showing that he cares about the readers and knows the type of situations they are going through. Another example of the type of language used in this cookbook is when Johnson describes making his “Curry Gravy” stating, “…since curry outside uses flour and other types of stuff…you just gotta OD with the curry powder…If it tastes like shit you did it wrong.” (25) This quote shows how slang and less socially appropriate language is commonly used in prison, and shows how this book is supposed to be reflective of language used in prison. The term “OD” means to overdose, and is used throughout the cookbook. Johnson uses “OD” to describe how it would be in a prisoner’s best interest to overuse curry powder to mask the bland taste of the food, further proving how Johnson purposely uses language commonly found in prison to appeal to his main audience. Furthermore, this quote enlightens readers to the conditions of prison by using the phrase “on the outside” showing that the prisoners, on the inside, often do not have access to simplistic cooking agents such as flour. Another sample of this prison language is when Johnson describes his “P’s Ramen Seasoning.” Johnson uses slang such as “OD,” but also introduces violent language in the phrase “…but don’t kill it.” (28) Words like “kill” or “murder” are used abundantly throughout the cookbook to tell the readers to not use too much of a certain ingredient. However, this language is interesting when taking the intended audience into account, as violence is inherent in prison; Johnson’s language reflects that. Another way Johnson reflects the struggles of prison in his cookbook is by showing that cooking is all about guessing measurements and accepting slight imperfections in the quality of the food prepared. Johnson commonly refers to cooking things “for like three or four minutes” or cooking things “until it gets just as soft as you want it” (33). Instructions containing language such as “like” or “about” help the intended audience, prisoners, know that these recipes will not always be consistent, and that guessing measurements and cooking times are essential to cooking in prisons everywhere. Johnson’s use of slang, violent language, and instructions which describe using inconsistent measurements of both ingredients and cooking times clearly portrays that the audience of this cookbook is both ill prepared to cook and often challenged by their violent environment and culture.
Secondly, Johnson uses pictures alongside the descriptions of every recipe, allowing people to see the monotonous nature of his meals. Accompanying the description for how to make “Rasta Pasta,” Johnson includes a picture of the dish, fully prepared.
This image shows how the meal looks once prepared, as it appears to be just pasta noodles and water. This image shows just how dull food can be in prison, even when it is made independently by prisoners. Another image that describes the bleakness of prison food can be found on page 116-117.
This image shows how tasteless food in prison can be, as the main course is a container of ramen noodles. This picture also offers many solutions to this bland tasting food. Options to spice up a common prison meal, based off of the picture, are adding sugar, hot sauce, sazon sauce, chicken sauce packets, or ketchup. This shows that many extras are typically added to rather generic food to make it bearable on a day to day basis. Lastly, the image found on page 54-55 that accompanies the recipe for “Honey Chicken and Sausage,” demonstrates just how artificial prison meals are.
The image shows canned sausage, Banquet Fried Chicken, which is frozen, precooked chicken, as well as salt and honey. From this image, readers can conclude that the audience is rather restricted on what is typically allowed. Based on the picture, acceptable foods appear to be pre-packaged, processed, and factory sealed items. Overall, the images used in this cookbook show that Johnson’s meals are almost all made from artificial foods, as all natural foods are hard to come by in prison due to strict regulations. These images also give the readers an idea of what to expect from the recipes in the cookbook, and what a properly made meal may look like, which comes in handy when there are no such things as exact measurements or cooking times.
The very way the cookbook is constructed also says a lot about the culture of prison. The cookbook is constructed with a soft, glossy backing, which ensures that the intended audience is capable of procuring the book while in prison. It makes sense to produce a book intended for prisoners in soft back exclusively, as hard backed books are almost unanimously excluded from being in prisons across the US (Hartman. n.p.). Next, the table of contents is set up in order from greatest importance to least, in the eyes of Johnson. The first section is “The Basics,” which describes all of the different tools you need to successfully cook in prison, as well as what a daily schedule looks like, why it is so important to cook your own food, and how to make a variety of sauces (14-33). As a prisoner, and anyone who cooks, you can’t cook unless you first have all the correct tools in your kitchen. It is also imperative to know when you can cook and what times work best throughout the day. Lastly, knowing how to make flavorful sauces is key as it allows prisoners to stomach food they otherwise would not be able to eat. Next, Johnson talks about “Shit I Ate All The Time,” which is a section of the cookbook that describes how to make large quantities of food, that can be eaten over a course of multiple days, which require few ingredients (33-82). This section addresses all of the food that was essentially Johnson’s bread and butter during his prison sentence, as he could quickly make a large amount of food that could be kept multiple days. These meals are not the fanciest, but as Johnson says, they are the most efficient. Johnson then mentions “Shit I Didn’t Eat A Lot (But You Might Want To Try It),” and “Classic Prison Dishes.” The latter section talks about how nasty regular prison food is and how Johnson contracted food poisoning and other types of stomach bugs from regular prison food (96-11). This section is essentially the whole reason for why Johnson began cooking his own food in prison, and is the basis for the entire cookbook. The preceding section talks about mostly deserts Johnson made from time to time but did not consider a staple of his prison diet (82-96). These dishes typically consisted of too much sugar and sweeteners for Johnson’s liking, and thus he did not make them as often as other dishes. Overall, the construction of this book, between the physical making of the book, as well as the way the table of contents is set up, is designed to appeal to prisoners. This cookbook is more specifically aimed towards those prisoners who wish to eat healthier than typical jail food found in the cafeteria, or simply just wish for a healthy snack in between meals.
In conclusion, this cookbook illustrates many interesting things about prison, and the culture that can be found there. For example, my essay’s first paragraph talks about the language used throughout the cookbook, in describing the meals, and even preparing them. This use of slang, foul, and even violent language not only reflects that the intended audience is prisoners, but also speaks to the challenging culture found in prisons. Furthermore, based off of evidence in the second paragraph, such as bland looking food, and processed foods of all shapes and sizes, the culture of prison seems to be quite gloomy and dull. Perhaps prison is so bleak because of the tight security, like all the pre-sealed, processed foods, which is a result of strict government regulations, or perhaps prison is such because people simply miss family members, their old lives, and the outside world. Lastly, the way the cookbook is set up speaks to the culture in prison as well. Based upon the structure of the book, and rules in place to prevent hardcover books from being brought into prison, it would appear that the culture is very strict and controlled by both the prison workers and government alike. The structure of the cookbook, such as putting metal can lids and other sometimes hard to procure tools necessary for cooking ahead of the actual recipes themselves, makes prison seem as if life behind bars is all about the basics and being resourceful. Ultimately, this cookbook paints prison, and the culture of prison, as being rather strict and bleak.
Johnson, Albert “Prodigy”, and Kathy Iandoli. commissary kitchen: my infamous prison cookbook.
New York, NY: Infamous, 2016..
Hartman, Kenneth. “Reading In Prison: Ten Books; No Hard Covers.” The Huffington Post.
TheHuffingtonPost.com, 30 Dec. 2009. Web. 27 July 2017.