Literature on Lockdown: Chow in Prison
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Milo De Ville
My essay is about chow in prison. Folks outside prison call it food, but we say in here:
“Hey Jimmy, what time is chow?”
“Can’t tell since my watch broke.”
You get the picture. Now when the guards yell out chow, we all go out and line up outside, sort of like going seeing a movie. We get our chow on an orange plastic tray with a plastic yellow cup and a red plastic spork.
Used to be that they gave us real spoon, fork, and knife. Took them away years ago because folks use them for other things.
Now it’s true this country is in love with chow. I do miss a good Big Boy hamburger or some real good biscuit and gravy. I been down since Ronald Reagan been president so I still think a lot about a big old chicken fried steak sandwich and a mess of fries. That’s good eating where I’m from.
Which reminds me, they give out juice for breakfast and dinner, but it ain’t. It’s Kool-Aid. That’s Kool-Aid. My cousin Mel, who sees me once in a while for visitation, say that so ghetto. I think cousin Mel is right.
Now getting back to writing about chow. I read some time back in a Reader’s Digest that folks eat because of boredom. That’s true. Prison is a whole lot of boredom. You wake up to the same ugly faces, wear the same color clothes, and listen to the same stupid whining.
“Hey Country, how come the doctor ain’t seen me? Don’t they know I got a heart condition, a bum knee and is bipolar? Don’t they care?”
Once in a while, just to break up the boredom, the fellers around here get drunk on their ass on hooch, which ain’t legal and stink. Then they get to fighting and once in a while, we get in a riot. Some people drink too much and get awful sick.
When there’s a movie on tv, I go to a “store.” It’s where a feller sell you stuff like honey bun, popcorn, wham-wham, zu-zu. Usually you pay it back two for one or something like that. I got to have me a bag of popcorn and a RC or two and maybe a sleeve of crackers when I’m watching tv. Watching a tv movie sort of kills the boredom.
Prison is sort of like Mayberry. We got kin folks like Gomer, Goober, Otis, and Aunt Bea (some of the guys got this thing for dressing up if you know what I mean). Now back to what I was writing, prison is no place to hide. So if you can make some killer fudge or some top of the line burrito, word will get around. Knowing how to cook can make you look awful good or you getting to looking like a fool. There’s a trick or two in getting the masa in prison tamale just right. I known some really good guys who make it worthwhile to get in their tamale and some others just to stay away from.
Chow I guess is about an hour from now. It’s Salisbury steak tonight. One thing I kind of like about the chow hall is I get to hang out with the fellers. Bullshitting with them over a tray of watery biscuit and gravy and soupy oatmeal is a good way to start the day. You see other races make a big show of greeting their kind. Once in a while also, you get to see a fight in the chow hall like the time two sixty-five year olds bitch slapped each other. It all started when one of them wanted the other feller’s breakfast ham. Instead of asking for it, he stabbed it. The guards in the chow hall couldn’t stop laughing. So chow might not be good, but there’s always some good bullshit and some good laughs.
There’s folks in here that like naked women and naked animals and like looking at them skin magazines. I never had a liking for things like that. But then there’s folks in here that get all a twitching looking at “America’s Test Kitchen” or “You Can Cook” or “Iron Chef.” A couple of the fellers even take pages and pages of notes when their favorite cooking show comes on. Then at chow, they’ll sit and talk all about while shoveling down Italian casserole.
I got to say something about Italian casserole. The noodle, ground chicken meat, and tomato sauce is all mix-up. It’s dry enough to choke the Pope and the garlic toast, well it’s so dry, poor old Mr. Kennedy uses it to build garlic toast house. The prison store sell it for five dollars and he gets fifty cents.
So as you can see, prison chow is a whole lot more than pancakes we use to play Frisbee with on the rec field. It’s about boredom. It’s about fellers showing off their culinary skills, even though all you doing is boiling water with a stinger and using grocery from the fellers who run the “store.”
In the meanwhile, I got to get ready for chow. Tonight is Salisbury patty with potatoes. The patty look like a cow turd and the potato is hard as rock and the cake is so dry, you swear it came over on my great-great grandma’s boat. I got to go.
Milo De Ville, a long-time member of an advanced fiction workshop offered through Arizona State University’s Prison English program, is incarcerated in the Arizona State 01Prison Complex – Florence. His fiction has appeared in Rain Shadow Review.