It is impossible to separate incarceration from the experience of trauma. The life described by the contributors to the cookbook Prison Ramen is one of a scrabble for survival through lethal battles for power, and a loss of nearly all control in one’s own life. But the meals described in this book – even a simple packet of ramen – served as a “lifeline to one’s humanity.”
Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez was incarcerated in California for many years and collaborated with an old friend, the actor Clifton Collins Jr., to publish a collection of recipes and anecdotes of ramen in prison. In The Sporkful podcast episode “Prison Ramen Saved My Life,” Alvarez tells a story of how he de-escalated a violent gang battle in his cell block by making and sharing ramen with people on both sides of the conflict. In this cookbook, his stories are told alongside those of other inmates, correctional officers, and famous actors who have served time.
These recipes are written using ingredients available at a commissary, and techniques and tools that would be used while serving time. This gives a reader insight into the creativity inmates employ to find stimulating and comforting flavors in a restricted foodscape. One joy referenced again and again throughout the book: cooking a feast to feed others. In the introduction, Alvarez states the value of having a balance in one’s commissary account, saying: “with a little money, you could show some appreciation for your friends by hosting a spread that lets you all feel like humans rather than numbers for a while” (xxi).
I followed the recipe for Ramen for a Newcomer, a spicy instant ramen made spicier with added chili flakes, soy sauce, and garlic. I’m not afraid of heat, but this recipe seared my tongue and pricked my forehead with sweat. I couldn’t help but connect the overwhelming, whole-body experience of the spice with a new inmate’s shock at being thrown into a new world of incarceration.
Please join me in making a donation to The New Garden Society, a Boston-based organization that offers incarcerated students training and experience in horticulture.
Collins Jr., Clifton and Gustavo Alvarez. 2015. Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars. New York: Workman Publishing.