Cooking in Prison

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Genis eating sushi in prison during a visit with his wife

From roasted seagull breast to clandestine pesto, this week on the show we learn about the creative cooking that goes on in American prisons.

Daniel Genis spent ten years behind bars in New York following an armed robbery conviction. A recent New Yorker profile explored Genis’ upbringing in Washington Heights amidst hard-partying Soviet literati and the apologetic stickups he did for drug money in the early aughts that led the New York Post to dub him “the Sorry Bandit”.

But when Good Food host Evan Kleiman called Genis, now a writer living in Brooklyn, it was to talk food. Genis wrote about the subject last month for the Daily Beast, and we at the radio station were intrigued to hear more.

Genis told us that cooking opportunities vary depending on the security level of one’s prison. His last facility (he stayed in twelve) was known as “a cooking prison,” and it featured stoves with pots and pans. (Guards removed the handles so they wouldn’t be sharpened into weapons).

At medium-security facilities, inmates had access to microwaves. Elsewhere, they constructed dangerous heating devices out of tin cans and wires.

Theoretically, prisoners have no need to cook. The state employs a nutritionist to make sure they ‘re served sufficient protein and vitamins.

But prison food, as you might guess, is terrible. Genis recalled interminable meals of tofu-waste soy, with so much estrogen that some male inmates grew breasts.

So prisoners improvise better meals, stealing basil from the therapy garden to make pesto and soaking macaroni in water to create dough for dumplings.

Daniel Genis3
Genis today (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Inmates buy and sell meals from each other with stamps and cigarettes, and rely heavily, when possible, on packages from home. Genis prized shipments of vegetables – “I received one cabbage every month for ten years,” he said – and Russian delicacies, like whole smoked calf’s tongue. (That one really freaked out the guards.)

The worst thing Genis ate in prison? A seagull caught in the prison yard and roasted with spices.

An inmate had hoped to sell seagull dinners, but he had no takers. Genis decided to give the bird a try.

The meat was black and stringy – disgusting, Genis said, but he didn’t get sick from it.

“I also saw a man eat a frog on a dare, and he survived that too.”

Genis has been a free man, eating what he pleases, since February.