Aug 09 2012

“Making Spread:” Jail Food, Inmate Creativity and Social Control

I sporadically write about prison food on this blog because food is integral to the culture of correctional institutions. For people who are confined, the day is structured around breakfast, lunch, and dinner times. It helps break the monotony. Unfortunately, many prisoners complain that their food is S.O.S. (the same old shit). Potatoes and bread seem to be regular staples of prisoner meals. The food is usually bland to accommodate the various dietary restrictions that prisoners may have.

One of the innovations in jail/prison food is called “Spread.” I heard about this years ago when I began corresponding with prisoners. Recently, I read a fascinating article detailing the various aspects of making and sharing Spread inside a particular county jail in California. Sandra Cate (2008) writing in Gastronimica: the Journal of Food and Culture explains the purpose and process of making Spread:

Finding their jailhouse diet bland, monotonous, and insubstantial, inmates in the California penal system invent alternative meals. “Spread,” the generic term for these creations, describes the inmate-created foods most often built around a single ingredient, instant ramen noodles. Beginning with this noodle base, the inmates concoct variations that approximate their favorite foods on the outside, often those with distinctive flavorings and textures.

The rest of the article addresses the fact that Spread provides inmates with an opportunity to “create community” within the jail as they share their food with others. There is a reciprocity involved in the Spread process but it is racially delineated. Black inmates share with other blacks and white inmates with whites. Spread also affords a certain status to the inmates who have the resources to afford to make the food. So there is an economic stratification to the process as well. The inmates value the opportunity to feel some control over their surroundings by controlling what they eat to an extent. They often find themselves hungry at night since dinner service begins at 4 p.m. Spread is a way to quench that hunger.

What I found most fascinating about the article were the actual descriptions of how inmates created their Spreads and the ingredients that they used. Below is an example of a recipe from an inmate named Alexander who offers step-by-step instructions for making his Nacho Spread:

I got four or five bowls. Start off with your two Top Ramen noodles in a small bag. Put hot water in them, but don’t put too much. Mix them around until you get that nice feel, like it is smooth and the noodles cooked. Mix in a bag of hot chips (Hot Cheese Crunchies), adding more water if the cheese crunch sucks up some of the water. Keep this on the side. I don’t like beef jerky, but if you like it you can add it in at that moment.

Pour two packages of Jalapeño Cheese Squeezer (“squeeze cheese”) into a bowl, mix it with a cool amount of milk, enough so that
it will spread, so you can spread it over your nachos. Rip open a package of chili beans and pour it into another bowl. Chop up a regular or hot pickle into small dice pieces.

You now have, in separate bowls, noodles, cheese, chili beans, and
pickle. Throw the cheese and beans into the microwave and let them
warm up to a nice, wonderful temperature, at least five minutes. Make sure you watch them in case they overboil. If they overboil, open the microwave door, mix them up, and warm them up about three more minutes. Take them out, run to whatever table you’re at. Lay down a flat bag. Put tortilla chips or Doritos down first. Pour the noodles with the hot chips over that, then the beans, but slowly, making sure there’s a rim of nacho chips around the spread. Once I got the beans down, I pour the pickles, ’cause I got them slice and dice. I pour the pickles nice and rice over it, then I pour the cheese on top of that. Once I got the cheese on top of it then it’s cool, and that’s what I be calling my Nacho Spread.

I recommend reading the entire article (PDF) to learn more about the role that food plays in jail/prison culture and also to see more Spread recipes. You can also read about other innovative jail cooking creations here.