The Austin Chronicle

The Food Issue: Cooking in Prison

By Amy Smith, June 11, 2013, 10:00am, On the Range

Life behind bars is no picnic, but a little ingenuity can turn a limited selection of commissary items into a nice little cellblock spread of Delightful Tuna Nachos and Faux Sangria. That's just a taste of the bevy of inventive recipes compiled by six women serving 50 years or more at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville.

With the help of one of the inmate authors' mothers, Nancy Hall, the women assembled their recipes into a single cookbook, From the Big House to Your House, published by the Justice Institute in Seattle. Proceeds from the book, which sells for $14.95, go toward aiding wrongfully convicted inmates and promoting awareness of wrongful convictions in the criminal justice system. (Bonus feature: The book includes a glossary of prison lingo.)

It goes without saying that the six food fanciers, Ceyma Bina, Tina Cornelius, Barbara Holder, Celeste Johnson, Trenda Kemmerer, and Louanne Larson, don’t believe they belong in prison. But they manage their time wisely nonetheless. They may not have their freedom, or even a microwave, as Martha Stewart had during her time in the federal pen, but they’ve got a warming pot (the only cooking utensil available to them) and the patience to experiment with canned goods, pickles, chips, and candy bars.

Though The Big House was published in 2010, it didn’t start gaining media attention until last year, when the Huffington Post and other news outlets picked up on the story. It was likely the first time the women had seen their names in print for something other than murder or some other heinous crime.

For Austin readers, the most familiar name of the bunch is Celeste Beard Johnson. She was convicted in 2003 of plotting with her short-term lesbian lover to kill her millionaire husband, Steven Beard, who was shot in the stomach in October 1999 and died as a result of a wound infection in January 2000. Johnson is not eligible for parole until 2043. That’s plenty of time to try out more recipes and time for those of us in the free world to start advocating for healthier, fresher food items in prison commissaries. Prison food is carb-heavy and not always tasty or nutritious, but inmates should have the option to purchase healthy food from prison stores. Think how much money that would save the state in medical costs for diabetes and high blood pressure.

The cookbook is replete with “Did You Know?” tidbits about Texas prison life. Did you know, for example, that Mountain View inmates are only given two apples and two oranges a year? They receive one each at Thanksgiving and Christmas. With these "gifts," the women came up with Holiday Fruit Salad, combining two oranges, two apples, one bag of fruit-and-nut mix and 3 tablespoons of orange juice. Here’s the actual recipe: “Peel and section oranges. Combine with thinly sliced apples, fruit & nut mix, and orange juice. Fruity! Serves: 2.”

The book’s preface is one of the sweetest, most upbeat introductions to a cookbook that I’ve ever read: “We hope these recipes will ignite your taste buds as well as spark your imagination to explore unlimited creations of your own!” It ends on this note: “We are confident that you will enjoy the liberty found in creating a home-felt comfort during unfortunate times. Happy Cooking!”

Read more Food stories at The Austin Chronicle’s Food Issue is on stands Thursday, June 13.

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