Location, location, location. After spending almost three year of my incarceration moving around from one county jail to another, I spent over five years on top of a mountain in West Virginia at Club Fed. In the federal system the only thing you can have sent to you through the mail are books. That is it. Anything else you need or desire must be purchased through the commissary. And we are not talking about a wide selection of items, certainly no Wal-Mart or even a local bodega or 7-Eleven!
After completing my time at Club Fed, I was taken to spend another eleven to fifteen years in the glorious facilities of the New York State Department of Correctional Services.
One major difference between here and Club Fed is that you are allowed to receive packages. Now you might ask what this package thing means. Slide down into a comfortable chair and I will explain.
There is a list of item that we are allowed to receive through the mail. The list is know as Directive 4911. It is supposed to be available on the department's web site, and perhaps if it does exist my trusty editor will post a link here. Basically we can receive various food and non-food items. For the purpose of this post I am going to explain how the food side works.
While Hollywood's depiction of prison is not always close to reality, scenes that show a bunch of Italians enjoying a feast of various Parmesan entrees and other Italian delights is possible here in New York State.
As a way to celebrate my recent 53rd birthday, I ordered a five pound block of mozzarella cheese among other rare (for in here) food items.
The list of goods purchased follows:
8 oz. fresh Mozzarella w/ Prosciutto (that did not last long)
2 lb block of extra sharp cheddar
1 Italian pizza shell
1 can of escargot (not yet eaten)
1 can blueberries
2 lbs Lloyd's cooked baby back pork ribs
2 cans of Hunt's diced tomatoes
5 lbs. Mozzarella (block)
8 oz. Hormel sliced pepperoni
1 ½ pounds sliced roast beef
1 loaf Pepperidge Farm sourdough bread
2 ½ pounds tomatoes (4 nice large ones)
1 four ounce bag of pre washed baby spinach
This great bounty of food was received on a Friday afternoon. By Friday evening, there were about 12 grilled roast beef with fresh tomatoes and extra sharp cheddar cheese sandwiches on sourdough bread devoured by myself and six of my close personal friends. It is easy to have close personal friends in prison when you are in possession of some really fine NY City deli style (and quality) tender, succulent melt-in-your-mouth roast beef.
On Saturday for lunch, my neighbor and I each had a cold roast beef sandwich with sliced tomatoes and some fresh baby spinach. Since the sourdough bread was all gone, these sandwiches were made on wheat bread available from our commissary.
On Sunday there were ten bowls of baked ziti with plenty of gooey mozzarella cheese throughout and melted on top too. I think I ended up with two of the bowls.
After taking a break for a couple days, with the exception of some great salads with the tomatoes and baby spinach, the next treat was the pizza. This was the one item that started the whole food ordering thing. I had previously received one can of flat anchovies and had been saving them for a time when I could make some anchovy and extra cheese pizza slices.
About a year or so ago our commissary had been selling 8 ounces of shredded mozzarella cheese. For some really dumb reason they switched over to the artificial variety of the cheese, which is really a misnomer since it contains little or no milk and is almost all some type of oil, and does not melt the way real cheese does. So to get around this obstacle, I ended up ordering the five pound block of mozzarella cheese. Again location counts. In Club Fed you are not able to order anything from the outside.
Since we do not have an oven in the dorm, only a stove top, I took our cast iron frying pan, and using a pot cover, was able to cook one quarter of the pie at a time. The first quarter was all mine. First some of those canned diced tomatoes, then a double (triple?) portion of cheese. Without a cheese grater, did you know that dental floss strung across one of the plastic spatulas (slots on the spatula side, and a hole in the handle) so it looks like an archer's bow, makes a great cheese cutter? My fellow inmates thought that was a really smart idea, and it really did let me cut some nice thin slices. The rest of the pie was shared by another five or six friends with cheese and pepperoni.
One week later, Sunday evening, it was grilled mozzarella cheese sandwiches. And yes there was still more mozzarella left.
The blueberries became the topping for two homemade cheese cakes. No, we did not use the mozzarella cheese. We can buy 8 ounce bricks of cream cheese from the commissary. I think about fifteen inmates ended up getting a piece of one of the two cakes. I did major league damage to one of the cakes. Cholesterol, we don’t care about cholesterol.
Oh I forgot the ribs, which was a special meal between just me and my neighbor who also happened to have a birthday in June. Some things are just too good to share.
Honestly it is not really an issue of being too good to share. Two pounds of ribs - including the "rib bones" - is really not all that much rib. I admit I could have easily devoured all the food single handedly (single mouthed?). But then there would be the unavoidable weight gain and the severe damage to the arteries etc. So one might say my sharing was more an act of self preservation as opposed to selflessness.
I suppose you could make a moral tale out of this along the lines of how one little can of fish for Pete became an epicurean delight for many. I am not sure how much the can of anchovies cost as they were a gift from my wonderful editor, but by the time my little catalog shopping spree was complete, I ending up spending around $125. But it was certainly worth every penny. Several of my "friends" are already asking about what I may be doing for Thanksgiving and Christmas. (There may be an earlier post dealing with a baked ham, a turkey breast and a brick of cheddar cheese.)
How was all this food kept fresh? It was kept in a five gallon pickle bucket with ice cubes added (and the water drained) twice a day. Each dorm has its own ice machine. The model we have makes around 212 cubes every twenty minutes, and it takes at least an hour's worth of ice to fill the average ice bucket. Do the math: two hours of ice machine time per inmate bucket, twenty-four hours each day, more than twelve buckets, and the supply rapidly fails to meet demand. Did I mention before that there are sixty inmates in each dorm?
Luckily I managed to finish up the last of the cheese before our mini heat wave hit. I have not bothered trying to get any ice for my bucket at all in the last two weeks.
This has been an annual problem around here. Each summer, the heat hits and the ice machines cannot make ice fast enough. Until the cooler weather returns, I have cut way back on purchasing any food that need to be kept on ice, and I no longer cook or prepare three days worth of food at one time.
I know, life is hard.