In the Unlikeliest of Places

Cheers! Comraderie built with juice boxes in the unlikeliest of places.

Today’s post comes from a dear friend, Katie D., who runs the awesome blog My College Advice. She asked me to guest-write a post on a healthy, easy, accessible recipe for college students. Katie and I did our Master’s Degrees together in Northern Ireland, and both share a love for good food, good community, good work grounded in faith, and good advice learned from others. She writes about her amazing experience connecting over food in the unlikeliest of places: in prison.

 

Katie's class on Divided Societies at the Oregon State Penitentiary

Katie’s class on Divided Societies at the Oregon State Penitentiary

Shared food brings people together, even in the strangest of circumstances. The act of breaking bread invites camaraderie and confidence. And, particularly when you are a guest at another’s table, it encourages an attitude of sharing and of gracious giving and receiving.

Even when the shared meal has an instant noodle base, and the table is in a maximum-security prison.

I have been involved with prison education projects since my freshman year in college, for over seven years now (if interested, you can check it out here. I am a big believer in Dostoevsky’s idea that “the level of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Also, since we’re talking quotes, I’m a supporter of that pesky Jesus fellow who instructed us to break bread together and also to visit the prisoner. And so through my various backgrounds of faith, humanism, and a profound desire to engage with my fellow human beings, I began taking college classes that met at a maximum security prison, participating as an equal with the inmate members of the seminar discussions.

And never have I learned so much so quickly about the power of dialogue, shared literature, and the act of sharing food.

Simple pleasures, small wonders: sharing an ice cream with an inmate named French Fry.

Simple pleasures, small wonders: sharing an ice cream with an inmate named French Fry.

My favorite image of this was far from my home university in Oregon. I went to Philadelphia to become trained as an Inside-Out instructor to help offer these classes. Two days of the week-long training course were conducted at Graterford Prison, where we discussed pedagogy and prison education in context and with experts. On the first day we were served prison brown bag lunches of sandwiches and small red apples. We shared our food around tables like the ones I remember from high school cafeterias. We talked about all kinds of things—about our childhoods and our interests, about the books we had read and the places we would like to travel. When the Puerto Rican at the table found out that I spoke Spanish, we chatted away in lopsided fluency and he politely overlooked my lapses in grammar and vocabulary. The formality of the morning discussions melted away at the lunch table.

The second day at the prison, we were served chi-chis. The inside members of the Think Tank used money they had made at their prison jobs to buy the full range of ingredients from the canteen. I was served a steaming, delicious pile of chi-chis out of a black garbage bag, delicately arranged on a paper plate by a tall lifer with his hands swathed in plastic sandwich bags. It was the strangest meal I have ever had, and the best lesson in the power of warm food and compassion-filled calories around a shared table. It was perfect. It was one of the best meals I have ever eaten.

If you choose to prepare this meal at home, I invite you to reflect on the blessing of the availability of food around you. On several occasions I shopped for celebration banquets at the prison in Oregon, and later would walk through my neighborhood grocery store with a renewed appreciation for the goodness and variety of the food available to me. I purchased strawberries and sushi with exquisite awareness of their flavors and their health. Because of these meals shared in prison, I think in a new way about the easy bounty all around me.

Chi-chis should be enjoyed with friends. Call on your community and pool your resources of food and time.

Chi-chis

(Available ingredients will vary from institution to institution, as will the availability of boiling water)

  • Two packets of instant Ramen noodles
  • Cheese singles/packet cheese
  • Freeze-dried vegetables/ vegetables from cafeteria
  • Jalapeño peppers
  • Pepperoni stick/ beef jerkey/packet of tuna

Instructions

  1. Cook the Ramen noodles, then drain.
  2. Add ½ the usual amount of packaged seasoning, to taste.
  3. Add cheese, vegetables, and meat and stir until cheese is melted and vegetables are warm.
  4. Serve and enjoy!
Cheers! Comraderie built with juice boxes in the unlikeliest of places.

Cheers! Comraderie built with juice boxes in the unlikeliest of places.

 

All images: Katie D., used by author and subjects’ permission.  

2 Comments

  1. Katie Dwyer September 4, 2015 Reply

    Hi Nathan,

    Thank you so, so much for your comment! I am happy to hear that you are doing well on the outside, and that you’ve built a beautiful life and family in your time since OSP.

    I can’t tell you how touched I am that you took the time to write to me here. Volunteering at OSP always leaves me inspired and energized, and incredibly grateful for the chance to interact with people who are working hard to come through a very dark place. Positive human interaction holds an incredible amount of power. Your message has affirmed and inspired me further. Thank you. Thank you and all the very best wishes for you.

  2. Nathan Green September 4, 2015 Reply

    I found this article after doing a Google image search for OSP and recognizing some of my friends that I spent a very important part of my life with from the pictures. I know you know you’re making a difference, but I don’t think you’ll truly know how profound an impact you’re really making. I was incarcerated for 39 months at OSP starting in late 2008, I was 19. You truly feel forgotten in there by society, your old “friends” and family for some. The simple gesture of taking a few hrs out of your week to spend with inmates, does more for them than you could ever imagine. Most people employed by the prison like counselors and guards feel the need to constantly berate you about recidivism rates and how “you’ll be back”, treating you like a animal that can’t control your actions. Simply treating them like a fellow human being can be life-changing for many. I was released in late 2011, and made it off of 3yrs of parole without any problems whatsoever, after numerous times being told that they’d have a bed waiting for me and other terrible things. It did take some dedication and hard work on my part but I owe most of my success to my supporting family and one teacher and about 2 guards that did just what you do. They simply treated me like a fellow human being, supportive and loving individuals. I’m now 27, a certified welder, home owner and father to an amazing 9mo old son, and again I owe most of it to people exactly like you, you are truly a blessing to those men and I just had to personally thank you for what you do. God bless you.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*