Food Tech Tutor by (4 Stories)

Prompted By Prison

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One of the best things here at the prison I am at is the garden program. In the summer they grow an array of fruit, vegetables and flowers. The flowers spruce up the place a bit on the inside, while the veggies are donated to various food kitchens in the area. From peppers and onions to tomatoes and cucumbers, to strawberries and melons, the small donations are greatly appreciated in the community. The staff member who runs the garden is also a big fan of the food tech program I tutor in, training inmates for food industry jobs outside, so the last couple of years I have been able to start a small herb garden. We now have perennials like oregano, thyme, mint, lemon balm, rosemary, onion and garlic chives, tarragon and sage. The annuals include parsley, basil, Thai basil, and cilantro. It’s really great being able to grab some fresh herbs whenever a recipe calls for it.

Technically, we're not allowed to have the fresh vegetables, but most guards tend to look the other way.

Although most of the veggies get donated, some of them find their way back to the housing units, where inmates use them in their ‘cookups,’ prison slang for meals cooked in the unit microwaves. Guys get pretty creative with ramen, rice, meat sticks, cheese and chips. Throw in some fresh veggies (which we never get in the chow hall), and you can understand why the summer is a profitable and busy time for the garden workers. Technically, we’re not allowed to have the fresh vegetables, but most guards tend to look the other way.

Another benefit for the guys who work the gardens is that occasionally I can cook them something special. Today, the garden crew came through with a couple of pounds of fresh asparagus. I searched the old recipe files and found a sausage asparagus pasta bake. My boss gave me the OK and I was off and running. I had a lot of prep work to do, so I had to get things going quickly. We start class at 7:40 am, and we must be out by 10:30 am. First I had to make tomato sauce, so I used the recipe in the On Cooking book which called for sweating finely diced onion, carrot, and garlic in a little olive oil. I put on some pasta water to boil, but soon discovered I needed tomato concassé. So I dropped some leftover whole tomatoes in the boiling water to blanch for twenty seconds, scored and peeled the skin off, then cored and squeezed the seeds and juice out. Once the other veggies were tender I added the tomato concassé along with a can of crushed tomatoes, and seasoned with oregano, thyme, basil, salt and pepper. As the sauce simmered I blanched the chopped asparagus, and cooked off some hot Italian sausage that we had previously ground and cased from scratch. I shredded a pound of brick cheese while I cooked the penne noodles al dente. After draining the noodles and adding them back to the pan, I mixed in the tomato sauce and asparagus. I poured the whole thing in a large greased baking pan, put slices of the cooked sausage on top of the noodles, covered it with the cheese, and baked it in a 350 degree oven for forty minutes. And voila! What a fun morning. I love being able to cook with fresh ingredients.

The garden workers came over and ate, and I also fed the morning class. After all, they had to endure the aroma of the cooking all morning.

This afternoon was just as fun. We started by reheating shrimp bisque which we had made yesterday. Once it was to temp, we added a sprig of fresh tarragon and lemon juice, and chopped shrimp which cooked in about two minutes. Off heat we finished with some nonalcoholic sherry, which was just half apple cider vinegar and half water. It’s not even close to real sherry, but this is prison, and I’ve yet to come across prison sherry. Spud juice, sure, but no sherry. After plating it in bowls we garnished with chopped fresh chives and homemade croutons. Delicious. Not exactly the depth of flavor of a real bisque flambéed with cognac, but pretty damn close. I guarantee you no guards ate shrimp bisque at home or out for dinner this week, maybe even this year.

Finally, every couple of months the inmates are allowed to order a ‘fundraiser’; a typical fundraiser is a bag of frozen chicken strips, a bag of candy and a couple of pops. It runs about twenty-five dollars, and guys mic the chicken in the units and it’s not a bad treat once in a while. Another benefit of my job is the chicken can be stored in the food tech freezer, and when ready, I can heat it and eat it. So after the bisque, I put the chicken in the deep fryer for eight or nine minutes. No deep fryers in the units, so the chicken gets mushy in the microwave. Not in food tech! While the chicken cooked, I made a Korean chili sauce with gochujang, honey, ginger and garlic. When the chicken was out of the fryer, it went into a bowl with the sauce and wow, was it good. So crisp, crunchy, and the gochujang … mmm! If you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend it. Big time umami with just a hint of heat. The co-tutor also got a bag of chicken, and there were some extras left over so I bought a third bag. Over the next month we had chicken with a sweet and sour sauce, which I made Chinese hot mustard to go with it, and a Chinese five spice and hoisin sauce. That chicken never knew it could taste that good, especially in prison!

Mark has been incarcerated in the Michigan correctional system since 2005.

Profile photo of Mark Mark

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Khati Hendry says:

    Thanks for the trip through innovative cooking—reminded me a bit of an improvised Mongolian hotpot camping dinner I experienced, subbing ketchup for soy sauce and peanut butter for—something. But I am in awe of your ongoing challenges and enthusiasm both. Healthy food is important to everyone and especially those trying to heal. It is awful to hear how fresh vegetables are mostly forbidden and treats are concocted from poor ingredients, but inspiring that you can bring hope and joy through your culinary skills. May that continue and thrive.

  2. Wow, sounds delicious. Imagining myself in your shoes, as I was so immersed in the well crafted details, I even forgot momentarily, that I (the part of me that was vicariously with you) was incarcerated. I wondered if you ever get so engaged in what you are doing in the kitchen that you have to remind yourself of the external circumstances. Thanks for taking me to that level of engagement in the story.
    BTW, I have been learning a good bit in recent years about life in prison from a really good podcast called “Ear Hustle,” produced by someone who was in San Quentin doing long time when they began, together with someone from the outside. Now both of them are outside, but they have a couple other men inside San Quentin who work with them. I realize you may not have access to such a podcast, Mark. But I mention it for the benefit of other readers of Retrospect.

  3. Bravo Mark!
    I am so glad your cousin John asked you to write about your prison cooking experience for our storytelling website!

    I’ll never be a tenth of the natural cook you are, and you had my mouth watering! Keep cooking and keep writing!

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thank you for this intricate cooking story, Mark. You’ve given us a dazzling array of techniques, varieties and insight into cooking with bravado without all the required elements, but ability to improvise and teach your charges, as well as sharing your final product with the others around you. Your use of the slang gives us a glimpse of the world you’ve been in for decades and how you are making the best of it. You had my mouth watering.

  5. Suzy says:

    Mark, this is an amazing story about cooking creatively with what is available to you in prison. I am in awe of your talents! Also, everything you described sounded so delicious to me that it made me want to try and duplicate your recipes. If you are ever in the mood to write about it, I would love to hear more about your experiences in prison.

    • Mark says:

      Thanks, Suzy. You said if I ever wanted to share more about prison, you would be interested. Here is a letter I recently sent Michigan lawmakers regarding proposed “second look” legislation.

      To: State Lawmakers
      From: Mark [surname omitted]
      Date: Sept. 10, 2023
      Re: Senate Bill 321, House Bill 4556

      Dear Senator/Representative,

      I am writing to you today to ask for your support of Second Look legislation in Michigan.

      I get it. No one wants to release murderers, rapists and child molesters back into civilized society. But unfortunately, that’s exactly what is happening every day under the current prison parole system in Michigan. Prisoners offend, get released, then re-offend multiple times. The first offense is known as an ‘A’ prefix on a prison record, the second a ‘B’ prefix and so on. I have met countless inmates on their ‘D’, ‘E’, ‘F’, and even ‘G’ prefixes. These criminals have shown they are either incapable or uninterested in adjusting to life on the outside. Why not give prisoners who have long or life sentences, who actually would be grateful and respectful of a parole, a second chance — a Second Look, if you will — at returning to society?

      My story is a nightmare, but not an uncommon one in our broken criminal justice system. My wife died, inexplicably, on a night she and I were with our kids and dog on a fall weekend to take in the colors in northern Michigan. Her death was labelled ‘suspicious’ and seven months later I was charged with her murder. I had never been arrested ever in my life, had a family, and was a productive member of society. I was, however, not a great husband, and my wife wanted a divorce. I did not. The prosecution ran with that theme, so to prove my innocence after her death, I took and passed a polygraph. Nevertheless, over two years later, I was tried and found guilty. A life sentence without parole. Devastating.

      On appeal, we proved that the ‘scientific’ forensic evidence used by the prosecution at trial was junk science, but the courts refused to overturn the conviction. So here I sit, year after year for sixteen years now, confined to the Michigan prison system. I have been stabbed, robbed, and tortured, been everything but raped (thank God), with no chance of parole and no hope of ever going home again.

      So what have I done with my life in prison? Instead of giving into rampant drug culture, forced homosexuality, gangs, or any other of the myriad of horrors I am exposed to on a daily basis, I have been a GED tutor, a culinary arts tutor, and the last few years have been teaching a class on how prisoners can make money investing in real estate when they leave prison (I used to be a mortgage broker). I have done my best to survive, and in some ways even thrive, in an environment specifically designed to prevent it.

      The current prison, sentencing, and criminal justice system is broken. The Second Look legislation is needed to bring some balance back to common sense Corrections reform. Please support this bill not because it will put dangerous criminals back in society. The current system is already doing that. Support this bill because it will safely allow those of us who have earned a second chance to get it. You’ll finally be granting the right offenders the opportunity to become productive members of our communities.

      Thank you for considering this lifesaving legislation. Feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.


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