A penitentiary may be the last place you'd expect to find the comforts of home, but rapper and former inmate Albert "Prodigy" Johnson of Mobb Deep, like many of his peers, found solace in the simple act of cooking. That's the focus of Johnson's new project Commissary Kitchen: My Infamous Prison Cookbook which he co-wrote with journalist Kathy Iandoli.
The recipes are built from ingredients readily available in prison kitchens as well as through family care packages, but much of that food isn't really nutritious, which was a major concern for Johnson who suffers from sickle cell anemia. "I couldn't afford to get sick in prison," he explains. "My sickle cell is no joke, so I couldn't eat poorly or not exercise. And everything in jail is designed to do the exact opposite." For example, one of the few vegetables to show on a typical prison menu is green beans, and even then perhaps only once a week. Prison food can be so disgusting, it's even used as punishment.
Not all of the recipes are something you'd want to make for dinner tonight, and some are downright un-appetizing ("Prison Surprise" includes ramen noodles, Doritos, canned mackerel and hot sauce). But taste wasn't as important as the therapy cooking brings to many in correctional facilities. Despite having to work with dulled knives, or even having to fashion them out of aluminum can lids, the ability to prepare a meal for one's self and others had benefits beyond sustenance.
"It's just relaxing and you almost forget where you're at for an hour or two," Johnson says. "It helps people get along, too. Sometimes if you've got a group of people in there that are cool with each other, we'd order a chicken [from the commissary] together or make a dinner."
The cookbook is as much a memoir of Johnson's time behind bars as it is a recipe guide. An audio version is also planned, which will feature Johnson telling his story and reading the recipes aloud.
[h/t NPR's The Salt]