I walked down the main hall of the Estelle unit here in Huntsville with my stomach grumbling. It's impossible to get used to any certain time to eat here because each day's schedule is different depending on who is working that particular shift and how they are feeling that day. Breakfast is usually between 1-3 am, lunch's any time between 8:30 a.m. to noon, and dinner can be from 4-8:30 pm. We wait. That's all we can do if we want to eat the food provided for us at the prison chow hall.
That is not to say that the food is anywhere near worth the wait though, because unless it's a holiday, it's not. We get fed meager amounts of a rotating menu consisting of pork, beef or fish patties, casserole, or noodles. Chicken patties are thrown in a few times a week though they are either cooked hard as a hockey puck, or still frozen, but never in between. Our sides are black-eyed peas, greens, corn, or pinto beans. All veggies are boiled bland and there are zero spices in anything. A dry piece of corn bread and some colored water tops it all off and helps it go down. Delish? We don't have to look at it for long as we are usually rushed to get from the table before we are done, only to be made to wait a 1/2 hour or more before being let out of the chow hall. Then we make the walk back to the wing and wait in the day room a couple of hours before being let back into our cells. All in all, going to the chow hall can sometimes take up to four hours of your day for each meal. It is three meals each day though and I am thankful for it. I know that there are a lot of people in this world with much less.
Also… we are blessed in that we are given the option of eating what I now call the food of the gods. If you are lucky enough to have your family send you money to go to commissary, or if you are the type who has any kind of talent at all and can hustle, you can eat… wait for it… Raman noodles! Yes! I'm talking about the square little package of noodle goodness that provides the base of what is most of our in-cell made meals. That delicious dehydrated, spice packet flavored, easily stacked in a locker, or even clandestinely transported down the hall ambrosia that is Raman! They are not only food here, but they can be currency too. Beautiful ramens….
In this unit, we have a choice of three flavors: chicken, chili, or spicy vegetable. Of course, they are the low sodium versions. Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) wants us eating healthy, of course. They cost 30 cents at the commissary but "on the street" here they equal a dollar. My personal favorite is the chili, although I sometimes have dreams of my old favorite in county jail - lime chili shrimp. The memories of me walking down the soup aisle at the grocery store have grown into fantasies on par with how big the fish was that got away. I seem to remember dozens or was it hundreds of different flavors and colors stacked on shelves almost to the ceiling which I am pretty sure was about 100 feet high. Didn't they come in Styrofoam cups and bowls too? I don't remember, but I do remember that I took them for granted. They were a quick substitution for a meal at work, or between classes when I would rush home to pick up my homework. My kids loved them and would have been perfectly happy to eat them every day for every meal. I did not let them, of course but ironically, I now eat them every single day here and have been doing so for years.
I'm not eating them plain in a bowl though. Oh no, the meals we make in here are often not even recognizable as Raman. We make pizzas, spaghetti, popcorn, tacos, cheese nachos, sandwiches, and other meals with them. The most popular to make when a few people are going to eat is probably pizza because it feeds four or more, depending on the thickness. Pizza you asked? Let me break it down for you my free world brothers and sisters.
First, you must make the noodles easier to work with, so you use your preferred method of crushing them. Most hammer them on the floor a few times taking care not to do it too hard and bust the package open. It makes a mess on the floor and feeds cockroaches. For a four-slice pizza, I usually use 3 soups. Through commissary, we also have available such things as corn chips, barbecue or jalapeno chips, pork rinds, refried beans, ranch dressing packets, squeeze cheese, jalapenos, barbecue sauce, and various meat packets such as chile with or without beans, mackerel, tuna, or chicken chunks. Everyone has their own preference as to what ingredients to use, but the methods are pretty much the same.
You put the crushed noodles into a corn chip bag, add crushed corn chips, dehydrated beans, some chopped jalapenos, and any other kind of chips you like and shake vigorously to mix the contents. You make your broth with the season packet and maybe some extra spices if you can get it, then pour it into the bag barely covering the noodles. Knead it to get it all mixed properly, then wrap it in a towel to cook. Once it hardens to a dough-like consistency, you flatten it out in the bag, then cut it open so you have a nice rectangular crust on which you now layer your toppings such as a meat pouch, chopped chowhall stuff, crushed chips, drizzles of cheese, ranch dressing, whatever! Prison pizza!
I realize that to most of you, this may not sound as appetizing as it is to us in here, but we all have to make do with what we have available, don't we? When you run out of onion powder at home, don't you maybe substitute some garlic powder? Or perhaps use chicken in the recipe instead of beef? That's what we do in here, just maybe to more extreme levels. With Raman noodles, I can substitute just about anything!
You see, while prison may at first be a dark, drab and dreary place, some of us look for and find on occasion a bit of color and flavor in it to appreciate and enjoy. Flower growing amidst razor wire coils, a letter from home, a Raman noodle pizza… are all bits of warms in an otherwise cold place. And you know what, I appreciate those little flashes of warmth now like I never did when I was free. I am thankful for each one.
I can remember turning my nose up at the baked chicken my wife used to cook in the free. I found it too bland for my Latino spice-craving tastebuds. Now, the baked chicken that they give us once or twice a month tastes so incredibly rich and flavorful to me! With 100% assurance, I say that I will never take some food for granted. A bowl of white rice with a pat of butter, a plain grilled cheese sandwich, even a plain glass of cold milk… all things I once scorned but can't wait to have again.
Till then though, I will be thankful for every meal I do have here and the Raman noodles I am lucky enough to have also. My cellie [cell mate] brought back his chicken patty from dinner and I happen to have two of those Raman, a handful of dehydrated refried beans, a pack of flour tortillas, and a few spoonfuls of squeeze cheese left. So it sounds like chicken burrito night in John Lobo's cell! Till next time my culture clashing brothers and sisters, bone appetit!