Cooking in Prison: From the Big House to Your House
by C. Bina & T. Cornelius & B. Holder & C. Johnson & T. Kemmerer & L. Larson

The authors of From The Big House To Your House preface their cookbook with the following welcome:

“ This book is the result of our cooking experiences while confined at the Mountain View Unit, a woman’s prison in Gatesville, Texas. We met and bonded in the G-3 dorm, housing only prisoners with a sentence in excess of 50 years. While there isn’t much freedom to be found when incarcerated, using the commissary to cook what YOU want offers a wonderful avenue for creativity and enjoyment! We hope these recipes will ignite your taste buds as well as spark your imagination to explore unlimited creations of your own! We encourage you to make substitutions to your individual tastes and/or availability of ingredients. We are confident that you will enjoy the liberty found in creating a home-felt comfort during unfortunate times. Happy Cooking!”

Barbara, Celeste, Ceyma, Louanne, Tina Marie, and Trenda proceed to share over two hundred creative paths to comfort food. They transform crushed potato chips, sandwich cookie crème filling, powdered milk, cream cheese packets, and chili seasoning into snacks, dips, desserts, and even complete meals. The spicy gumbo they concoct entirely from commissary purchases is an especially impressive feat, as they create six servings of a meal so elaborate that its preparation is daunting even with unlimited ingredient availability.

While Zesty Tuna Tacos. Mississippi Mud Cakes, and Sweet Rice Casseroles fill the pages of From the Big House to Your House , the collection shares much more than the ingredient lists and instructions of a typical cookbook. On each page, the authors include small, unassuming fact boxes. These “Did You Know?” installments appear after every recipe, revealing harsh realities of the systems that have inspired these whimsical cooking projects.

Some entries cite newspapers and legal journals; just after we learn to make potato salad with jalapeno chips and mustard, we discover that, according to the New York Times, more prisoners than ever are now serving life terms. Almost 9.000 of these inmates are incarcerated in the authors’ home state, Texas.

Most entries in the “Did You Know?” series, however, come directly from the authors’ experiences in the G-3 dorm of the Mountain View Unit at Gatesville. These glimpses into life at the Unit , like the recipes, reveal a struggle to work within the confines of extreme restriction. In one entry, we learn “Inmates can share food in the chow hall as longs as they are seated at the same table. They are not allowed to share food in the dorm even if they are seated at the same table.” And right at the ends of a Zesty Tuna Taco recipe, we learn “Inmates are not allowed to talk in the bedroom are not allowed to talk in front of the TV. They haven’t quite figured out where in the dorm the are allowed to talk.” In fact, the cookbook shows us that we can’t quite figure out any example of behavior that doesn’t break some rule.</p>

Barbara, Celeste, Ceyma, Louanne, Tina Marie, and Trenda document survival in an environment where “appropriate” behavior has been all but legislated out of existence by arbitrary and inconsistent laws. And while the recipes invite readers to imagine themselves within this system, their accompanying facts inspire us to challenge and critique it. Ultimately, these women make Lemon Coconut Bars and fun facts tell a very complicated, compelling story.

From The Big House To Your House can be purchased here or here.