Big House Lasagna

I've heard that every prison has its own cuisine. I'm not talking about food served in the chow hall. Institutional food is institutional food no matter what the facility.  It is the same succession of tuna, ground beef, and sliced meat concoctions you remember from school cafeteria days. What I mean is the eclectic mix of recipes that result from the application of inmate ingenuity to the selection of foods available through the prison canteen.

In my years at New Hampshire State Prison for Men, I sampled quite a variety of inmate dishes; many would rival home cooking, a few rose to the level of fine restaurant fare. I've sampled the food of inmates who were chefs on the street and that of men who never touched a kitchen utensil before prison. I've shared dinners for two and batches intended to feed a pod of twenty hungry felons. To fully appreciate this culinary flowering you need to understand the conditions under which these gastronomes labor. The average American housewife would be sorely challenged by the paucity of cooking supplies allowed by prison officials. Julia Child would not know where to begin.

The typical prison-cell kitchen is equipped with a two-quart hot pot, a two-gallon ice chest, a manual can opener, a plastic mixing spoon, and several plastic cereal bowls. All these can be purchased through canteen. At this point ingenuity takes over. Inmate chefs make food choppers from the bent lids of tin cans, called "can cutters." Resealable coffee-can covers become chopping boards. Plastic bags serve as mixing bowls, tablecloths and serving platters. 5-gallon plastic buckets are ovens. Assorted empty food containers become measuring cups, scoops, colanders and storage bins. A particularly useful item is the metal cookie tin; a great prison cooking pot that has gained value at NHSP since it is no longer on the approved Christmas care package list.

Prison chefs are also challenged by the limited availability of condiments and spices. Unless you can get hooked–up with someone who works in the kitchen, someone willing to risk his job and a write-up to supply you with pilfered spices, you have to make do with those that are legally available through canteen: salt, pepper, garlic powder, hot sauce, mayonnaise, and Mrs. Dash. This meager collection is augmented by the judicious use of artificial sweetener, dried soup flavor packets, hot cocoa mix, coffee, cream of mushroom soup, and jalapeno peppers.

The following is one of my favorite recipes. I recommend that you use traditional preparation methods to assure authenticity.

From Big housetoyourhouse

Lasagna della Penitentiary
Serves 6

Sauce Ingredients:

  • 1 ½ large cans of tomato sauce
  • ¾ of a pepperoni stick cut into ¼ “ cubes by can cutter
  • Garlic powder to taste
  • Mrs. Dash to taste
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • Chopped jalapenos to taste
  • Other ingredients:              
  • 2 boxes of medium pasta shells, cooked
  • 1 package of pita pockets, split in half lengthwise
  • 2 cups of mozzarella cheese in ¼” cubes
  • 2 cups of extra sharp cheddar cheese in ¼" cubes
  • 2 cups of Velveeta cheese in  ¼” cubes
  • One large Christmas cookie tin
  • Two, 2-quart hot pots
  • One, 5-gallon plastic bucket
  • Homemade colander
  • Clear plastic bags
  • Can cutter
  • Plastic mixing spoon

Directions: Place all the sauce ingredients into a hot pot borrowed from your neighbor (you are only permitted to have one) and allow to simmer for two hours, stirring occasionally with a plastic mixing spoon. Cook all the pasta in your own hot pot. Because of the size of the pot, this will necessitate several batches. Drain and rinse the pasta in the bathroom sink using a colander made from a plastic cereal bowl pierced with holes. Keep the cooked pasta relatively hot in a 5-gallon plastic bucket lined with a clear plastic bag. Spread a small amount of sauce over the bottom of the cookie tin to prevent sticking. Layer the tin with cooked pasta shells, cubed cheeses, and sauce. Repeat until the tin is full, separating the layers with pita pocket rounds. Cover. Remove the lid from your hot pot, fill the pot with water, and set the filled cookie tin on the open pot on the floor. Cover the whole with an overturned 5-gallon bucket and let steam for 1 hour, replenishing the water and mopping the floor as needed. Serve in plastic cereal bowls with Tang or soda. Invite all your tattooed friends over, and enjoy!