I like to get in fights. I like to drink and drive. I like to kick the windows out of cop cars and talk shit to humorless magistrates. In my spare time I enjoy harpsichord music, quiet walks in the woods, and fine dining. Lately, though, I have been dining in, at the Wake County Public Safety Center, also known as jail.
The Wake County Public Safety Center is a big, ugly building in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. Donnie Harrison, the Wake County sheriff, says there are about 1,300 inmates in his jail on any given day. A small portion of the prisoner population consists of actual, dangerous criminals. Mostly, though, jail is full of people just like you and me–scratch that, like you–who ran afoul of America’s goofy dope laws or who bounced a check at Wal-Mart and then got pulled over for running a stop sign three months later and were busted on a bench warrant they didn’t even know they had. These people are different from you in only one key respect: They are young, black, and poor.
But I’m not here to whine about the criminal “justice” system or regale you with tall tales of life in stir. Let us dwell on a lighter subject: jailhouse cuisine. During my latest incarceration, I had the pleasure of sharing Thanksgiving dinner with Mack (trafficking), Nate (counterfeiting), Outlaw (parole violation), and J.C. (conspiracy).
There we are, sitting at a stainless steel picnic table bolted to the cement floor, playing dominoes, talking, and awaiting our Thanksgiving feast, each of us wearing an orange-and-white-striped Tigger suit and plastic flip-flops, except for Mack, our diplomatic liaison to the black and Mexican prisoner population, who has taught himself near-fluent Spanish and ordered a do-rag ($4.10) and a pair of hipsterish high-top tennis shoes ($12.25) from the commissary. Conversations in jail are not like conversations on the outside. They can go on for days, interrupted by Maury and Oprah and Jerry and then resuming again, fluid, free-floating, labyrinthine. Is Rambo real? Is there really iceberg water? If not, how would you melt an iceberg and bottle it? These sorts of questions occupy the dead hours of an inmate’s life, which is to say every spare minute in between meals.
Breakfast in jail is something like this: Scrambled reconstituted eggs. Grits. Two slices of Wonder bread. A half-pint of orange juice or milk. If you are like me and think breakfast is incomplete without a cigarette and a good cup of coffee, you’re fucked. You can buy packets of Sanka from the commissary, but by the time you mix instant-coffee crystals with sink water in an empty orange juice container you realize it’s not worth the effort. You’re much better off spending your money on salt and pepper and ketchup and hot sauce, because jail food in its undoctored form is hideously bland. A typical lunch: Spaghetti with tomato sauce. A slice of American cheese and cartilaginous bologna with two more pieces of Wonder bread. Chopped iceberg lettuce and a section of unripe tomato. Iced tea (decaf). Try eating iceberg lettuce with a plastic spoon. For annoyance, it’s right up there with showering in handcuffs.
Who assembles this slop? And where is the kitchen, anyway? When I ask Mack and Outlaw, they shake their heads. They know what I know now and what you’re about to: The villain of this story is LeCount Catering Center. LeCount’s cost-per-inmate meal in Raleigh is $1.28. Prisoners in Raleigh don’t hate the sheriff or the cops or the shaved-head, mace-toting, black-clad guards so much as they hate LeCount.
You stop pooping three or four days after you’re incarcerated. This is alarming until you realize that you simply aren’t getting enough nutrition to create much in the way of waste. The jail’s operations manual states that there “shall not be more than 14 hours between the evening meal and breakfast,” and there usually isn’t, but it feels like eternity. One night, Nate’s snoring woke me up and I glanced over at his bunk. He wasn’t snoring; his stomach was growling.
If the low-cal diet provided by LeCount was all there were to eat in jail, riots might rule the day. But assuming you have money, and you damn sure better, you can order Cheetos and popcorn and humongous garlicky kosher dill pickles from the commissary. You can order Honey Buns and MoonPies and tuna salad and peanut butter and jelly. You can order candy bars, from Twix (least favorite, according to a poll I conducted) to Snickers, which outsells all other brands combined.
What I haven’t mentioned is ramen.
Inmates spend upwards of half their weekly food budget on ramen noodles, on account of their low cost, tastiness, and high caloric value. Cajun chicken is the most popular flavor, followed by plain old chicken, beef, and chili. Last year in Houston, inmates consumed 3 million packages of ramen noodles. Without ramen, life in jail would grind to a halt.
It did in Raleigh, two days before Thanksgiving, when a memo from the sheriff appeared on the wall: EFFECTIVE 11/28/07: THE FOLLOWING ITEMS WILL NO LONGER BE AVAILABLE ON THE COMMISSARY MENU: RAMEN NOODLES.
There was no explanation for this outrage. Rumors began spreading like Malibu wildfire: The ramen ban was an act of sadism disguised as a water-conservation measure (North Carolina was in the midst of a record-setting drought); the ramen ban was an outburst of racist paranoia aimed at black Muslims, stemming from a lamebrain muddling of the words ramen and Ramadan.
Finally, one night, a guard appeared to clarify the grim situation. The ramen ban, he said, was the result of too many sinks getting clogged by noodle flotsam, a by-product of noodle preparation, wherein hundreds of prisoners mix ramen with hot(ish) water from the jail sinks.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m going to tell you about the ghastly meal that arrived masquerading as Thanksgiving dinner, and how we subsequently set our mattresses on fire and took the guards hostage. Or: You think I’m going to swipe some pampered adjectives from Food & Wine to describe the astonishing gourmet fare that LeCount presented for our enjoyment–pan-seared scallops, with rosemary-roasted Thumbelina carrots, and smoked salmon soubise.
I’ll cut to the chase, or, more accurately, the anticlimax. The trays arrived more than an hour early, at 3:45 p.m. This seemed wonderful until one sourpuss pointed out that it just meant more hours till breakfast.
What could be waiting beneath the lids? A hush fell over the cell block as a trusty lifted the first one.
Cranberry sauce, a good tablespoon or more. Sliced turkey–big, thick slices–with gravy and dressing. A dinner roll. Turnip greens with chopped onions. Enormous pieces of chocolate cake. Milk.
There was nothing to grouse about, and nobody did.
I like where liquor takes me. Selma, Alabama, might be an exception. I was minding my own business, whizzing east on Route 80, halfway between my best friend’s wedding in Port Gibson, Mississippi, and a warm bed in Savannah belonging to a girl I was dating at the time. I was driving a nondescript Ford Escort with functional taillights, and maybe just as well, since I was weaving subtly across the centerline. Good thing there’s no one on the road but me, I thought, as my rearview erupted in flashing blue lights.
The drunk tank in Selma is downright medieval. It’s a cube made of cinder blocks with a single, billion-watt bulb that never goes off in the ceiling. Directly beneath the bulb is a hole in the floor the size of a coffee-can lid, and that’s where you answer the call of nature. There’s nothing to sleep on but concrete benches.
When the sun comes up, we hear a clanging at the big steel dungeon-door. What happens next makes me think I’m still asleep. One by one the drunk-tank denizens get up and stagger toward the door and receive a tray. When I get mine, I am staring down at real, honest-to-God scrambled eggs, hot biscuits, strips of bacon, and grits pocked with melting butter. Later, at dinnertime, we get chicken sandwiches. I’m talking about real Southern chicken sandwiches, two pieces of bread with a gigantic baked chicken leg in between. Should I describe supper? I won’t. You get the idea. Next time you’re arrested, do it in Selma.
When I had paid for my crimes against humanity and been released from jail in Raleigh, I walked up the road and turned right, moving toward a vague recollection of a bus stop. Several miles up, my nose started twitching. Before me stood a faded building surrounded by cars: Larry’s Southern Kitchen.
Soon I was inside noticing that the patrons divided along racial lines, half black and half white, none of them remotely skinny. The long buffet was freighted with macaroni and cheese and pinto beans and candied yams and fried trout and fried chicken and gizzards-and-rice and roasted potatoes with onions; with chitlins and salmon cakes and black-eyed peas and cornbread and dinner rolls and hushpuppies and country ham and fatback and grilled beef liver with onions; with biscuits and gravy, the gravy made from old-fashioned sage sausage; with chicken pastry; with pork chops; and, yes, with coconut pie and pecan pie and banana cream pie and strawberry shortcake and pineapple-orange cake.
I felt like a blind dog in a smokehouse, and I would still be at Larry’s if it weren’t for the need to make a living and get on with things. As it was, I emerged an hour later (and eight dollars poorer) and made my way slowly toward home through the December chill carrying a to-go cup of delicious sweet tea. The caffeinated kind.
Larry’s Southern Kitchen does quite a bit of catering. I’ve written to Sheriff Donnie Harrison, enclosing a small check for his reelection campaign and suggesting that he fire LeCount Catering Center and let Larry’s crew take over the food service at the Wake County Public Safety Center and its sparkling new annex. Harrison’s a busy man, and so far he hasn’t written back.
Excerpted from the Oxford American(#61), a bimonthly magazine of writing and art from the South; www.oxfordamericanmag.com.