Next time you can’t figure out what to make for dinner, tell yourself: At least I’m not in prison.
That’s where Mobb Deep’s Prodigy landed after a plea deal on a weapons possession charge in 2007, serving most of a 3.5-year sentence in a medium-security dorm at Mid-State Correctional Facility near Utica, New York, upstate.
And that’s where he learned to cook, prison style.
The Queens rapper, half the ’90s hardcore duo with Havoc, has written a book with journalist Kathy Iandoli called "commissary kitchen: my infamous prison cookbook." It’s out this month from Infamous, Prodigy’s own imprint at Akashic Books, based in Brooklyn where he now lives.
The book is a frank, touching and funny collection of prison recipes and memories about life on the inside. Using the things available, a toaster oven and a microwave, he includes "P’s Jail Break," with Ramen noodles and Doritos, and "Good as (expletive) Seafood," featuring cans of calamari, octopus and peas.
More seriously, he described how scary it was to stare down lousy prison food three times a day while trying to manage sickle cell anemia, a condition he’s had since childhood.
A conversation with Prodigy:
Q. Why tackle prison life in this way, through the food?
A. The main reason I did the book was because of the food conditions in jail. I wanted to shed some light on how the food is not really healthy at all. There should be some reform, along with other things about prison that should be reformed.
But with food, I have to watch my diet because of my sickle cell. When I first went in I realized there’s no green vegetables. They serve, like, spinach once every two weeks. The three meals they serve inmates every day is like slop. There’s glass and all sorts of crazy stuff in the food.
That really made me want to learn to cook. I wanted to eat as healthy as possible. I mean, it’s still prison. We would get stuff from the commissary and my family would send me 30, 35 pounds of canned green vegetables every month. The other inmates would get things like Oreos and other snacks.
Q. Food played such a prominent role in the day-to-day in prison. I mean, procuring ingredients, planning meals, cooking.
A. Yeah, the food part of the day, when we were allowed into the day room, it helped us relax for a while. We could take our minds off of where we were at. It helped inmates come together and ease the tension a little bit. Everybody’s angry, intense. They missed their families, they were angry at themselves for being in there in the first place, so coming together and cooking every day, it really helped people get along.
We’d all chip in some food and make a dinner. We’d sit down to eat together and talk and laugh about it.
Q. You didn’t know much about cooking before you went in. Tell me about the dude who taught you how to cook in prison.
A. Yeah, the rasta. He came into the dorm probably about a year after I was in there already. He was keeping to himself. We found out he was in there for some crazy crime dealing with statutory rape or something. We kept our distance. But he would cook. He told us he was a chef out in the street. We would give him food and say, let me see you make something.
Q. Butter loomed large in your prison cooking life.
A. The only thing we had was butter, to grease the pans and everything, and add to things to make sure the food wasn’t dry. We had the little tiny packets of Country Crock. You’d peel the top open. They’d bring these big plastic bags of those up to our dorm and we’d save them, like 100 little containers at a time. We’d stash a bunch of them to cook with. We weren’t supposed to do that.
Q. You broke into a guard’s refrigerator once. Tell me about that.
A. He was so mean that one night when he wasn’t there we took the hinges off the refrigerator door and we took all his food. We all ate it. The next day he thought the other corrections officers ate his food. He didn’t know who did it.
Q. How did prison change you?
A. It made me realize the gravity, the reality of having everything taken from you. My career, my family, my freedom.
Q. You’ve got two kids, now 20 and 17. They were pretty young when you went in. What do you tell them about the experience?
A. I just tell them, you know, it was horrible. You don’t ever want to be in that position. Learn from my mistakes. Learn from me. You don’t have go through it yourself.