Monday, September 8, 2008

Prison Cuisine: "Spread" and Frito Tamale

I randomly came across an intriguing article about inmates in prisons supplementing their diets with some pretty interesting MacGyver'esque recipes. With only junk food from prison canteens and without any cooking implements they manage to make some pretty interesting stuff. Two of the most common recipes I came across are "Spread" and the Frito Tamale. I limited myself to ingredients that your everyday prisoner would be able to obtain. I used Fritos, cheese curls, chicken Ramen, a slim-jim, and a Tiajuana Mama pickled sausage.

I am not a junk food kind of guy so I was a little nervous about all of this stuff. I am no fan of Ramen and the Tiajuana Mama pickled sausage was frankly obscene looking.

I decided to begin by preparing the "Spread". "Spread" is kind of a catch-all term for a variety of concoctions with Ramen noodles as their main ingredient. Prisoners pool all forms of ingredients and share the result as a communal meal. Another common thread is the cooking vessel, which is...

That's right folks! A trash bag, which is extra classy. All sorts of stuff can go into the spread with the Ramen- tuna, cheetos, potato chips, refried beans, canned jalapenos, etc...are all good options. I decided upon a classic recipe of chicken Ramen, crushed cheese curls, and the Tiajuana Mama. You want to crush up the Ramen and pulverize the cheese curls into almost a powder. The sausage gets chopped up.

This all gets thrown in the trash bag along with the Ramen spice package.

Bring a cup and a half of water to a boil. I used my favorite piece of kitchen machinery. I love this water heater which I picked up at an Asian market. It is really a must for any hardcore tea drinker.

The water goes into the bag with the other ingredients, give it a good swish, and then nestle it in a towel to insulate.

While this was cooking I started with the Frito Tamale. Now, fritos are kind of an interesting ingredient. Did you know that they are vegan and contain only 3 ingredients (corn, corn oil, and salt)? This is actually not too far from the actual ingredients of a real tamale. The recipe calls for crushing the fritos into a powder.

You then add enough hot water right to the bag to moisten the frito crumbs. You need to squish the paste into the bottom of the bag to form a cylinder, then roll it tightly and nestle it next to the spread and leave to cook for about 20 minutes.

I puttered around for a while and then cracked open the trash bag. This is what I saw.

It actually did not look or smell bad. The most interesting part was that the cheese curl crumbs kind of melted into a cheese sauce. I tentatively dug a fork in and tried a bite. I was shocked, it was good. The Ramen noodles were tender, the cheese factor was solid, even the Tiajuana Mama pickled sausage added a nice acid/spicy flavor to the mess. I had read that this was often served as a kind of burrito filling on tortillas, and I had some corn ones. I slapped a couple tablespoons on a warmed tortilla and dug in.

This was actually very good. Not good in any haute cuisine kind of way, but as an alternative to jail chow this would do nicely. It was starchy and filling. With my expectations slightly raised I moved onto the Frito Tamale. I was expecting a kind of loose, porridge like mess out of this one. I carefully sliced open the bag and rolled the contents onto a plate.

It was a steamy, solid mass that looked very much like an actual pseudo-authentic tamale! This too actually looked and smelled appetizing. After taking a bite I noted that the consistency was very, very similar to a real homemade tamale. The flavor was overwhelmingly of moist, salty fritos and this was not a bad thing. A little hot sauce made it even more palatable. If I had known that this was actually actually going to work then I would have stuck a slice of cheese or some of the slim-jim in as a filling.

Verdict: I was shocked. I expected both of these recipes to be nast' at best. Don't get me wrong, these are not going to be staples of my diet. But I was impressed with the ingenuity required to come up with this kind of stuff. I am almost moved to go and try to make the infamous prison wine, Pruno. However, I think the wife might get a little cranky about a trash bag full of fermenting fruit roll-ups, water, and ketchup hanging around the house.


  1. As one who really enjoys crappy junk food, I would TOTALLY eat that stuff. Very cool.

  2. Woah, I am super impressed with your dedication to authenticity. The garbage bag cooking method just adds a certain je ne sais quois.

  3. Anthony Bourdain has nothing on you! That is one bold experiment. I'm not sure I could have moved myself to take a sniff, let alone a bite, after opening the bag and taking a peek inside. But I do have an inexplicable fondness for jalapeno Slim-Jims (I blame my teenage son for this), so I'll never say never!
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Here is an article about making Pruno. It makes me cackle with laughter.

  5. Although in prison they probably have no better alternatives to cook their food (a metal can large enough would be ideal), I'd highly advise to steer clear of putting hot food or liquids in plastic containers, as some of the plastic polymers leak out into it and are consumed by you.

  6. You forgot to mention the Dorito Burrito! This was an all time favorite when I was in prison.

    Ramen noodles, doritos, one cheese stick and one meat stick.

    Cook the noodles in a cup in the microwave, drain off most of the water. Crucsh the doritos in the bag and add the cut up chesse and meat stick. Dump the noodles in the dorito bag and mix it all together. Roll up the bag like you did for the tamale and wrap in a towel.

    Open, eat and enjoy!

  7. Having been in Joe Arpaio's tent city I can attest that this is very authentic. There's different variations of this recipe depending on what you have on hand. Instead of tortilla though t's bread that's hollowed out and filled with this tasty treat and then sold illegally to people who have the money to buy it.

  8. this is the article that got me reading your blog.

  9. I used to work at a halfway house for people who had just been released from jail. One guy liked the "spread" so much, he continued to eat it even when he had access to a fully stocked kitchen. Spread was served on white bread with mayo, and like you, I was surprised at how edible (but incredibly salty) it actually was.


  10. Spread is great! Lock up comfort food. Its good how you made it, but Id add a few ingredients. 1/2 single pack Hot Pickle, 1/2 cup powdered refried beans, and 2-3 spoonfuls of jalepeno wheels. YUM!

  11. level 4 san quetin brings me bck all I aint was this on bread with hot sauce I rember making a tamale never looked like yours but it was in 2005 food rules have changed and new things are in and out


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