Freed from the captivity of home cookery and the rarefied practice of restaurant criticism, food is now a legitimate lens for thoughtful cultural journalism. It’s also a massive revenue generator in mainstream media, as many commentators pointed out recently, when news hit that a cooking show called “The Chew” would oust the famed soap opera “All My Children” after a 40-year run. New York Times reporter Julia Moskin observed, “Americans’ growing interest in food is generating a seemingly indigestible glut of culinary programming in just about every time slot.”

Amid the rushing current – in print, online and on TV – certain pieces of food media have staying power. I often find them in Gastronomica, a publication that has held its own while its categories (paper as a medium and food as a topic) have evolved. Gastronomica manages to straddle the border between consumer magazine and scholarly journal. Many of the contributors are academics, and the articles often emerge from obscure research finds. But the best among them leave you with the lasting flavor of a textured, human story.

The Gastronomica article that has remained most vividly in my mind was written by a professor of cultural anthropology, Sandra Cate, at San Jose State University. “ ‘Breaking Bread with a Spread’ in a San Francisco County Jail”* was published in the journal’s Summer 2008 issue, and I hadn’t reread it since. What I recalled about the piece was how the author had described a cultural phenomenon among male inmates in a prison, but despite the complex social implications of her topic and her status as an outsider, she kept the focus tightly on the subjects, delivering a cleanly crafted account that lets the reader uncover the meta narrative.

Cate’s piece digs into a culinary phenomenon born inside the jail known as “spread” (both a noun and a verb), which was originally documented in photos and interviews by San Francisco photojournalist Robert Gumpert. Spread is a meal the inmates make for themselves outside of institutional mealtimes, assembling packaged foods pocketed from their canteen trays or ordered through the prison’s commissary program (a weekly delivery of personal items). Ingredients like Top Ramen, Cheetos, hot chocolate powder, peanut butter and jelly packets, pork rinds, and instant oatmeal are combined and cooked using one of two available heat sources – a microwave or boiling water. The resulting concoctions become a nighttime meal designed for sharing.

Writing from the outside about marginalized populations is a charged and challenging pursuit, and it strikes me as especially so in this case, as Cate sets out to describe how the creativity and community-building power of cooking manifest in the stark and relatively grim context of a jail. How to avoid romanticizing, exoticizing or patronizing a group of men whose extraordinary lack of comfort has led them to develop a full cookbook’s worth of comfort foods?

Toward the beginning of the article, she lets the inmates themselves set the stage by splicing together quotes from four sources in an almost Zagat-style patchwork:

Inmate Brennan Owens describes “spreading” as “putting something together to eat, too much of nothing, couple of Top Ramens, couple of bags of chips, couple of beef sticks. I pretty much crush everything together, throw it in one bag, a few cups of hot water, and blam. I got my Top Ramen special.” But other inmates assign spread a loftier status. Vanteak Alexander calls spread “the best thing going in the county—the things we buy off the canteen to satisfy the belly.” Trent “Mohammed” Prader claims that “not only is [spread] filling, but it’s like this is the premier meal of the day. It’s a top-of-the-line meal, like a filet mignon.” Patrick McConnell agrees, describing spread as “a delicacy. It’s like steak and lobster to the people.”

There’s nothing terribly unique about allowing a subject to do some of the heavy lifting by running a quote, but the way the author chops up and reassembles the various descriptions of spread also functions as a verbal reflection of the thing itself. She maintains her role as a scholar, using the subjects’ voices and a few spare personal impressions to create a much stickier and more dynamic cultural illustration than your average anthropological report.

I was particularly struck by how well Cate uses technical and completely objective details of spread preparation to convey some of its most significant functions in the life of the inmates. She zeroes in on two men who have figured out how to reverse-engineer their processed food rations in order to glean cooking oil.

Hackett … does an Asian ‘stir fry’ in the microwave by heating peanut oil he has extracted from his lunchtime peanut butter and then adding cooked ramen noodles, leftover vegetables, meat, and hot sauce.

After sixteen years in and out of jail, one Chinese inmate … has perfected his own Asian-style spread-making technique. … To make a sauce he heats mayonnaise to break the emulsion, and then mixes the oil with the soup base from the noodle package.

The ingenuity of these prison food hackers makes a great anecdote in and of itself, but more importantly, it demonstrates the significance of spread beyond its utility as a late-night snack. This is cooking. And it matters enough to these guys that the process feel like cooking, that they’ve found a way to provide themselves with the primary ingredient for making a hot meal from scratch: oil.

But Cate is never so explicit as to spell it out for the reader. And that is probably why, three years later, my memory of the story is more visual than analytical (aided, of course, by Gumpert’s photos): the familiar texture of ramen noodles, the unnatural color of Red Hot Cheetos, and the orange hue that is common to squeezy cheese and standard-issue prison uniforms.

It’s a great example of modern food writing. If you’re looking for an investigation of community in an institutionalized setting, a study of humans’ adaptability and self-reliance in dire circumstances, or an exposé on the relationship between government-contracted food distributors and prison administrators, Cate delivers all that using food as her vehicle. And if you just want a few ideas for turning a junk food medley into a feast, you could read the same eight pages as a series of highly inventive recipes. Nutritional content not included.

*To access this article, visit this JSTOR page and click the “PDF” link beneath the article title.

Sarah Rich (@sarahrich) is a writer, editor and new media entrepreneur. She is a co-founder of Longshot Magazine and the Foodprint Project, a former senior editor at Dwell, and co-author of “Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century.” Later this month, Rich will hit the road with Alexis Madrigal to explore Southern tech startups from Richmond to New Orleans.

For more from this collaboration with Madrigal and Longreads , check out the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

Most popular articles from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment