It's the holiday season, and I'm watching the Food Network and feeling a little nostalgic. It's not so unusual to feel this way during the holidays, especially when you're away from your family. But my nostalgia is a little different because it is directed toward the close-knit unit of women I lived with for three years and two months in a federal prison in Fort Worth. I wonder how they're holding up? What are they up to?
Without a doubt, the holiday season is the most difficult time to endure when you're locked up. Your emotions are magnified, and even the most hardened inmate will melt or break down at the slightest hint of holiday cheer.
One of the ways my cellie, Renee, and I would try to ease the tension at Christmastime was to bake and make candy and, because we were in Texas, to make tamales navidenos -- Christmas tamales (crushed Doritos are the key to this improvised recipe).
How did we accomplish this amazing feat inside the walls of Carswell federal prison? I mean, it's not as if you can hop down to Bristol Farms or Gelson's to get that just-so-perfect little box of Swiss chocolate to make the spectacular dessert turn out just right. But it actually wasn't as difficult as you might imagine. You just have to be (as we all learned to be in prison) creative and extremely resourceful.
First of all, we relied on every federal prisoner's (culinary) best friend -- the microwave oven. And we adjusted the recipes we'd learned on Martha Stewart's television programs or from Martha Stewart Living magazine to the items we could purchase at the prison commissary. Oh yes, Martha played a very big role in my life during my incarceration.
When I was in prison, I lived to watch Martha's television program and read her magazine. Imagine me sitting in a common television room (set up to accommodate about 70 women) tuning into her program and having to defend my viewing choice by battling dozens of women who wanted to watch Jerry Springer or Montel Williams. Martha is my idol, and I was willing to go down for just a few moments of HGTV bliss. My fellow inmates eventually gave in; instead of fighting me, they joined me in preparing Martha-inspired concoctions.
Oh, how I wish Martha could have been my cellie. I used to fantasize that one day I'd be a guest on Martha's show, preparing Fabulous Felon Recipes.
There were some ingredients we couldn't get from the commissary. We had to steal them from the kitchen and hoard them for our recipes, some of which had been handed down from prison generation to prison generation. We became quite resourceful and imaginative in hiding the goods from the guards who conducted daily inspections of our quarters.
In the spirit of the holidays -- and remembering my friends still imprisoned -- here's one of our recipes, the famous Oreo Cookie Con Cake. (I make it to this day.)
First, use your prison-issued steel-toed shoes to smash up 40 Oreo cookies. To that add one pint of melted vanilla ice cream, one large melted Hershey chocolate bar and two containers of prepared Jello chocolate pudding. Mix it up until it is the consistency of cake batter and place it in the microwave oven for 7 to 10 minutes. Voila! You have the most delicious and rich chocolate cake you've ever tasted. If you want, you can melt another Hershey bar to use as icing. It may not be cordon bleu stuff, but it's really quite delectable, honest.
So if you're down in the dumps this holiday season, get over it. Learn to appreciate what you have, especially your freedom. Do what we did in prison. Cook up a storm. And share it with others.