Thursday, July 18, 2013

Suza Lambert Bowser

Here, at Decatur Prison for Women, inmates from Chicago brag about that city’s cuisine, sighing over the variety and the ethnocultural excellence of the food. This rapture includes the world-renowned “Polish,” a sausage prepared in Maxwell Street, a locale whose “to-die-for” reputation extends well into these Macon County provinces.
Unfortunately, I cannot taste the delights of Maxwell Street at present, limited as I am by razor wire and the terms of my sentence. Still, adversity is the mother of invention, and my fellow Decatur prisoners manage to create innovative meals that reveal a Chicago influence, cooked in nothing fancier than a cheap hot pot.
I’ve seen and tasted everything from pizza pockets, burritos, strawberry cheesecake (and it really does taste like strawberry cheesecake!), to a Chicken Bacon Potato (much like a twice-baked potato without the potato).
Using ingredients purchased through the commissary (nothing more than convenience mart/gas station fare), my “bunkie” made a “to-die-for” faux “Polish” that made my tastebuds hum a Chopin Polonaise.
She started with a large hot sausage, which she split and filled with a mixture of habanero cheese whip, chopped jalapenos (no, she did NOT have a knife!), lots of mustard, minced onion, mozarella cheese and some hoarded ingredients about which  it is probably best not to ask too many questions. She enclosed the whole thing in a flour tortilla, wrapped the result in clear plastic, and inserted it into a clean, reclosable instant coffee bag. Finally, she placed the ensemble into the ubiquitous hot pot, where it “cooked” partially submerged in hot water for one hour.
The results were excellent -- truly remarkable. I enjoyed a spicy, melt-in-your-mouth flavor that left me pledged to visit Maxwell Street for a real “Polish” when I have cast off the mortal coil of my imprisonment.
Lest this incarcerated cuisine sound too appealing - luring the unwitting to traverse the inhospitable highways of Illinois, where danger lurks under every overpass - I must warn you that the prison culinary arts can result in serious repercussions.
Enter the “Fat Girl.” This appropriately-named treat requires the same set up as a “Polish,” except that it weighs in at a whopping 5,000 calories. The scale-tipping tonnage includes: 1 whole Butterfinger candy bar, 2 oatmeal cream pies, 1 brownie, 1 whole snickers bar, with optional roasted peanuts, a honey bun, and a lot of instant creamer whipped into melted peanut butter. After a series of mysterious alchemical exercises, the whole thing is wrapped in a flour tortilla and cooked in a hot pot for an hour.
Needless to say, some women throw all caution to the wind, losing teeth and gaining 100 pounds winning the “Biggest Loser” prize. You guessed it: a candy bar!
More handy recipes can be found in the “Chef’s Pallette (!)” section of the prion newspaper which is titled: “Decaturing the News.” Here, religious testimonials blend with practical household tips like using chamomile tea bags for facial cleansers, removing lipstick stains with bread, and admonitioning the reader against hand washing one’s underwear.
Recipes in the “Sexual Assault Month” issue of the “Decaturing the News” featured: “Cookie and Cake Dough” made with brownies, chocolate chip granola bars, Snickers and instant cappucino mix as well as “Hot Chili Corn Chip Pie” using Texas beef Ramen noodles, chili with beans, summer sausage, tortilla shells, cheddar or jalapeno cheese spread, and corn chips.
The hot pots used to cook these creations only get relatively hot. They never actually cause water to boil unless they are “geeked” - a big “no-no” which may bring the PO-lice (pronounced here with the emphasis on the first syllable). “Geeking” a hot pot involves some innovative electrical engineering that, if caught, can get the inventor sent to Segregation.
The spicy languages that swirl around the local hot pot hearths are as numerous and vaired as the dishes that are prepared there: flavors of North Shore Yiddish, salsa-tinted Spanish a la Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Mexico, South Side Chicago Black-speak redolent of fried chicken, the flat, nasal twang of Wisconsin as sharp as cheddar cheese, a Tennessee hills patois where you can hear the echos of coon a possum (or at least the hunting dogs!), Missouri white bread and biscuits, and you guessed it, full-on Chicago “Polish.” And with a minimum three year sentence, it looks like I’m going to be here long enough to learn at least a couple of new languages and cooking styles...long enough to get a little bit of “Poland” under my belt.

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