"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, June 14, 2019

Turning A Delight Into A Drudgery–The Politics Of Food And Social Justice

A maximum security prison in the South has, thanks to the efforts of reformers in New Hampshire, tried to turn to food as a therapeutic answer to life sentences.  Cooking, they insisted, would give the convicts (murderers, rapists, and others convicted of violent capital crimes) some hope for living even if it had to be within the walls of a federal prison with no hope for parole.  A small but well-endowed foundation based in nearby Massachusetts provided funds for the enterprise. 

The problems showed up early on.  How to prepare meals without metal knives and forks; and even allowing hardened criminals, used more to solitary than infusions , could not be trusted around gas or even electric stoves.  Moreover, none of the convicts had ever cooked in their lives, had grown up on chitlins, fatback, and collards, and anything more exotic was incidental.  Complex breakfasts, fashioned after Turkish kahvalti  seemed to be in order for the new prisoner-prepared meals.  Kahvalti, perhaps the most important meal of the Turkish day consists of cheese, salami, olives, bread, jam, cucumbers, fruit, tomatoes, and potted meat – all possible within the strictures of prison life.  Yet the cheese, tomatoes, sausage, and cucumbers would have to be sliced; the fruit limited to finger food; and the potted meat dispensed with as an outside ingredient.

Image result for images turkish kahvalti

Not only that, but the New Hampshire reformers had totally misjudged the atmosphere within a maximum security prison where life is cheap, freedom not even a faint hope, and a brutal, amoral, survivalist ethos which has no soft edges.

Angola prison, the maximum security state penitentiary of Louisiana is the biggest prison in America. Built on the site of a former slave plantation, the 1,800-acre penal complex is home to more than 5,000 prisoners, 85 percent of whom will die there. Also known as the Farm, Angola took its name from the homeland of the slaves who used to work its fields, and in many ways still resembles a slave plantation today. Eighty per cent of the prisoners are African-Americans and under the surveillance of armed guards on horseback, they still work fields of sugar cane, cotton and corn, for up to 16 hours a day. While successive wardens have attempted to mitigate the Dante-esque conditions of the facility, few have had much success.  It and many other penitentiaries for the country’s most hardened and ineducable prisoners remain closed, impenetrable, nightmarish places.


So it was a nice idea that the reformists from the Northeast had, one based on compassion, love, and progressive idealism; but they soon realized that if their Christian evangelical brothers had been laughed out and the redemptive hope of Jesus Christ rejected out of hand, then what hope was there for Alice Waters, Redzepi, and Jose Andres?

“We aimed too high”, said a representative of the New Hampshire foundation; when in fact they had aimed too low.  Life at their prison was not even a semblance of life on the outside but an inverted, frightening, torturous hell.  Accounts from Angola prison confirmed this.

In a remarkable hearing that explored torture practices at Angola, twenty-five inmates testified…to facing overwhelming violence in the aftermath of an escape attempt at the prison nearly a decade ago.   These twenty-five inmates -- who were not involved in the escape attempt -- testified to being kicked, punched, beaten with batons and with fists, stepped on, left naked in a freezing cell, and threatened that they would be killed.  They were also threatened by guards that they would be sexually assaulted with batons.  They were forced to urinate and defecate on themselves.  They were bloodied, had teeth knocked out, were beaten until they lost control of bodily functions, and beaten until they signed statements or confessions presented to them by prison officials.  One inmate had a broken jaw, and another was placed in solitary confinement for eight years. (MR Magazine)

Rape and sexual assault have always been features of prison life, and rape has been a tool of war recently documented in the ethnic conflicts of Africa; so it is not surprising that it takes on more than a sexual dimension in prison.

A veteran corrections officer, also from Louisiana, described a
similar situation in a recent letter to a newspaper: “There are
prison administrators who use inmate gangs to help manage the
prison. Sex and human bodies become the coin of the realm. Is
inmate ‘X’ writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper and
filing lawsuits? Or perhaps he threw urine or feces on an

‘Well, Joe, you and Willie and Hank work him over, but
be sure you don’t break any bones and send him to the hospital.
If you do a good job, I’ll see that you get the blondest boy in the
next shipment.’” (Christian Parenti)

Chastened but unbowed, the New Hampshire reformers directed their attentions at more congenial level – they would work in prisons where parole was a possibility and where gainful employ in the hospitality industry might be just the incentive for prisoners hoping for a second chance outside prison.  The New Hampshire people convinced prison authorities that cooking not only offered an opportunity in a growing industry, but would offer well-known therapeutic benefits.  The texture, smell, taste, color, and presentation of good food had been shown to have a positive effect on both cooks and diners alike.

The warden, however was reluctant to allow even model prisoners to work with metal knives and forks.  Even in this sub-maximum security prison there were murders and assaults.  Not only that prison gang members would put their ‘slaves’ in the kitchen (how ironic and resonant of the misogynist life outside), and force them to steal utensils for later crafting into weapons.  The authorities agreed to allow plastic knives and forks; but since no chef can possibly prepare a meal without a long, sharp Japanese steel knife and high-pronged, solid fork, the idea failed.  Cooking, it seemed, was not an idea worth pursuing.

Still insistent, the reformers found a minimum security prison, one  to which embezzlers and financial scam artists were sent.  These men were all familiar with fine cuisine and the finest wines, and if they had not themselves worked in the kitchen, were certainly conversant with the best American and European cuisine.  Prison authorities had no difficulty whatsoever in allowing proper cooking equipment in the already well-equipped kitchen.

Image result for images minimum security prison

Some among the reformers, however, wondered whether they, in their insistent desire for reform, compassion, and rehabilitation, were not addressing an audience which needed no attention.  These prisoners’ terms were short, life in the prison was as comfortable as any, and most would return to the financial world once they were released.  Many of those convicted in high-profile financial crimes had served their time; and far from being pariahs in the industry, were welcomed back with open arms.  The skills they had practiced before conviction were as useful to Wall Street as ever; and the parolees would find the new, although more regulated environment, quite congenial.

All of which raises the question – why bother with prisoners at all?  If they were sent to prison for serious crimes, then why should their time behind bars be as unremittingly difficult as possible.   Doing easy time should never be an acceptable risk to criminals.  Angola prison before recent reforms had every right and reason to put inmates in solitary.  Solitary confinement was used as a means of inmate control, either to protect the general inmate population from the prisoner in solitary or the prisoner from his fellow inmates.  It has been used many times as retribution, vengeance, or simply animal punishment.

The infamous Red Hat Cellblock, now on the National Register, used to confine the most dangerous and violent prisoners. These men were required to wear hats swiped with red paint when they worked in the fields. They lived in small, unheated cells with concrete slabs for beds. The windows contained only bars: no glass for protection from the winter chill; no screen to protect against the summer’s insects. The abandoned facility, silhouetted against fields of winter wheat, still has a decrepit electric chair in a neighboring building with wires attached to a rusted generator (Christian Parenti)

Don’t these unrepentant murderers and rapists deserve this or worse?

Aside from the total unworkability and misguided philanthropy of these ‘Cooking For Prisoners’ enterprises and the inadvisability of making prison life easier, using food for social justice distorts the whole idea of good food, enjoyed at a well-set table, in a congenial atmosphere, with good friends and family.  Yet, more and more social justice themes are cropping up in all but purist publications.  The enjoyment of food per se is now considered somewhat sybaritic, and symptomatic of a self-centered, selfish, society indifferent to its ills.   It may be all right to talk about food, but only food with a purpose.  Food kitchens serving other than supermarket seconds, restaurants which hire only recent immigrants or minority staff, urban gardens, and parolee luncheonettes.

This neo-Puritanism is not restricted to food but widespread and becoming universal.   Life without a social justice is meaningless; and thus to restore meaning, all activity must be reformist – or so the argument goes.  Saner, more reflective observers say ‘Nonsense’, history is cyclical, repetitious, predictable.  Human nature guarantees aggression, territorialism, and self-interest in perpetuum, so what’s the fuss?

Image result for images john calvin

Somehow when such social justice reformers get into food, it is hard to look dispassionately and philosophically.   Nothing is more fundamental to life than food and nothing more completely satisfying to all the senses than a good meal.  If that enjoyment is restricted to a select few who know food, cuisine, and its culture, so be it.  Elitism has a place in all cultures.

At last count, the New Hampshire prison reformers had set aside Cooking For Prisoners and moved on to other, easier, and more practicable enterprises.  They have not given up their food link entirely, and have taken up the cause of Chesapeake Bay watermen,  Maine lobstermen, small-scale fishermen out of Portsmouth, and migrant tobacco workers in Connecticut.  Good.  Everyone needs to feel good about what they do.

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