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Beyond porridge: pigeon in a kettle and other prison-cell cuisine

Beyond porridge: pigeon in a kettle and other prison-cell cuisine

A while ago, as I sat in a hotel bedroom in Ottawa, I pondered the problems of eating breakfast while away from home. It’s all very well if your hotel offers a buffet of freshly-cut tropical fruit and eggs cooked to order. But suppose you’re faced with a stodgy supermarket croissant and a sausage of dubious provenance? I’ve solved this problem by travelling with a supply of porridge-oats, raisins, and a spoon. These and the “guest amenity” coffee machine near the minibar generally do me fine. I’m pretty satisfied with my hotel room life hack, but just sometimes, overnight muesli gets a little tedious. What else, I wondered, could I eat?

The answer turns out to be: more than you expected. A quick tour of the internet reveals that an entire cooked breakfast can be prepared in any moderately-equipped hotel bedroom. There are more than 10,000 videos demonstrating how to cook bacon with an iron, in case you’re interested. You can soft-boil an egg in a coffee machine carafe, or even prepare a spinach and cheese omelette, using the iron and some aluminium foil – which featured strongly in most of the recipes. It was quite a revelation.

A sociologist told me that when he started university in 1964 the tutor advised all freshers to get hold of one key text that would prove essential to their future studies. Pencils poised, they eagerly prepared to note down the details. Would it be a work by Max Weber? Émile Durkheim? Erving Goffman? It turned out to be Cooking in a Bedsitter by Katherine Whitehorn, which explains how to construct elegant meals with limited equipment and space. “The lecturer read a short extract before turning to the demographic transition model of population,” he recalls.

It was good advice. Undergraduates, like travellers, often end up cooking in a bedroom. But what about people obliged to cater in truly confined spaces? Students and travellers, like the residents of bedsits, can leave their room to shop for eggs and foil, or for that matter to treat themselves to an entire meal at a restaurant. But for the 85,277 men and women currently held in custody in the UK’s 120-odd prisons, the challenges posed by eating are of an entirely different magnitude.

Within these walls

Organisations such as Food Matters have demonstrated the obstacles inmates face in their efforts to supplement their diet. While some prisons offer cooking facilities, in most cases prisoners are expected to eat the meals provided by a catering service. A recent project at Wandsworth Reform Prison found that inmates routinely felt underfed and were often unsatisfied with the food on offer. This is not surprising, given that the average spend on food per prisoner per day is about £2. Conjuring up three meals on this amount is no easy task – for comparison’s sake, in 2014 a single school dinner cost on average £2.10.

In response, prisoners develop creative ways of cooking for themselves. The first step is getting hold of ingredients. Few prisons permit inmates to cook in their cells, but it’s hard to explain why canteens sell onions and garlic unless it’s a tacit acceptance that they are likely be used for precisely this purpose. The next step is preparation. The same kettle that underpins the hotel-room breakfast and dormitory snack can also be put to work in a prison cell.

A simple trick starts with an empty golden syrup tin. By fitting the tin into the top of a kettle you can create what is essentially a double boiler. The steam from the boiling water will heat up the tin and make it possible to warm up milk and make proper (as opposed to instant) porridge. Removing the thermostatic control stops the kettle switching off, essential for boiling noodles or bacon – or preparing more elaborate meals.

First catch your pigeon

Inside Time, a magazine aimed at prisoners and detainees, explains how to make “boil-in-the-bag pigeon breast”. Once a pigeon has been trapped and butchered, the recipe reads:

Using the plastic sealable bag from the brew packs, place the pigeon breasts into the bag, adding a knob of butter, salt & pepper and some chopped chillies (if you can get them). Seal the bag and drop it into your kettle with water and boil for 25 minutes. Then leave to stand for a further 15 minutes before serving.

The use of kettles in this way leads to regular power outages, unsurprisingly.

An entire vegetable soup complete with a sofrito base of sautéed onions and garlic can be prepared in a suitably modified electric kettle. People who lack kettles can construct a water heater out of a stripped-down power cable attached to a metal nail-clipper. This device can then be used to heat larger quantities of water, in which a plastic bag containing pasta – or the makings of marinara sauce – can be suspended, according to Daniel Genis in his illuminating article on “The Fine Art of Cooking in Prison”. He also explains how to fashion a wok out of another electric cable and a tin can.

To return to my hotel room in Ottawa, a gulf separates my insignificant breakfast dilemma from the daily dietary challenges facing inmates in Her Majesty’s Prisons. Yet the same electric kettle unites us. When the chief inspector of prisons announced in 2015 that a facility in my own county of Warwickshire would begin issuing kettles to inmates, The Sun harrumphed about the cushy treatment being lavished on rapists and paedophiles.

That’s one way of looking at it. I prefer to think of the chain of humanity, symbolised by that kettle. It connects students, international travellers, prisoners and residents of bedsits, converted garden sheds, temporary housing and the other challenging accommodation options in which increasing numbers of us reside in today’s unstable and unsettling world.