In relation to food preparation today, for many Kiwi households make-do options have been replaced with McDonald's. But not in our prisons, where culinary ingenuity is still quite something.
Last week RNZ reported a story that two prisoners watched an episode of River Cottage and learned how to cultivate a bug and make yogurt in their cells to supplement their standard jail fare.
The yogurt was so popular it was surreptitiously supplied to other prisoners, and it was reported that it was even smuggled into prisons up and down the country, although the latter smelled less like freshly made yogurt and more like the whiff of urban legend.
Either way, this prison pudding is far from the only jail-house recipe. Prison abounds with such culinary innovation; and these tell us much about life in confinement.
With few ingredients and cooking facilities, one might imagine culinary creations are limited in jail. But that's not the case. Rough approximations of cake, pizza, and ice cream are all on the unofficial menu. But before I get to those, one obviously requires something to wash such things down.
Prison hooch - rough and ready alcohol - has been around in prison for decades; and particularly popular around Christmas time, because who doesn't enjoy a festive tipple? In Greg Newbold's classic memoir of prison life during the late 1970s, The Big Huey, he describes brews being made of raisins, prunes, fresh fruit, rice, potatoes or tea leaves. He also talked of drinking a mixture of Old Spice aftershave and milk, which did the trick but led to terrible Old Spice burps. Hand sanitiser – rather more common than Old Spice, these days – is currently consumed with similar effects.
But just like in the 70s, more sophisticated methods are favoured. And this means brewing cocktails that require time, teamwork, and rat cunning.
The basic recipe for prison hooch is crushed fruit – primarily apples that are hoarded by a number of prisoners – mixed with sugar and water in a container or plastic bag, sealed and then kept warm (some prisoners sleep with them) that must remain undetected, despite the distinctive smell, for up to two weeks. How these brews are hidden is a remarkable testament to dedication and luck, particularly because they are continually fed with sugar and fruit, and must be regularly "burped", or the fermentation process means they'll explode.
While some prisoners smuggle in turbo yeast, which accelerates the fermentation and speeds the whole process up, others use marmite or bread - but the yeast in those is actually dead, so it's unlikely they make any difference. Most likely yeast is actually drawn from the environment in a process known as spontaneous fermentation, where the naturally occurring yeasts on the fruit and in the air are put to work creating a microbial population to grow on its own. On the outside, this is sometimes done with wine, and is increasingly fashionable with craft beer.
The taste results of jail booze are varied, so I'm told, ranging from hideous – even when mixed with Raro – to an acceptable cider flavour, and they're often fairly strong. Consequently, a common accompaniment is alcohol-fuelled violence. Unsurprisingly, prison staff take a dim view of prison brews.
More benign culinary initiatives are plentiful, though. Prison cakes are made as a treat after a canteen buy up, or to celebrate a prisoner's birthday. Plain biscuits are crushed up, mixed with peanut butter, and packed down to make the base. Then milk powder and milk are mixed together with pieces of chocolate and microwaved. Fancier bakers then break biscuits and sprinkle them on the finished product. These cakes are a real luxury, because the ingredients are expensive on meagre prison wages.
More affordable is prison pizza, which is created by removing crusts from bread (saved from prison meals) and kneading what remains into a base, then smothering that with a mixture of jam and chilli sauce, before topping it with whatever is at hand, then seasoning with the contents of 2-minute noodle sachets and cooked in toasted sandwich makers.
For the hotter days – many New Zealand prisons are notoriously hot in summer – a form of ice cream is made with milk powder, broken up biscuits, and perhaps some fruit pieces that is then placed in the freezer. If it's done right, the biscuits and fruit are pushed to the top as it freezes, creating a layering effect. It's sure as heck not Tip Top, but Mr Whippy hardly comes calling either.
These creations aren't replicated on the outside when prisoners return to the community. frankly, none are remotely good enough. They're simply a needs-must approach from people who have little and are making do.
And while some are strictly against prison rules, I nevertheless choose to see in them at least a dash of good ol' Kiwi can-do spirit.
Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the Director of Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury.