The kettle simmers. A whiff of steam rises in the air, spreading the aroma of the softening onion, garlic and peppers. I watch Baz’s every move with wonder. His cooking demeanour is a blend of Jaimie’s enthusiastic chaos and Gordon’s growling authority. Although we share a cell, when it comes to food Baz rules the roost.
“Yo C, buss open the tuna and save the oil. Make sure you don’t throw it away!” Now I consider myself a bright and a decent cook, but I’m also a master at avoiding potential conflict. Knowing Baz’s temperament, I act like a barely competent sous chef. This has a yoghurt effect in soothing his spicy mood as it heats up. I open the tins: one tin, two tins, three tins, four. Our cell is like a Michelin star eaterie. The cost of a meal is the price of a tin of tuna and a contribution of rice and vegetables.
Strip a man of his liberty and mod cons and he will become creative. A travel kettle is our stove, our pot, our pan. Dishes are made up of a variety of ingredients, which can be bought from the weekly canteen sheet. Extra food stuffs that are not supplied on the sheet can be got at a price from the prison kitchen workers, who have established a thriving ‘export’ business, smuggling spices, flour etc in their boxers to successfully navigate the routine body searches.
Having softened the vegetables, Baz divides the mix into two kettles and adds more oil. “C, grab the seasoning, the pepper sauce and curry powder!” Baz barks before adding, “Sorry, please, thanks.” Like an alchemist, Baz adds a bit of this and a bit of that before stirring in the tuna. He asks me to taste to see if it’s missing anything. I delve the plastic spoon into the stew bubbling in the kettle and drop a little taster on my hand. I bring my hand to my mouth and let my tongue absorb the flavoursome sauce. The attention put into the dish is only too evident in the taste, which makes a welcome alternative to the often bland, mass produced slop that is churned out in the kitchen. Care is the special ingredient.
There is something about the making and eating of food which brings inmates together. We are able to cook meals that make a statement about us: what we like, our cultures and our identities. Food can be friendship affirming. The warmth of a shared meal can melt the frosty atmosphere, it can help someone removed from his life to reconnect with memories of better days and wet the appetite for food that is yet to come. I know when I cook I put a bit of my heart into it, as I have seen Baz selflessly do on many occasion. With limited and improvised equipment: blunt plastic knives (we are not allowed metal cutlery) and restricted time, the preparation of a meal for others means something special and it is without a doubt food for the soul.