Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Does food matter?


Here is a food story:

Today we went to Jaime's parents house for lunch.  But wait, let me start from the beginning...

When Jaime's dad was 16, the Spanish economy was even worse than it is today, so he moved to Mexico where he lived and worked for 20 years.  When he returned to Spain, he married Jaime's mom and used the money he had made in Mexico to buy an apartment in Santiago and start a business.  A year or two later, they had a baby boy, then a girl, then another boy.

When Jaime was about 10 years old, his parents purchased a piece of land in the country, about 20 minutes from the city center. Most weekends and some days after work, Jaime's dad went out to the country and worked on this piece of land.  It was a field when they bought it - dirt, wild grass, sky. First they put up a fence to mark the boundary, then a storage building at the back of the property.  A well was dug.

At some point, Jaime's parents started planting:  big trees, little trees, trees with flowers, trees with fruit, grapes, strawberries, vegetables, bushes.  Jaime remembers going out to the "finca" with his siblings to carry pails of water from the well to the new seedlings.  Needless to say, it was not his idea of a good time.

A swimming pool was installed and finally, in the early 1990s, a house was built.  Shortly thereafter, his parents retired:  the business was sold and they went to live on the finca. It is difficult to imagine that there was nothing on the site when they began, the building and planting was all done poco a poco, and now there it is.

Every Sunday, we go to the finca for lunch.  When we arrive, at about 2:30pm, the table is set and the food is all ready.  Jaime's mom does all the cooking every week.  The food is never fussy - simple, delicious and fresh.  Jaime's mom was a school teacher before she got married and worked in the store after that.  She loves to travel and read.  Cooking is something she does on the side, it's not her main gig.

We sit at the large table in the kitchen.  There are no assigned seats, but we always sit in the same place.  Jaime's dad is at the head of the table, with Jaime and his mom on either side.  Jaime's sister and I sit across from each other in the middle of the table and Jaime's brother, Javier and Edith sit on the end.  Edith at the foot of the table, por supuesto.  Jaime and his parents usually drink wine, while the rest of us prefer the water that comes from a well in the finca, or soda.  The women talk more than the men, but everyone gets a say.  We talk about the news of the day, politics, things at work, family, religion, school.

The meal always includes fish or meat with salad and vegetables from the garden.  Tomatoes and lettuce in the summer months, greens. carrots and potatoes in the winter.
Potatoes and peppers from the finca.  Water from the well.
Usually, the adults serve themselves from large dishes that are placed at the center of the table after the children have been served.  On some days, Jaime's mom will serve me, Jaime and his siblings as well - beginning always with me and giving me the biggest piece on the dish.  Dessert is fruit from the finca - apples, pears, strawberries or kiwi, depending on the season.  Jaime's sister likes yogurt for dessert.  Most of the grown-ups drink coffee.  On special occasions or holidays there may be cookies or a yellow cake.

People react in different ways when I tell them I am collecting narratives about prison food and eating from formerly incarcerated women in order to build knowledge about the experience of incarceration.  Some react with curiosity and interest - they want to know what I have found.  Others do not.  One professor who I spoke to about my project told me she couldn't see how stories about prison food were relevant to social work.  So, that's my job, to make the case for why this is all relevant.  Miller & Deutsch do a great job discussing the power of food in their book, Food Studies.  They write, "many facets of the human experience can be accessed through what is eaten, avoided, no longer or more often eaten, and of course, what is produced and prepared and how it is done" (p. 8).

Hopefully, this story of our Sunday lunches helps to illustrate this point.  History of country, family and individuals all come into play.  Gender roles, generational dynamics, power and control.

We had strawberries for dessert today.  Everyone got a small bowl of fruit that had been washed and prepared by Jaime's mom.  There was whipped creme to put on top.  Jaime's mom pointed out how easy it is to create whipped creme and how much better it tastes than the creme that can be bought at stores.
Javier with his "fresas con nata" - a fruit with a story.
The red fruit sliding down our throats was so much more than dessert - it was the culmination of 60 years of work, a vision realized, a small piece of a much bigger story.

None of the women I spoke to about prison food ever mentioned eating strawberries while incarcerated.  In fact, fresh fruit is apparently quite a rare item inside.  But let's just imagine that strawberries were served at YCI one night for dessert.  Could be the same fruit, but it would be a whole other story.  It's not exactly the food that matters but the what, the where, the who and everything that goes on before, during and after that edible items touches your lips.