Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work


If you ever decide to become an academic and write a wonderful book and then, ten years later, find that your book is #941,722 on Amazon's list and all the Internet images of the cover are blurry, don't take it personally.  You are in good company.

In 1999, Professor Carole M. Counihan wrote a wonderful book called, The Anthropology of Food and Body:  Gender, Meaning, and Power, that you can sort of make out in the image above.  She is an anthropologist, perhaps the anthropologist, who studies gender and power by examining food.   She has a technique which she calls "food-centered life histories," which I hope to learn more about and use some day.  She is the editor of a journal called, "Food and Foodways," which publishes all kinds of intriguing food-related research.  She spells her name like Carole King.  What other information do you need?  Let's put her in the "cool" column.

This book is a collection of her writings about food, power and gender.  Unlike some people, who choose to study the food in a prison in a small US state, the focus of Dr. Counihan's work is the culture and food of Sardinia, Italy. (The bread, the pomarola - can you imagine the fieldwork?  I told you she was clever.)  Many of the book's chapters describe her work in Italy but she also shares her research about food, power and gender in the United States.  For me, it is a real example of feminist scholarship, not just in the theory and arguments that she presents, but in the non-traditional way that she presents her ideas.  She has collected stories from women of all ages, children, pregnant women, college students - it's a zany mix.  There are pictures and recipes.  She writes about her self and her development as a researcher and a person.

And, on top of all that, she taught me a new vocabulary word: execrate.  As in:

"In most cultures people define as edible only certain products 
and execrate many other potentially edible substances" (p. 7).

Google, the keeper of all knowledge, defines execrate as "To feel or express great loathing." goes a step further and defines the word as, "To declare to be evil."  Wow.  That's a mighty word.  Seems like something you should say while holding Harry Potter's wand.

This idea of evil food is one that dwells very present in my mind nowadays that I am living in a land where basically all food is some form of smoked pork.  I find chorizo, jamon, lomo and all the other piggy products to be quite delicious, but I do wonder...  After all, so many cultures execrate pork.  Was eating from this plate last weekend really such a good idea?

The formerly incarcerated women who I interviewed very clearly and consistently execrate the strange and mysterious protein pellets that are mixed into many of the prison stews, or slops.

"They use protein pellets.  They don’t know the thing about protein pellets.  I heard it’s a filling to make the food expand.  It looks like a little ball but if you get it wet, it gets big.  Not that big, but it expands, it’s like dough.  They put it in food.  I don’t know if it’s for, I don’t know, like the myths, I hear different things.  
They put it in the food for the food to expand out.  So, I knew it was in red sauce.  
Anything that looked like gravy and stuff like that, I knew that they put them protein pellets in it and I just wouldn’t eat it…" (Participant #6)

The content and tone of this participant's narrative about the pellets is typical.  The origin of the pellets is not known.  The purpose of the ingredient is suspect.  Food containing this item is avoided all together unless the pellets can be completely extracted from the dish.  Several women claimed to be allergic to the product.  While many different types of food were described as undesirable or disgusting, this was the only one that seemed to approach the concepts of evil and loathing.

I would suggest that the sentiment attached to this food item reflects the dynamics of power that Counihan writes so eloquently about.  Individual power is clearly restrained in prison.  The institution determines when, where and under what conditions food will be served.  The menu is fixed.  This is the reality.  It is tolerated.  It is managed.  But when the food that is presented is unrecognizable and unknown, there is resistance.  The line is drawn.  The food is execrated