Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Emotion Baked In

Are you feeling it?
Whenever I travel around the world, I am struck by how stereo-typically American I am.  My loud voice, my shoes, my appetite for junk food. Try as I may to control these traits, to appear chic and European, it's just not in my DNA or my training. The soundtrack to my life is Tom Petty's American Girl - born and raised on promises. Not complaining, just stating the facts.

One of the most American things about me, and a significant barrier to all attempts to appear en vogue, is my first name:  Amy.  Very American and very '70s:  what a combination!  While it may have French origins, in the form "Amy" the name is a simple, squat, no-frills, little house on the prairie name.  Which famous Amys can you think of?  Amy Poehler, Amy Carter, Amy March.  Can't get more USA, and dorky, then them three gals.  Can you think of any non-USA Amys?  Amy Winehouse.  My list stops there.

Resigned as I am to the State-side banality of my first name, I am constantly seeking out examples of groovy Amys, hopeful that the name may take on new meaning in future generations. So, you can imagine that I was quite thrilled to discover that the author of my most recent, and extremely groovy, read, "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" is Aimee Bender.  (OK, different spelling, but close enough!)

I search for ways to describe how this novel made me feel, what it made me think and ponder.  Reading the book, I felt my brain actually wiggling inside my head, trying to find a place to process and store her words.  What was this thing I was consuming?

What I loved about this book's narrative was that it had meaning even though several of the most critical passages didn't make sense.  She seemed to purposefully obscure the "facts" in order to allow the reader to more fully participate in the construction of the story.  I wish I could bring some of these stylistic approaches into my dissertation.  Must everything really be fully explained and annotated?  Can't some ideas be left to drift and grow inside the reader's imagination?  Or is this type of dialogue necessarily antithetical to "academic" writing?

The book centers around a young girl who experiences the emotions of the people who cooked the food items she eats. Did you get that? So if someone was baking cookies and feeling rushed, Rose would feel and taste this anxiety upon eating the cookie.  While a meal prepared by a happy chef is a joy to experience, more often than not, foods are wrought with negative emotions and, rather than chance it, she often ends up eating processed foods that are produced with little or no human input.  (There is much more to the book that I cannot even begin to capture here.  My advice would be:  Get out your library card.)

What if we all had this strange sense of taste?  Or do we?

Participant #20, from my study of prison foodways, talks about working in the kitchen:


P20:  My mother, I mean, we always had a stove to, you know, fry chicken and stuff on.  But my mother, when she didn’t want to fry, she would get this, like, batter, that she had with eggs and butter and stuff and mix it together and then put it on top of the chicken.  Well, we’ll put the flour on the chicken and then pour the seasoning with the butter and egg on top of the chicken, that’s what I used to do in the prison.  And I would put it in the oven because we didn’t have a stove in the prison, a regular stove.  So, I would put it in the oven and by the time it came out it would look nice and crispy.  To it looked fried.  It tasted like it was fried.  So when the girls came in, they were like OK, where’d we get fried chicken from, we didn’t barely have fried chicken.  So I said, “I baked that myself.”


Participant #2 talks about how prison stews are made:


P2:  Well, what happens is they have four big sized kettles.  I’m not sure exactly how many gallons they are, but they are huge kettles.  Then you have, like, what they call pumper sheets.  And the kettles, there’s two different types of cooks; there’s a loader and there’s a pumper.  A loader takes the ingredients, which is prepared by the warehouse, they put it into the kettle and it cooks a certain temperature.  When it is ready it’s ready to get pumped it goes through this machine and we have about a hundred bags maybe of average and we have label them by a certain number.  Number one, it would be like Chicken Cacciatore or Turkey Louisiana, which is called slops, what we’re making, but they’re, you know, that’s the name of them, and you pump them into the bag; we have four people working at a pump station.  One stickers the bags, 1 through 110 or whatever, and one that puts the bag underneath the machine, one presses the pedal.  The slop comes into the bag, you staple it shut and you hand it to someone who has gloves on cause it’s awfully hot and we put it in a big chiller, which is somewhat like a refrigerator with water and ice and it just circulates it.  

Can you taste the difference?