The invitations are individual works of art: small, appliquéd American flags of red, white, and blue. The picnic tables are set in the shade of the tree and decorated with flowers of mauve, pink and yellow. The guests are fashionably dressed in varying shades of the year’s hottest color, orange. It sounds trés chic, but the flags are made of construction paper and glue, the metal tables are under the lone tree on the gray prison yard and the orange is the ugly uniform of an inmate.
A party in prison? Yes, they happen, mostly for birthdays, and this one is for three of us. Melissa, Candace, and me…all July babies. Because we all have different friends, not all the guests know each other so I decide on a game, my old favorite, ‘Get Acquainted Bingo’. I’ve painstakingly drawn twenty bingo cards with grids and have my precious colored pencils ready to distribute to each guest. The object of the game is to get each square signed by a different person until the entire sheet is signed…a Bingo blackout. It forces you to circulate and talk to everyone. The squares are tailored to your guest list.
I’m frankly a bit nervous as I distribute the cards and give instructions. After all, this is prison. Will these women be too “cool” for a silly game? I’ve successfully played this from Phoenix to Portugal with ages from 8 to 80, but this is a totally different audience. As they look at the cards, there is complete silence; I hold my breath. Suddenly in unison, they jump up and start darting around getting the coveted signatures. It’s working! They are talking and laughing…actually mixing, just like in real life. Finally, we hear “Bingo!” The proud winner is Lisa, a darling young woman who has served fourteen years of a sixteen-year sentence. She wins a bottle of DOM Perryville; a very young vintage of Ginger Ale that Candace has decorated with a Champagne label.
Time for the appetizers. Potluck is a tradition in prison. Everyone brings a dish to show off her culinary skills…a huge challenge here. Inmates are allowed to buy a very limited array of food items from the ‘company store.’ Almost everything available is junk. Lots of chips and candy, but only three items of protein…peanut butter, tuna and beans. These make up the bulk of our menus. What can you do with junk food? The creations are amazingly delicious and ultra high in carbs and calories.
Val’s hors d’oeuvres are a hit. She made cheesy tuna roll-ups…tuna, mayonnaise, cheese and jalapenos rolled up in tortillas cut into bite size pieces using our cutting tool, the edge of our very small plastic mirror. No knives allowed. Val even made a serving tray by painting and decorating the bottom of the box that brownies come in, lining it with a chic magazine ad. Not exactly hygienic, but certainly pretty. The roll-ups are served with a tasty sauce made from squeeze cheese, mayonnaise and powdered milk. No seasoning allowed, but somehow inmates find a way.
Candace made a yummy sour cream and onion cheese dip. Take a bag of Sour Cream and Onion Potato Chips and crush them to a fine powder by keeping them in the bag and using a water bottle to crush. The bag is also your mixing bowl. Add three packages of squeeze cheese, milk and jalapeno juice to taste. Consistency should be creamy. Serve in a bowl with chips or crackers.
For the main course, the tables are filled with our beautiful prison ‘china’…white plastic bowls filled with various delicacies. We’re only allowed one small bowl so ‘cooking’ is a challenge. Most inmates actually have two bowls, but the second one is contraband so on quarterly “shakes”, the Correctional Officers routinely throw it away. Then for twenty-five cents, everyone buys a new one. It gives the company store more business and inmates then have two bowls for the next three months. It’s a prison game. Everyone plays.
The highlights of the main course are euphemistically called “Pasta with Tuna” and “Sour Cream Chicken”. (Recipes included). Do not consider making these unless you are rail thin, have ridiculously low cholesterol and just love junk food, because it is indeed junk food.
After we’ve eaten much more than our stomachs are used to, desserts are forthcoming. First, we are tempted by delicious chocolate cake made with candy bars. I made chocolate mint truffles, lots of work and well worth it…easy to serve and bite size. I, too, decorated a brownie box for serving. In an ugly place, we appreciate the efforts to make things pretty.
Finally, comes the piéce de résistance…Melissa’s lemon birthday cake, star shaped and decorated with stars. Melissa was sick the week before the party. For a few precious days she got meals in her room when dessert was lemon pudding. She carefully saved it for icing and filling. The cake itself was a mix of Vanilla Zingers and Dunkin’ Sticks layered with the lemon filling. She carefully worked it into the shape of a star , then iced it all with a mixture of pudding, milk and lemon drops melted in hot water. The extra stars were made by rolling Star Bursts flat with a water bottle (yes, it takes forever) and then using our special mirror cutting tool to cut the star shapes. The effort’s intense and they look fantastic, shiny, colorful and sparkly. It is the most beautiful cake I’ve seen in prison, and we dub Melissa the Martha Stewart of Perryville.
Of course, no birthday party would be complete without singing and presents. The singing is enthusiastic and the presents very special…all handmade with love. Except for mine. I have a “Hair” milestone. The girls give me rollers and mascara this year. Last year, I had lost all of my hair and eye lashes to chemotherapy and was painfully bald. This year I have hair to roll!
Despite the fences, we can still see the sky turn all the gorgeous sunset hues of the Arizona desert. The sky mellows our party talk to past birthdays in prison and out. Melissa’s 28 years old; Candace is 40; I hit 59. The hardest milestone is Candace’s. Turning 40 in prison is not exactly reason to celebrate. She’s due for release in three weeks and fears starting over with nothing. But I know that with her energy and drive, she’ll be on top again in the blink of an eye. Melissa fears she is loosing her youth and the best years of her life, but she is beautiful with a perfect figure and excellent mind. I know her best years are in front of her.
From the prospective of our ages, our fears are different. I’ve lost everything and am essentially homeless. I fear being a bag lady, sleeping under a bridge somewhere, but then I stop, knowing that’s ridiculous. I am blessed with a brain, energy, enthusiasm, friends, and faith. I know I will not be under a bridge.
It’s a wonderful day to celebrate and practice the little niceties of life. We’re so isolated, in such an ugly place, but we use our creative energy to produce a pretty party to share with friends. It’s the closest thing to normal possible behind the razor wire. It lifts our spirits and brings laughter into our lives. No matter where you are or what your circumstance, we are all creative spirits with much to contribute and share. Sharing that creativity and joy will give meaning to your life…inside or out.
Believe it or not, Recipes that are Absolutely Delicious and Completely Bad for You
Sour Cream &Onion Chicken
Small amount of milk (pilfered from somewhere)
2 pouches of chicken in gravy (mostly gravy)
1 bag Sour Cream & Onion Potato Chips (finely crushing chips in the bag using a water bottle)
Grilled potatoes pilfered from breakfast
1. Boil 1 cup of water with heating coil. Pour into bowl, and immerse pouch of chicken & gravy. Heat up about 3 minutes.
2.Pour ½ bag crushed chips in 2nd bowl. Add warm chicken and mix well.
3.Add some potatoes and keep mixing. Add chopped jalapeños to taste and some milk to smooth consistency.
4.Repeat with the 2nd pouch.
5.When it’s all mixed well, combine the bowls. Then wash out empty bowl and line with Saran Wrap. Add all the mixture to this bowl, pressing tightly to make a mound.
6.Turn out on a serving box you’ve decorated with pretty magazine ads and covered with Saran Wrap you’ve pilfered from somewhere. Decorate the mound with 2 whole ships and surround it with crackers. Alternatively, you can roll it up in tortillas and serve.
Pasta with Tuna
1 Ramen Vegetable Noodle Soup 1 Tuna pouch
½ bag Sour Cream Chips (crush chips by using a water bottle)
1 ½ Squeeze Cheese Packets 3 Mayonnaise Packs
Whole or Chopped Jalapeños (to taste) Salt & Pepper (pilfered from D.R.)
1. Boil water and add to soup to cover pasta. Let sit until all the water is absorbed with the pasta.
2. In a bowl, mix well Tuna, ½ cheese pack, 3 mayonnaise packs, salt & pepper.
3. In another bowl, mix crushed chips with one pack cheese and a little hot water. Mix so it looks like cheese chunks. Then mix it all together with the tuna.
4. Add Jalapeños to taste. Serve with crackers.
Chocolate Mint Truffles
6 Brownies, mashed in a bowl
4 Dunkin Sticks, well crushed in a bowl
6 Peppermints, finely crushed
2 pats of butter with melted cocoa to taste. (You have to sneak the butter out of the kitchen. If caught, it’s a major ticket for stealing off of your own tray).
1. Mix brownies in a bowl to a consistency of fudge.
2. Mix Dunkin Sticks to a doughy texture in another bowl.
3. Combine and add melted butter. Texture should be like fudge.
4. Add cocoa to taste.
5. To crush peppermints, throw them, wrapped in paper, very hard on the floor. Roll crushed bits with a water bottle to crush more. Take out the big bits and eat them! Then add the crushed bits to the truffle mix and mix well. Roll out truffles to the size of a small cherry tomato. Sprinkle with cocoa powder.
6. Chill and serve on a brownie box you’ve painted and then layered with pretty magazine paper, covered with cling film (also pilfered from someone’s sack lunch.)
Happy Birthday, July Babies