Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez was an inmate at a Chino, California prison in August 2009 when the race-riots went down. “There were inmates being stabbed, people getting beaten, buildings going up in flames. People were carrying around swords made out of broken windows,” recalls Alvarez.
The black inmates at Chino were trying to break into the Hispanic inmate’s housing units. “We were going to die,” remembers Alvarez. That’s when a couple of “OG Crips” talked to the blood-thirsty youngsters and told them to back down; they listened and retreated. According to Alvarez, the OGs then began feeding soup to the freezing inmates who weren’t being let back into the prison by the guards.
Moments after this near-death experience, Alvarez decided to “change his life and change his way of thinking.” He told the Latinos he was with in the housing unit, “Gather up whatever food you have, and let’s feed these guys.” That’s right, Alvarez and his crew fed ramen to the inmates who were trying to attack them just moments before.
That was the point where it clicked for Alvarez: “I was having a meal with my so-called enemies, but after speaking with them, it was obvious that they were my brothers.”
Alvarez called up his childhood friend, actor Clifton Collins, Jr., and told him his idea for a cookbook inspired by the ramen spread they made the night of the riots, thus setting the stage for Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars.
The book gives insight into prison life through essays and prison hacks from the likes of Shawshank Redemption‘s Clancy Brown, Shia LaBeouf, and formerly incarcerated actor Danny Trejo. Proceeds from the book will benefit Homeboy Industries, the largest and most successful gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world.
We caught up with Prison Ramen co-author Alvarez, who currently lives as a free man in a border town in Baja, Mexico, to have him elaborate on prison life, why pears are so prized, and the redemptive qualities of soup.
Does being able to cook for yourself feel like one of the few liberties you have while in prison?
“It does. Nobody really likes to eat the same old food that they give you, so we use a little imagination. We drain out the tofu-based wannabe meat from the cafeteria spaghetti and keep the noodles, then bring the noodles back and mix them in with a can of ravioli.”
Is being a chef in the prison cafeteria a sought-after position?
“It’s called a ‘grill cook.’ It’s a good position because you have access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and raw eggs that you normally wouldn’t have. You can actually cook your own meals and create something close to home-cooked meals.”
“Like, if I got my hands on a pear… oh my god, are you kidding me?”
Do grill cooks share these “home-cooked” meals with others?
“You got to understand that these guys are inmates, and maybe some of them don’t have people to take care of them on the streets—so they sell. They sell their grilled cheese sandwiches, or breakfast egg sandwiches, or pan-fried burritos that they cooked up on their own. People buy it. Five ramen per sandwich; five soups per sandwich. You have to be in the know to get some of that really good stuff.”
In this jail bartering system, what is the most prized ingredient?
“If you get ahold of some fresh fruit, believe it or not—especially an orange, which you hardly get to taste because they don’t want you making pruno [prison wine]—that’s definitely a plus. Most people are into candy, which is also very hard to get. But I was more into fruit than Snickers. Like, if I got my hands on a pear… oh my god, are you kidding me?”
Outside of the cafeteria, did the inmates eat together?
“Yeah we had ‘spreads,’ which are like prison potlucks. Maybe a group of guys don’t want to go to dinner, so we just want to hang out by the bleachers and watch a baseball or basketball game that’s happening in the yard. One guy is responsible for the canned goods, one for the sodas, one guy brings a side dish or dessert. That’s what we called spreads.”
After Ja Rule’s stint in prison, he mentioned there are actual prison cookbooks that float around with recipes related to different facilities. Do you know anything about that?
“I’m kind of surprised he mentioned that. That’s kind of an in-house thing. That’s something that’s stayed within the prison. There was a couple of guys—especially lifers—that have their collected recipes that they share with people. That’s where I found the idea to make teriyaki sauce out strawberry jam and a little bit of soy sauce. So, yeah, those books are floating around.”
“I could have easily walked down the street and got a shrimp cocktail—but no, I was craving ramen and oysters.”
Do you find yourself craving foods you ate while incarcerated, or have your tastes completely changed?
“Know what I had for dinner last night? I made ramen and I put some smoked oysters, diced jalapeño, onions, cilantro, and a dab of mayo on top. It was screaming. I could have easily walked down the street and got a shrimp cocktail—but no, I was craving ramen and oysters.”
Here are two prison ramen hacks from actors Shia LaBeouf and Neil Brown Jr., courtesy Prison Ramen.
“Ramen Instant Karma” à la Neil Brown Jr.
Brown Jr. says: “I was out late in L.A., on my way to see someone my lady would not have approved of, if you know what I mean. At 1:00 a.m., I was pulled over by a police car. The officers pulled me out of my car. ‘Turn around and put your hands behind your back. You have an outstanding warrant.’ An outstanding warrant? They hadn’t even run my damn ID! I wanted to freak out, but deep down I was starting to feel like something else was up. I didn’t have any warrants; there was nothing they could possibly find. Why the hell am I here?
The officer cuffed me and threw me into the police car. They searched my car, coming up with nothing and clearly getting frustrated. Then another car pulled up. I was bracing myself for the worst. Instead, the officer grabbed my wallet and ran my ID. Then he came over and opened the car door, took the cuffs off, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Thank you for your time. Stay out of trouble.’ That was it. He never told me why I was detained, and the so-called warrant evaporated. They all gave me a look that said, ‘You need to go home now.’
In all, I was detained for nearly two hours. Yes, I was innocent of law-breaking, but now it was too late to step out on my lady as I had been planning to do. I believe it was instant karma, that’s why I didn’t make a fuss. I kept thinking, I’m sorry baby. I’ll never do this again! I love you!”
- 1 pack of chili-flavor ramen
- 1 cup boiling water
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 2 beef sticks (such as Slim Jim), chopped into bite-size pieces
- 1⁄4 cup chopped chives
- Hot sauce
Procedure: Crush the ramen in the wrapper and empty into a bowl. Set aside the seasoning packet. Add the water, cover, and let sit for about 8 minutes. Drain off excess water. Add the seasoning and mix well. Add the mayonnaise, Slim Jims, and chives. Mix well. Add the hot sauce to taste.
“Egg Ramen Salad Sandwich” à la Shia LaBeouf
LaBeouf says: “I have been incarcerated five times. The first time I was only nine years old. It was in Pacoima, California. I was arrested for stealing a pair of Nike Cortezes from a local shop and held for six hours. The second time I was eleven, in the city of Tujunga, California. I was arrested for stealing a Gameboy Pokémon from Kmart. That time, too, I was in a substation for about six hours. The third time I was twenty, in Van Nuys, California. I tried to stab my neighbor and spent two days in jail. While I was there, I at least understood that being in jail is not the move. It sucks ass. The fourth time I was in Chicago and I wouldn’t leave Walgreens, so I was taken to spend the night in jail. For some reason, I had the best sleep ever. The most recent time was 2014, when I was twenty-eight and in New York City. I went to see the play Cabaret. I didn’t behave very well during the performance and ended up spending twenty-five hours or so behind bars. While there, I did have a terrific egg sandwich.
When I’m nervous in my creativity, I think of my failures in life and in art. Thinking about my screwups loosens the grip of fear. It’s freeing to fuck up and to recover.“
- 1 pack chicken flavor ramen
- 1 cup boiling water
- 3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 hoagie or hero roll, split open
- 2 slices American cheese
Procedure: Crush the Ramen in the wrapper and empty into a bowl. Set aside the seasoning packet. Add the water, cover, and let sit for about 5 minutes. Drain off excess water. Add the seasoning and mix well. Combine the eggs and mayonnaise in a separate bowl. Mash and mix well with a fork. Add the Ramen. Mix well. Open the roll and place the cheese in it. Fill the roll with the ramen–egg salad.