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In ‘Prison Ramen,’ Author Gustavo Alvarez Wants to Put Inmates’ Culinary Ingenuity on Full Display

Currently and formerly incarcerated people’s instant noodle recipes shed new light on the commissary staple

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How can instant ramen become popcorn, trail mix, a bologna sandwich, Vietnamese teriyaki, and chili mac? And, more importantly, why would you want it to? As Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez learned during 13 years spent in and out of prison, it takes pretty desperate circumstances to inspire this level of instant noodle ingenuity. For people who are incarcerated and don’t have access to good food, instant ramen is worth its weight in gold. “It’s a necessity in prison,” Alvarez told Gastropod co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley as part of their latest episode, “We’d Like to Teach the World to Slurp.” “If they were to take Maruchan or Cup O’ Noodles out of the system, I think there’d be mayhem.”

Alvarez told Gastropod that ramen is a lot more than just a noodle behind bars. “It’s about survival, eating and getting full so that you can make it to the next day,” he said — but its also a vehicle for culinary self-expression and creating community in an environment where both can be sorely lacking. “You can add your cultural ingredients to it and make it your own — I’ve seen dishes from as far as Mexico, to the Philippines, to Africa,” explained Alvarez, who collected many of these recipes in his book, Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars. “You can make something out of nothing depending on what ingredients you have to give.”

Read on for more of Gastropod’s conversation with Alvarez on how a dorm-room standby became such a necessity behind bars, including the most creative ramen hacks and the surprising story of how ramen helped quell a prison riot.

Gastropod: What was your first encounter with ramen?

Goose Alvarez: Frankly, I never tasted it on the streets. I’d never even heard of it. I’m of Mexican descent, so it was tortillas and beans growing up. I didn’t come across it until I started going to juvenile hall, which was in my teens, and I would see it at the commissary — either Cup O’ Noodles, or the square Maruchan.

We started with the Cup O’ Noodles first, and I didn’t like it. I’m like, No, this is kind of disgusting! This isn’t a soup — I’ll show you a soup. But as you did years or months or whatever in prison, you start to notice how others would cook with it. And I started thinking, man, that smells pretty good. Let me taste it. And then once you try it, now you start craving it. Now you start making your own recipes.

Why is ramen such a staple in prisons?

Everybody in prison, even if they don’t eat it, they have it. It’s in their locker. It’s used to barter, so you have to have it in order to get stuff. It became the go-to because it would blow up in your stomach, keep you full. You didn’t eat very well in there.

To be frank, when I started in the early ’90s, the food was very delicious. They would give you four square meals; they actually had a chef who would go train inmates to cook. The Department of Corrections — they stopped allowing trades to go and rehabilitate men. But that’s a different story.

As years went on and they eliminated these programs, it got to the point where now they were just giving you two hot meals: One in the morning, and then a bag of cheese, bread, maybe a peanut butter squeezy thing, and an apple. You’d have a warm dinner, but it would probably be fake meat, maybe some vegetables and some applesauce. These guys are grown men — some of them 200, 300 pounds — and they can’t live off that.

They would stock up with tuna fish, sardines, whatnot from the commissary, so they can implement another meal at night with their ramen and get the proteins that they need to withstand the night, the next day.

Most people had to survive off it, even though I know the FDA could say a lot of things about it. It’s not healthy, it’s not good for you. But at the time, it’s about survival, eating, and getting full so that you can make it to the next day, you know?

Tell us about the riot that changed your view of ramen.

I was a clerk at the time, a lieutenant’s clerk, and as I’m coming back from work I get a message from somebody. And he’s like, “Look man, go back to your cell block; at about 5 o’clock, everybody’s gonna go off.”

By the time I got to my cell block, I noticed everybody grouping: all the Black inmates on one side, all the Hispanics on the other, and the whites were already in their corner ready to escape. The cops, before it escalated, literally opened up their windows and ran out, leaving us in the cell blocks. Like thunder, or like horses running, you hear each cell block ignite with a fight. We finally got to our cell block, and we got to see through the window the next barrack adjacent to us ignite on fire.

All the Black inmates were coming out of one window, and they were trapped in between our barrack and theirs. They looked into our barrack and they saw us grouped in a corner, about eight Hispanics, and they started telling the Black inmates in our barrack, “Hey! Get them, kill them! Why are you guys standing there? Go kill them!”

The Black inmates in our barracks didn’t want any part of it. They escaped out the window, and the other guys started to follow. But I wanted to rip pictures off the wall of my kids, [who] I hadn’t seen in so long. That’s the only thing I had of them. As I was ripping the pages, I was getting mad. I’m not gonna take 80 pictures down in time. So I said, “I’m not leaving my kids.” And so then, the guys that were with me said, “Well, we’re not leaving you either.” So, they stayed there with me as the other inmates were breaking down the door.

The door opened enough for bodies to start coming through. In that instant, in that moment, an older Black gang member, who we never talked to, walked directly to the hundred inmates and said, “Hey, you guys are not coming in here.” I’m watching him calm the storm to the point where they stopped, and then he just sat there talking to them. He walks back to his locker; grabs a Snickers bar, some chips; and gives it to one guy out of a hundred, [saying] to share the food.

So something, bing, clicked in me. I told the guys: Go in all these lockers and get all the food, get all the soups, get all the ramen. We got buckets, just filled them up, and started making what we call “the spread.” A potluck. Noodles and sausage and tuna, mixed with ramen and hot water. We filled three buckets full.

We fed them, and I started talking with my enemy. It’s a simple noodle, but it was the equalizer to two hardcore enemies, you know? And it’s been a blessing since.

What are some of the unexpected recipes that you can make with ramen?

There’s this one recipe I have where you cut the brick in half without separating it, and you spread peanut butter and jelly, a couple of raisins, and maybe some trail mix on top. That’s a healthy snack. We used to eat it right before our workout.

Another is making a sandwich out of it. Leave it just the way it is in the packet, warm it up a minute so it’s still kind of crunchy. And you put bologna, cheese in between, you have what we call a ramen witch.

Crush it in the bag, put the seasoning in there, watch a movie eating ramen as popcorn.

These guys from Vietnam showed me how to make teriyaki. Get some strawberry jam and soy sauce. Mix it together with a little bit of garlic powder. And I would put it in my noodles.

Are there instant ramen recipes that you still eat to this day?

My favorite recipe is actually not in the book. It’s a smoked oyster ramen. I chop a white onion, very, very finely. Cilantro. One jalapeño, diced.

I boil the ramen, dump the water out, so the noodles are fluffy. I put a little spoonful of mayonnaise, chili seasoning. And then I go ahead and put the cilantro, the jalapeño, and the onion. And then I put the smoked oysters on top. Mix it up, put a little sriracha on top. Some crackers. I’m good to go.

I’ll talk to ex-cons that are out here with me and we’ll both agree to this: it doesn’t taste the same anymore. Why? I don’t know. But maybe it’s because of the situation we were in, we appreciated it more. Now that we’re home, we’re like, ahh, you know, I could go have some delicious lobster seafood down the street.

But I have some in my cupboard still, I’m not gonna lie. On occasion I’ll make it when I have the family come over, or sometimes I’ll just crave it. I’ll make myself a quick chili mac, or the oyster ramen. To this day, it’s not something just to fill me up. There are actual cravings I have. I don’t think I’m ever gonna lose that craving after eating it for so long.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.