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Low Heat Feast
[ Non-fiction : Incarceration Stories/ ]

Cooking hard grains of rice with a “stinger” is a feat requiring patience, culinary creativity, determination, and bravado.

While a civilian volunteer at a federal prison, I was treated to a “feast” of rice, yogurt, and canned fruit prepared by inmates. Although it only took us a few minutes to eat it and only one preparation was cooked, the meal required more than three hours to prepare. Despite calling it a feast, the inmates acknowledged that it was little more than a snack. But it tasted better with every bite, because the simple food – served in Styrofoam cups with plastic spoons – while not a genuine feast, was certainly a feat worthy of celebration.

Some of the inmates I ate with worked in the prison’s cafeteria, where they either stole or traded cigarettes to acquire canned peaches, packaged yogurt, and a cup of uncooked rice. The rice was the challenge, because it normally takes 20-30 minutes to cook a dish of rice, and inmates rarely have access to hot water, much less water heated to a rolling boil. But sometimes in prison you can enjoy a cup of coffee or weak soup, if you get your hands on a “stinger”.

Outside the walls, versions of the stinger are sold in travel stores, those shops usually found in glittering shopping malls where consumers go to buy luggage and accessories. Alongside the electrical adapters for use in foreign countries, neck wallets, and portable chess sets you’ll find immersion heaters. Plug one end into the electrical socket and then dip the other end – which is usually made of coiled aluminum – into a cup of water. Within a few minutes you’ll have water hot enough to make freshly brewed coffee from freeze-dried instant granules. Or you can serve up “cowboy coffee” by letting regular coffee grains steep in hot water until you have an espresso-strength beverage with enough caffeine in it to make your eyes pop.

An immersion heater crafted in prison is just an electrical cord you can plug into the wall, with one end stripped of its plastic insulation. You can make a stinger our of a cord from an old radio, a lamp, or any other appliance or gadget that you are willing to destroy in exchange for a hot cup of coffee. Get creative and you can soon conjure up everything from steaming Ramen noodles to chicken bouillon soup or hot chocolate, as long as you’re careful not to get busted with your hot wire or electrocuted while making afternoon tea.

In the joint a “stinger” or “dunk”, and is also an item of contraband. Get caught with one and you might lose privileges, get a blemish on your prison record, be subjected to more frequent searches or “tossing” of your cell, or be transferred to a less desirable cell block. But if you are discreet in your use of the stinger and have guards who are somewhat lenient, you might hold on to one for years.

The convict I knew plugged in an old lamp wire, plopped the hot wire into a small pot of water, and spent the best part of the afternoon trying to get the rice to soften. In the end the rice was still brittle in the middle, but cooked enough to make it digestible. Frankly, bragging about the culinary accomplishment and discussing how the low-voltage kitchen was concealed throughout the entire afternoon of cooking time was much more satisfying than the actual dish. We mixed in the syrupy canned peaches and unsweetened yogurt to create a sort of rice pudding, and as we enjoyed it the guards who were assigned to monitor our reading and study group requested a taste and soon returned for second helpings.

Ironically, the cellblock chef who provided this tasty distraction from routine life in the joint became a restaurant manager upon his release into the free world. He attended night school to take hospitality industry classes, and he dreamed of opening his own eatery.

He also ran into some old friends from the old days. They had a few drinks and caught up on street gossip, and then got high together. At first it was just a toot for old time’s sake. Soon he was back into a habit, and within a year of his release – after serving about a decade on drug distribution charges – our chef was found dead of an overdose. But chances are good that his old jailhouse stinger was still in use by some grateful convict back inside the wall. We doubt that anybody ever tried to cook rice with the gizmo, but those who ate that feast probably still remember it from time to time, just to help them pass the time.

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