In minimum security, the cook-ups took place on empty top bunk beds. Mattresses were removed, and four or five prisoners would gather around the makeshift table with beef sticks, cheese sticks, squeeze cheese, turkey sticks, dried beans, rice, bags of chips, pickles, jalapenos, packs of tuna, and anything else worth wrapping up in a tortilla.

Square soap dishes became knives that cubed and diced meat sticks. Chip bags were torn down the seams and used as plates and cutting boards. “Carry-out” containers from the commissary’s hot food became serving bowls in which nachos were piled on top of sheets of notebook paper that were made into liners to keep grease off the bowls.

The jail burrito was the most common dish. One of the first I witnessed was made by my friend, Ed, who went by the name Chef Home Boy ‘R E-D. He and his crew put together the biggest and baddest cook-ups in general, and I learned a lot from watching him. If I owned a bakery, I’d hire Ed as a pastry chef when he gets out.

But he was also a master of the jail burrito. Rice and refried beans made up the base, which was spread thick across the tortillas and topped with tuna soaked in jalapeno-infused pickle brine. Generous portions of cubed beef and pepper turkey sticks topped the tuna, followed by pickle cubes, and slices of pickled jalapenos. Ed next drizzled jalapeno squeeze cheese mixed with the pickle brine around the pile.

Stephen Katz (a pseudonym) writing for the Detroit Metro Times about eating at the Detroit-area Oakland County Jail.  The state of Michigan started contracting with the food service megacorporation Aramark in late 2013, and since then Michigan jail meals have been plagued with a series of gruesome problems. As Katz puts it, “a convincing argument can be made that jail food should be pretty gross, but what it shouldn’t be is rotten, maggot-infested, pulled out of the garbage, or gnawed on by rats.” Cook-ups are the jailhouse equivalent of a potluck, where prisoners will pool ingredients purchased in the commissary.

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