personal essay

I’ve Spent the Last 19 Years in State Prisons — My Signature $50 Nachos Are Helping Me Through It All

published May 6, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Blackwell, Shutterstock; Illustrations: Daniel R. Longan

It’s Friday, which means it’s store day at the Washington Corrections Center, the prison where I live. The noise in the unit is deafening. Sixty very excited incarcerated men rush back to their tiny cells with the commissary (items we can buy using our prisoner bank accounts) we’ve just received. We all rip the paper bags open and begin tearing through the soaps, chips, sodas, and other “zoom zooms” and “wham whams” (prison terms used for snacks and goodies). 

Back in my cell, I’m doing the same thing. Only I don’t rip my bag. I carefully open it and, one at a time, line the items up across my thin prison mattress. I start by separating my food from my hygiene products, cross-checking my receipt to make sure that each item is accounted for. I’m planning on making my famous nachos. And so I place those ingredients — two types of chips and two types of beans, for example — back into the brown paper bag where I’ll store them until I have everything I’ll need. It takes me weeks to collect all the ingredients and, once the word gets out that I’m planning my next batch, the requests to get in on the nacho action start coming in. 

“Come on bro, just tell me what to bring, I’ll drop it off,” begs my friend Georgie from the door of my cell.

Everyone knows that spots are limited. Due to the constraints that come with living in prison, I can only make nachos for three people at a time — and one portion, of course, is mine. So people try to secure a spot by contributing ingredients. And this often involves the black market. See, my nachos hinge on our ability to smuggle in fresh produce — the rarest and most valuable ingredients are onions, tomatoes, jalapeños, and cilantro. These items are nearly impossible to get in prison; you have to know someone in just the right job and area. In an effort to keep my nachos going, that’s all I can say about the produce. But know this: Those brave enough to get me these ingredients certainly earn one of the two remaining nacho spots. 

With little to keep our minds and taste buds satisfied, we strive to find ways to make our days bearable.

Prison is a place where it can be exceptionally hard to find something to look forward to. With little to keep our minds and taste buds satisfied, we strive to find ways to make our days bearable — especially during these pandemic years, as visits with loved ones, positive programming, and the majority of recreational opportunities have been stripped away. These nachos have become even more of a lifeline than ever.

Over the past 19 years I’ve lived in four different prisons, and my behind-bars nachos are my peace offering, my way of connecting, even in the hellish conditions of prison life. They’ve helped me bond with dozens of new friends I would have never had the opportunity to cross paths with — people from the countryside, other countries, and bigger cities, like the one I grew up in. 

Let me back up, for those of you wondering why I’m even making nachos in the first place. Many prisoners have, what they consider, perfected signature recipes. Some make fancy rice bowls, burritos, or fried ramen noodles. The preparation, for some of these meals, is simple, taking little more than 10 to 15 minutes. Often they are made and enjoyed alone, and sometimes, like in my case, they’re made in partnership with others. However, none compare to the level of planning and construction required to shape my perfect plate of nachos. (Once I get started, my nachos take two hours to prep and assemble.)

Making these nachos reminds me of the days when I was a teenager looking for a tasty snack with a friend. We’d rush into the house after school and religiously make our way to the kitchen, where we’d rifle through all the cabinets and fridge and throw together a combination of cheese, chips, and chili. But the nachos I make today are a far cry from the simple ones I ate in my youth.

My signature prison nachos involves a grocery list of more than a dozen ingredients. Like I said, it takes me weeks to accumulate everything I need. The ingredients (not counting the ones I get on the black market) cost about $50. To put this number in context: Incarcerated people who work in prison receive only $55 a month for their labor. A $50 meal split three ways isn’t something many of us can afford all that often, and it makes the occasion special and rare. (I can only make this dish a few times a year.)

Once I have all the necessary ingredients — fresh produce, meats, cheeses, spices, milk, rice, two types of beans and chips, and my special, secret ingredient — the preparation begins. This part I do entirely on my own; I’m not looking to have too many cooks in the kitchen (aka, the small metal desk in my cell) or divulge any of my secrets.

Every part of the process is planned and carried out with an eye for detail that even Chef Gordon Ramsay would respect. 

Given the limitations of prison life, many of my cooking utensils are homemade and reflect the creative craftiness of a bored prisoner. Tomatoes, green peppers, and onions are washed and cut with thin plastic butter knives, which are difficult to obtain. (Again, that’s all I can say.) To grate the cheeses — cheddar, provolone, and mozzarella — I use a handcrafted grater made from part of an old plastic barbecue sauce bottle that I poked holes in at just the right angle, using a thumbtack. I turn empty Top Ramen boxes into platters, lining them with plastic bags.

After I’ve prepped everything in my cell, my little nacho group migrates to the microwave area, a big concrete room with steel tables bolted to the floor, to heat the necessary ingredients and assemble the dish. We’re only allowed one bowl per person, and I need at least three, so I either have to borrow additional bowls or pause for some dish duty. The beans, rice, cheese sauce, and meat must all be separated, seasoned and microwaved to perfection.

I cook the beans in stages, mixing whole black beans with refried beans. Then, I move on to cooking the rice and reheating the meat, which gets seasoned with honey. Yes, honey. The synergy between sweet and spicy creates a flavor unmatched by anything else we eat in prison. (Fun surprise: I also add pepperoni, which I get from the commissary.) Once the base ingredients are ready, I mix the cheese sauce — the crown jewel of any nachos — using shredded cheese, milk, squeeze cheese, and a variety of spices.

Finally, I begin the process of constructing the many levels that form a tower of nachos. I arrange the foundational layer of corn chips and Nacho Cheese Doritos in the boxes-turned-platters. Using a bright yellow plastic spoon, I smoothly glaze the top of each layer with more honey. And as a final touch, I place diced jalapeños and torn cilantro across the top. Presentation is just as important as taste, even when you’re eating nachos arranged in a cardboard box in a cement cell.

To grate the cheeses, I use a handcrafted grater made from part of an old plastic barbecue sauce bottle that I poked holes in at just the right angle, using a thumbtack.

I always feel good, while making my signature nachos, knowing that I can make friends happy. I know that it’s just food, but it’s the one small thing we have in here. Nothing feels better than bringing others joy in a place like prison, where hope and authentic smiles are almost impossible to find. Even if I’m having a bad day, cooking for friends makes everything that happens in here feel just a little bit more palatable.

We are forced to indulge alone, back in the confines of our 6-by-9-foot cells. There isn’t a place to sit and share meals in the prison dayrooms, which are used for card games and phone access. I can’t share in the indulgence with the two friends who contributed to the feast. It feels lonely. Still, I enjoy my portion, and eagerly wait for the reviews. This is the real reward: The friend who tells me, “Dude, those were the best nachos I’ve ever had, in prison or out in the free world.”

Even better is when I see their smiling face and I know that, even if only for a short time, I was able to transport them from within these prison walls. That, and that alone, is worth every second — and every penny — it takes to make the beautiful mountain of cheesy, spicy, crunchy, and ever-so-slightly sweet nachos.

When I’m not creating food from the commissary list, I dream of the foods I plan to, one day, share with Chelsea, my incredibly beautiful wife and best friend. She has traveled the world — 32 countries, to be exact — and over the phone, she tells me of faraway places where the food is enticing and mouth-watering. She tells me about breakfast in Turkey, about sushi and avocado toast, asparagus and artichokes, all foods I’ve never tried. 

After almost 20 years in prison, eating bland, tasteless foods compounded in odd-shaped mystery patties, I crave the day I’ll experience the world more fully. I continuously find myself dreaming of that day: I’m walking the streets of Mexico City, Chelsea’s favorite place on earth, tasting foods and absorbing the culture, as she pulls my hand eager to share all her favorite spots. Who knows, maybe we’ll find someone who makes nachos better than mine.

Illustration Credit: Daniel Longan, 42, is serving a 40-year sentence in Washington State. He drew the line drawings in the image at the top of this post. Additionally, his art has been featured in the LeMay Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, paired with a tribute car to memorize an Army soldier. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanLonganArt.