image via Lionsgate Television
The question was first posed on Digg, further probed on Slate, and is hotly debated in fan sites and viewer forums.
In the first season, Netflix released recipe cards for some of Red’s iconic dishes from the Litchfield Penitentiary. The show’s producers announced the fall publication of Orange Is the New Black: The Cookbook. And this summer the Crazy Pyes dessert truck will be touring through cities in the U.S. and Mexico.
Maybe we already have our answer.
The culinary motif serves as character development.
Flashbacks of a juice fast and a heritage breed turkey at Thanksgiving tell us everything we need to know about Piper’s privileged, pre-prison, boho-Brooklyn lifestyle. It’s a shorthand reveal to the class and cultural differences that we understand will make prison so jarring and traumatic for someone like Piper. We see the flip side in another inmate, Taystee Jefferson, whose nickname comes from her love of a cheap treat dispensed from urban ice cream trucks. Taystee is so comfortable in the prison setting that she sabotages her own parole so that her release is revoked and she can return to Litchfield.
The kitchen is the seat of prison power.
Piper learns early on that it’s not about pleasing the warden or the guards; her fate is really in the hands of Red, the hard-edged Russian mob-connected inmate who runs the prison’s kitchen. Soon after her arrival Piper crosses Red by criticizing the food. Piper is starved out until she begins to understand the social order and the need to adapt and capitulate in order to survive.
Food is the show’s currency.
In real world prisons, instant ramen noodles are estimated to be an $80 million underground economy as the currency of the incarcerated. At Litchfield Penitentiary, Snickers bars can buy an abortion, a coconut cake can be traded for sexual favors, Krispy Kreme donuts buy the election to the prison’s advisory council, and Alex tries to buy Piper’s forgiveness with cornbread. The prison value of a well-made dessert inspired the cafeteria outburst that inspired the Crazy Pyes truck: hoping to make Piper her ‘prison wife,’ the inmate known as Crazy Eyes throws pie at a rival. When Piper rejects her advances, Crazy Eyes describes the lengths she’d gone to win Piper’s heart with the already-classic breakup line: “I threw my pie for you!”
TV characters have always inspired food-based kinships with their viewers.
Published decades after Andy of Mayberry went off the air, Aunt Bee’s Mayberry Cookbook was a genuine hit, selling 900,000 copies. Jerry Seinfeld raised the profile of the babka and the Sex and the City characters help turn Magnolia Bakery into a global cupcake powerhouse. Unlike those loving culinary tributes Orange is the New Black’s prison food chic pushes the boundaries of good taste, both literally and metaphorically. A former inmate of the Federal Prison Camp in Danbury that’s fictionalized in the series is protesting what she perceives as exploitation of the incarcerated. She’s organizing demonstrations at Crazy Pyes appearances, which you can track through her twitter handle @PrisonGray053, which references the last three digits of her inmate ID number.
You can experience the real thing at a handful of prisons across the country that open their cafeterias and visitor centers to the public (once you’ve passing the metal detector, security clearance, and relinquished contraband and your drivers license) like the Yelp-reviewed Fife and Drum at the minimum-security Northeast Correctional Center in Concord, MA, and Trenton, NJ’s (In)Mates Inn, with its 14 FourSquare check-ins. You can also book weddings and bar mitzvahs held on the prison grounds and catered by the incarcerated courtesy of the Garden State Correctional Facility in Yardville, NJ.
Or look for one of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary’s Prison Food Weekends.
This year’s popular annual event at the historic prison-turned-museum served up Nutraloaf, the controversial dish that’s dole out as a disciplinary action to rule-breaking inmates in place of regular meals. It’s a food so vile that its constitutionality as a cruel and unusual punishment has been successfully challenged in the supreme courts of nearly a dozen states. Admission included samples of Nutraloaf variations from different regional penal systems, served with recipes and tasting notes.