Sentenced to 15 months in a minimum-security women's prison for a decade-old drug offense was the last thing Piper Kerman, a Smith College graduate and "nice blonde lady," ever expected. But it happened. Then she culled her experiences into a best-selling memoir, Orange Is The New Black, which was adapted by Weeds' Jenji Kohan into a hit Netflix series of the same title.
In the book, Kerman tells of how she navigated her way through the prison social structure and expounds on both the challenges and joys of communal female living. As she told Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg when she joined the show at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, Kerman made friends by being helpful. She became handy while working in the prison's electrical shop. After accidentally insulting the food in front of Pop, the head cook, Kerman ingratiated herself to Pop by fixing her bed--and Pop went on to become Kerman's "prison mama." In fact, food played an important role in prison life, as women bonded over cooking for one another using contraband items, microwaves, and whatever ingredients they could find.
Piper herself mastered the recipe for "prison cheesecake," which she would make for other inmates' birthdays and going-away parties. (Check out the recipe on this page.) Inspired by the creative, DIY nature of her cheesecake, we put Kerman in the puzzle hot seat for an Ask Me Another Challenge about other innovative dishes, using "reconstituted" potato chips, Ramen noodles, hot sauce, and more.
Cheesecake recipe (from Piper's old blog The Pipe Bomb):
"Bake at your own risk."
(popular at birthday and going away parties)
1 six-oz. package of Graham Crackers, Vanilla Wafers or Oreos
4-6 pats of margarine
1 round of Laughing Cow cheese (8 wedges)
4 cups of vanilla pudding
6 oz. of Coffee Mate
1/2 c. lemon juice (more to taste)
Steal the margarine from the dining hall, melt in microwave and crumble cookies into a 1-quart Tupperware dish that you've bought from the commissary or borrowed from your bunkie along with the margarine. Mix well and press firmly into the bottom of the dish. Place in the microwave on high for 1-2 minutes. Your crust is done.
In a separate dish, squash Laughing Cow cheese into as smooth a mass as possible. Mix in part of the lemon juice and continue to blend. Try to work out the lumps. Mix in pudding and continue to blend, add more lemon juice to taste. Blend until filling is as creamy as possible, then gradually mix in Coffee Mate. Some people double the Coffee Mate; this seems overboard to me. When mixture is smooth & thick, pour over the crust. Chill in your plastic washbucket filled with ice under your bed (or in a refrigerator if the part of the prison where you work has one you can slip it into), for at least 4 hours. Eat.
In the video below, Piper recounts what she learned in prison--from her experience, her friends and her prison mama, Pop.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Live from the city so nice they built it twice, it's NPR's and WNYC's hour of trivia, puzzles, and word games, ASK ME ANOTHER.
EISENBERG: I'm your host Ophira Eisenberg and joining me is author Piper Kerman.
EISENBERG: Piper's bestselling memoir "Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman's Prison" is the inspiration for the new Netflix series by the same name. And if you don't know, the story is basically about how one mistake you make in your twenties can change the rest of your life. Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER, Piper.
PIPER KERMAN: Thank you for having me. Hello, St. Paul.
EISENBERG: So we're all watching your show or waiting for the next season, but what are you watching on television?
KERMAN: Hmmm. I just started to watch "Breaking Bad."
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.
EISENBERG: You mean from the very beginning?
KERMAN: From the very beginning. Please, please, please.
EISENBERG: Don't spoil it.
KERMAN: The spoilers wash over me.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah. So your book paints a very vivid picture of what prison life is like and I was wondering, actually, if we could enjoy a little reading so our audience gets a taste of that.
KERMAN: Sure. Absolutely. Brief reading from page 100. At Smith College, the pervasive obsession with food was expressed at candlelight dinners and at Friday afternoon faculty teas. In Danbury it was by microwave cooking and stolen food. In many ways, I was more prepared to live in close quarters with a bunch of women than some of my fellow prisoners who were driven crazy by communal female living. There was less bulimia and more fights than I had known as an undergraduate...
KERMAN: ...but the same feminine ethos was present and pathetic camaraderie and bawdy humor on the good days and histrionic dramas coupled with meddling, malicious gossip on the bad days. It was a weird place. All female society with a handful of strange men, the military-style living, the predominant ghetto vibe, both urban and rural ghettos, through a female lens, though, and the mix of every age from silly young girls to old grandmas all thrown together with varying levels of tolerance.
Crazy concentrations of people inspire crazy behavior. I can just now step back far enough to appreciate its surreal singularity, but to be back with Larry in New York, I would've walked across broken glass barefoot in a snowstorm all the way home.
EISENBERG: What was your main goal, if you could have a goal for the television series, if you could have control over one aspect?
KERMAN: The thing - my goal with the book was to express my own understanding of who is in prison in this country and what pathways take them there and what really happens to them there.
KERMAN: Because what I found during the time that I was a prisoner is that it was very different than anything I anticipated or assumed. And that, I think, is exactly what the show does. You know, it just puts forward these fascinating women and their lives and it shows their lives inside and outside of that prison and you can't look away.
EISENBERG: How did you navigate your way through the social structure, figure out where you fit in?
KERMAN: That's really the subject of the entire book, is standing in a situation that is completely unfamiliar. And I think that almost anyone can identify with that on some level. And trying to figure out where am I within this social ecology of this world.
EISENBERG: And what helped you?
KERMAN: Well, I tried to be really helpful. I hoped very fervently to teach in the education program. You know, half of all people in prison lack even a high school education. But the prison thought that I would be better as an electrician so...
KERMAN: ...there I was. And I can report that if you get a fairly significant electrical shock that it is kind of like getting kicked under the chin.
EISENBERG: Oh, god.
KERMAN: But, you know, I developed some handiness with tools. And the other thing that you do is you figure out, you know, not just the rules of the prison but also the customs of the prison. So the things like cooking that are referred to in that passage that I just shared. There's terrible, terrible food in prison. That may come as no shock to anyone. But people try really hard to feed themselves, literally, you know, sustain themselves and sustain each other.
And so, you know, that habit, particularly with women, of cooking for one another was really, really important.
EISENBERG: Taking care of each other. Right.
KERMAN: Yeah. On a very practical level on terms of, like, you don't want to even go in the chow hall today but also in terms of taking care of each other. And so the one and only recipe that I was able to master was the prison cheesecake but I was able to really master it to the extent that people I didn't know would say, hey, I hear you make a pretty good cheesecake and it's my girl's birthday, you know, three days from now.
And I'd be like all right, I'll make her a cheesecake.
EISENBERG: That, I mean, just the way you said it, it's very funny. All right. I'll make her a cheesecake. I would say the first three chapters or so are the jumping off point for the series. And then the series goes its own creative, incredible way. Is it frustrating at all for people to watch the series and assume that is representative of your life? From people - or are they just like, hey, why did you diss Crazy Eyes or something like that?
KERMAN: It's not frustrating for me but it is fascinating for me and people are definitely very, very intrigued and curious about what is drawn, ripped right from real life and what is the fanciful creativity of Jenji and her writers. And there's lots of both.
KERMAN: As it turns out.
EISENBERG: Piper Kerman, would you be up for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
KERMAN: I will steel myself. And I'm up to the challenge.
EISENBERG: Fantastic. How about a round of applause for Piper Kerman?
EISENBERG: So for this game, let's welcome back Jonathan Coulton and Art Chung.
EISENBERG: So, Piper, we were really inspired by this MacGyver-like DIY innovation that you wrote about and your microwave cheesecake. Martha Stewart was rumored to have made, like, she picked crab apples from the prison grounds and made crab apple jelly. That just makes me dislike her more. But it's amazing, clearly, what people will do to make prison food more edible and delicious.
So in this game we will pay tribute to the culinary creativity of the prisoner. We're going to read some actual recipes devised by prisoners and you have to figure out what the dishes are supposed to be. And if you get enough right, Mark Pichler from Cleveland, Ohio, will win a special ASK ME ANOTHER prize.
Here we go. Crush three packages of Ramen and a bag of Fritos inside a Ziploc bag. Add hot water and knead the bag until the contents become paste. Flatten the dough, then make a groove around the edge. Cover with canned chili or tomato sauce and top with squeezable cheese.
EISENBERG: You could also, if you're lucky, find some pepperoni slices in the vending machine.
EISENBERG: That is correct.
KERMAN: Revolting. Revolting. It's the Ramen noodles. There are other things you can reconstitute.
EISENBERG: What would you have chosen?
KERMAN: Corn chips.
EISENBERG: Oh. All right.
JONATHAN COULTON: Mash up a banana in a bowl, add peanut butter and honey and stir well. Add sunflower seeds and peanuts, spread half a cup of the mixture onto a flour tortilla, then put another tortilla on top. Spread more mixture and then a third tortilla. Drizzle with more honey and cut into wedges.
KERMAN: All I can think of is spanakopita but that's...
COULTON: Yeah, baklava.
EISENBERG: All right. Put Fritos corn chips - ah - and Flaming Hot Cheetos in a large bag. Crush them into powder and add hot water. Roll the mixture into a tube-like shape and then let it sit for five minutes. Open the bag, pour in some hot sauce, and enjoy what Mexican dish?
KERMAN: Hmm. It might be a variation on chilaquiles.
EISENBERG: OK. Maybe.
EISENBERG: We were thinking something else.
KERMAN: Hot, hot, hot. Chiles relleno?
EISENBERG: See, clearly you are more advanced.
EISENBERG: Than us. Because we were just thinking tamales.
EISENBERG: You're like, I know what all the right ones are, actually.
COULTON: Double bag some plastic trash bags, combine warm water, fruit, fruit juice, raisins, sugar packets, and yeast. If you can't find yeast use some moldy bread. Tie off the bag and hide it in your cell for a few days or a week if you can manage it. After enough time you'll have what?
KERMAN: You'll have hooch. And if you're really smart you hide it up in the ceiling tiles, if that's a good access place.
COULTON: Oh, is that right?
COULTON: You hide it up there?
KERMAN: Hide them up in the ceiling tiles.
COULTON: That's right.
COULTON: Prison wine.
COULTON: Did you taste any?
KERMAN: I passed on the hooch.
COULTON: You passed on the hooch.
EISENBERG: Cook one package of chicken Ramen, reserving a quarter cup of water. Put two tablespoons of peanut butter in a bowl and add one tablespoon of Frank's hot sauce. Add the Ramen. You're probably not going to have any basil leaves but this is still a surprisingly decent version of what southeast Asian recipe?
KERMAN: Pad Thai.
EISENBERG: You got it. Yes.
COULTON: OK. Finally, melt a Milky Way bar into a cup of coffee and you'll get the prison version of what Starbucks' drink?
KERMAN: Frappucino cappuccino mochaccino.
COULTON: That's correct.
EISENBERG: Art? How did Piper do?
ART CHUNG: Piper aced this quiz.
EISENBERG: Yes, she did. Congratulations. You and Mark from Cleveland will receive an official ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube. That's right.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much, Piper. How about a huge round of applause for our VIP, Piper Kerman?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
COULTON: (singing) Good morning to you. I hope you're feeling better, baby. Thinking of me while you are far away. Counting the days until they set you free again. Writing this letter, hoping you're OK. Sit in the room you used to stay in every Sunday. One that is warmed by sunshine every day. We'll get to know each other for a second time. Then you can tell me about your prison stay.
(singing) Feels so good. You're coming home soon.
EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.