When Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez (above left) was 18, he was sent to prison for the first time. When he arrived, the other incarcerated men wanted to know if they could trust him — so they handed him a plate of cheesy tacos, and got to know him over that shared meal. From there, Goose learned all kinds of prison cooking tips, including how to use razor blades to boil water and the recipe for a coffee drink called a “Cadillac.” This week Goose shares some of the recipes from his cookbook, Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars — and the harrowing story of how that title dish saved his life.
Check out Goose’s new novel, The Pawn, and a couple other great stories about cooking in prison:
- The Great Ear Hustle Cookoff” on the Ear Hustle podcast
- “Fixed Menu: Meet the cellblock chefs of Westville Correctional Facility” by Kevin Pang
Interstitial music in this episode from Black Label Music:
- "Midnight Grind" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Hot Night" by Calvin Dashielle
- "Pong" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Broken Castle" by Bijou Basil
- "Brain Wreck" by Bijou Basil
- "Can't Bring Me Down" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Kenny" by Hayley Briasco
Photo courtesy of Gustavo Alvarez and Workman Press.
Dan Pashman: When Gustavo Alvarez was 18, he was convicted of assault with a firearm and sent to prison for the first time. On the day he arrived, he was met by a group of guys like him, hispanic men from West L.A. They took him to a common area and sat him down at a table.
Gustavo Alvarez: My heart is pounding through my chest. I just turned 18. I was just, you know, peach fuzz on the lip. I was a kid, you know, and these dudes were grown men, killers. And what they do is they have a spread, which is just like a meal, potluck, or whatnot. And in that meal is where they're gonna get to know you. They're gonna get to read you. They're gonna get to figure out who you are.
Dan Pashman: Gustavo, or Goose as he’s known, was served a plate of makeshift cheesy tacos. And the main question these older guys were trying to answer one question: can we trust this kid?
Gustavo Alvarez: They know if you’re a snitch. They'll know that cause you'll never make it to the table. You feel me? They'll have someone stab you before you get there. And of course they question me to see if I'm honest. And of course, 100 percent honest and, you know, that causes them to say, Okay, he's good. And once you have that blessings good, then the schooling begins.
Dan Pashman: The first lesson Goose learned, prison is tribal.
Gustavo Alvarez: A lot of people say, oh, well I'm not racist. Yeah, neither am I but guess what, if you want to survive, you have to run with your people, man. You have to take care of your own. And it's sad because, you know, I have a lot of borthers and friends and, you know, they're obviously not my race but they're my family. But when it comes down to prison all that is left at the door and it's a sad experience because you're bred to hate. And that hate is what protects you in there. And it saved my life many times.
Dan Pashman: The older guys in the West L.A. crew taught Goose more specific survival skills.
Gustavo Alvarez: If you're not a good fighter, you better use some steel, a weapon. And in most cases they teach you—first of all, how to cut the weapon, sharpen the weapon. They physically train you. You do these crazy routines. You get involved with stuff you'd never thought you'd ever do.
Dan Pashman: There’s one more lesson Goose learned pretty quickly, how to put together a decent meal.
Gustavo Alvarez: You know, back and forth, you create this community of cooks. God, I learned so many ways, for example, to make teriyaki. We'd get some strawberry jam and some soy sauce, mix it together and put it a little garlic powder on there and boom, you have some teriyaki that you can put on some chicken from dinner and mix it up with the ramen. And there you go, you got a meal. [LAUGHS] You know what I mean?
Dan Pashman: In prison, food is a big deal.
Gustavo Alvarez: Oh, my God. Well, it’s everything...
Dan Pashman: Today on The Sporkful, I talk with Goose Alvarez about cooking and eating in prison, including the meal there that changed his life forever.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people.
Dan Pashman: Goose Alvarez has served two major prison sentences. There was that first one you heard about at the start of the show. That was for assault with a firearm. He was locked up from age 18 to 23. When he got out he started making a life for himself. He got married. He had three kids. But Goose says he still felt he had to carry a gun around to protect himself and his family. When he was 33 he was busted for possession of a firearm.
Dan Pashman: While he was in prison the second time, he began mentoring at-risk kids, went through a twelve-step recovery program. And he started writing his first book, Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars. He got out in 2013, the book came out, and Goose hasn’t looked back. Today he’s 47 and lives in Tijuana, Mexico. The success of his book has led him to pursue a career as a writer and producer on several TV shows and movies.
Person: Yeah, can you speak loudly?
Gustavo Alvarez: Testing. Thumbs up.
Dan Pashman: All right, cool...
Dan Pashman: As you might guess, the food served in prison is pretty bad. So the men pocket food in the mess hall, steal ingredients from kitchen storage, then bring them back to their cells and get creative. If you have money, you can buy some basic items at the commissary: canned goods, hot sauce, ramen. Mayo is key because it’s one of the few ways you can get your hands on fat. There’s a lot of bartering.
Dan Pashman: And like with just about every other place on the planet, food is a big part of gatherings and special occasions.
Gustavo Alvarez: Oh, Johnny boy is paroling today. Okay, we're gonna throw him a little party before he leaves so, who's involved. Okay, well, these people are involved and then what are we gonna cook? We're just cook. I'm gonna be the cook. Okay, well this is what I'm gonna need from each and every one of you. You can assign one person to get all of the summer sausages. One person to get all the ramens. And you know, everyone has their responsibility. Whatever they bring to the table, they leave it there and just let one cook do his job. And, you know, you literally cook in buckets for about 30 men and everybody helps you clean, obviously. Everyone helps you prepare but it's usually one person that's driving. You know what I mean? And birthdays, sometimes—you know, for example, I know of an older retiree, who was in prison, already 40 years, and it was it birthday. And, you know, we all wanted to do something nice for the old dirtbag. So we all bought a bunch of Hostess chocolate cupcakes and we all put it together in a circle and we're making cake for this guy. And then we smother it with peanut butter and jelly, believe it or not, and get some cocoa from the kitchen and sprinkle it on top and create a little cake for the old man. You know, and somebody might through a little ornament on there to just tease him. I'm not gonna get into that little ornament but, you know...
[DAN PASHMAN LAUGHS]
Gustavo Alvarez: And he'll have a good time. He'll have a goo laugh and we'll all enjoy a little birthday party for the old man.
Dan Pashman: What's a Cadillac?
Gustavo Alvarez: Oh, the coffee. Um, a Cadillac is a—basically, cream and sugar. However, the way we make it in there is we use a Milkyway bar. And we put it inside the coffee with the cream and sugar. The coffee has to be nice and scorching hot, in order for the Milkyway to dissolve. And you stir it till it dissolves a foamy, kind of a espresso or a cappuccino kind of way. It's so good.
Dan Pashman: That's sounds really good.
Dan Pashman: I got to tell you, Goose, there are like fancy, schmancy...
Gustavo Alvarez: Right, right.
Dan Pashman: Hipster cafes in Brooklyn and San Francisco
Dan Pashman: They'll probably charge, you know, eight dollars for what they call, like, a Mexican hot chocolate, or something.
Gustavo Alvarez: Right, right.
Dan Pashman: And I'll bet that a Cadillac runs circles around whatever those people are selling.
Gustavo Alvarez: Oh, you would love it. You would love it.
[DAN PASHMAN LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: The Cadillac does sound amazing, but of all the foods you find in prison, one reigns supreme, ramen. That’s why Goose’s book is called Prison Ramen. In fact, a 2016 study looked at the bartering economy in prison and found that ramen is more valuable than cigarettes.
Gustavo Alvarez: Ramen goes for about a dollar—well, last time I was there, it was a dollar. I'm hearing that it's starting to go up even more, like to two to three. So you can imagine people have walls and walls and of ramen in their cell. And they use it to barter. They use it buy things, pay things, and those are what we baller. Those are the guys that, you know, got a little money.
Dan Pashman: According to that study, the rise in ramen’s value is largely due to budget cuts that have reduced not only the quality but also the quantity of food available. There’s not always enough for incarcerated people to eat. So once you get the ramen, how do you cook it? In a maximum security prison like Goose was in, you don’t have access to a microwave. So you make something called a stinger.
Gustavo Alvarez: For example, you'll cut a cord out from an old radio or whatnot, and you keep the male plug and the opposite end, you disconnect the wires and connect them to two brand new razor blades. Put the razor blades inside a cup of water and then connect it to the wall. Within about 30 seconds, you've got boiling water and there you go. You know?
Dan Pashman: So you, basically, cut open an electrical cord and stick it...
Gustavo Alvarez: Right.
Dan Pashman: Attach it to metal and stick it into water.
Gustavo Alvarez: Right.
Dan Pashman: So that sounds...
Gustavo Alvarez: Some razor best. Yeah. Dan Pashman: We should probably tell the young listeners out there not to try that at home...
Gustavo Alvarez: Oh, yeah. Don't. Please do not try that at home. Do not try that at home.
[DAN PASHMAN LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: But if it doesn't kill you, it'll heat up your water. Is that what you're telling me, Goose?
Gustavo Alvarez: Definitely. If it doesn't explode, it'll definitely heat up your water.
Dan Pashman: What was your experience with ramen before you went to prison?
Gustavo Alvarez: Never touched it. Never liked it, maybe a couple of noodles every now and then. But I've never—I've seen it all the time at the stores or whatnot and I never bought it.
Dan Pashman: And do you remember the first time you had it?
Gustavo Alvarez: Oh, yeah. It was like the best thing ever because, you know, we hadn't been eating for a while and we were able to go to the store, which is commissary. And I bought me a couple and I made me a nice little hot soup. And it just brought some comforts from home, you know, like I felt—but anything nice and warm in a rough place, it gives you some type of comfort and ramen did that for me.
Dan Pashman: What was your favorite way to have ramen when you were in prison?
Gustavo Alvarez: You know what? My—[SIGHS] I would say, obviously, eating with the fellows in a nice big spread where everybody can eat and contribute. But I have my own special recipe that I don't even—it's not even on Prison Ramen. It's an oyster, smoked oysters.
Dan Pashman: Canned smoked oysters.
Gustavo Alvarez: Yes. In ramen, cilantro, a little bit of chili pepper, and some mayonnaise. For me, that's the lick right there. That's my thing, you know?
[DAN PASHMAN LAUGHS]
Gustavo Alvarez: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: So now you're you're out of prison. You can make ramen however you want.
Gustavo Alvarez: Oh yeah. [LAUGHS] Right.
Dan Pashman: Do you ever still make it the way you made it when you were in prison?
Gustavo Alvarez: I actually do. I'm not going to lie. I actually do. I cook it for family, friends and you know, they always want to try them. And yeah, I do it. It doesn't taste the same. I don't know why. And a lot of ex-con could probably relate to this. You know, I try to ask some friends of mine, ex-con friends of mine. who are authors, as well. And they're like, yup, I just can't get that flavor for some reason. I don't know if it was because of the utensils we used in there, because sometimes we'd cook in plastic bags, to be honest with you, in a bucket. So I don't know. I just—I can't pinpoint why it doesn't taste the same. You know?
Dan Pashman: But I wonder, Goose, if maybe it's not an issue of not having the right equipment or not having the right technique. Maybe it's something about just the way you feel when you're in prison, about the comfort that that provides.
Gustavo Alvarez: Hmm. Preach, Dan, preach. Yeah. I, actually—you know what? I think you're right, because of the atmosphere. You've got a bunch of hungry men that have one thing in common. The stomach's growling and so whatever they're going to eat, it's going to be good.
Dan Pashman: It's interesting to me that you would still have a food that you kind of miss and wish you could recreate that. There's a part of the experience that that you wish you could re-experience.
Gustavo Alvarez: Wow, there is. There's—wow. It's—you touched me on that one. There's—we would have this certain lunch every Saturday, you know, Hit man Burritos. We would sit there and have these burritos with this older gangster dude. And he was like, grandpa. You know? He had stories for us. He would discipline us, talk to us like we're his kids. But at the same time, you know, this guy murdered so many people. And it was hard to register that, to fit those two pieces together. But it touched me because that was a father figure that some of us youngsters didn't have. And we drew to him, you know, because he was that cool, slicked back hair, older, real in shape veterano, as we called it. An OG. And he was the person that we looked up to. And it's sad, you know, when you get transferred and you're never going to see these people again. And I miss that because that was a genuine experience and conversation with a killer that actually cared, believe it or not.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about those burritos he made.
Gustavo Alvarez: Oh, man!
Dan Pashman: The Hit man burritos.
Gustavo Alvarez: He had a way of of making it work with mayonnaise. OK? So I don't know if that was his thing, but they were awesome. He would get this roast beef package and shred the roast beef. He put a lot of love into them, you know? And of course, it made him feel good to know that we enjoyed them. It's like we're kids. He's like, yeah, you know, I'm cooking for my sons. You know? And that right there, was everything.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, more with Goose Alvarez. We’ll hear about the prison meal that set his life on a different course:
Gustavo Alvarez: I actually thought I was gonna die. You know? This is where the road stops for me.
Dan Pashman: Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. On last week’s show, I talk with chef, restaurateur, and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio. Top Chef has changed over its 18 seasons, and Tom says he’s changed as a judge.
Tom Colicchio: How I look at my role is I'm a mentor. I'm going to give them feedback. I'm going to give them honest feedback. I'm not going to get into who did what, why, where, how. I don't care about that stuff. We used to. But I think, you know, we were produced early on to, you know, be a little stricter and stern. The whole tenor of the show has really changed.
Dan Pashman: Tom also talks about the role of MeToo in bringing about those changes. That episode’s up now, get it wherever you got this one. Now let’s get back to my conversation with Gustavo Alvarez, AKA Goose, author of Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars.
Dan Pashman: As you heard, Goose has a lot of memories about connecting with people over food during his time in prison. But there was one meal that really changed him, that changed the whole way he looked at prison. Before we get to that meal though, you have to understand the events that led up to it.
Dan Pashman: It was Goose’s second stint in prison, so he was in his 30’s. He had a good behavior record, so he was able to get a menial job, and he lived in a dorm type of setup with other incarcerated men, who also worked at the prison. Although it was a mixed group, Black and Hispanic men, there was an understanding. "We’re all older guys, none of us wants any trouble because we don’t want our sentences extended." But the men in the other parts of the prison. They were a different story.
Gustavo Alvarez: When you walk on a prison yard, you sense to feel a tension. You could feel it. It's in the air and it's hard to explain unless you've been through it. I've been through a lot of riots, you know, and I know before one starts. You have that that aroma, you feel it. When I came home from work, I notice the grouping, all the Blacks on one side, all the Hispanics on the other. And immediately, my spider senses kicked in. I go, it's on. Something's about to jump off. And, you know, I go to my area with—where my people are at and of course, they're like, hey, something's in the air. And before we can even think, you just hear the rumbling, like a bunch of rhinos running in the savannah. Just this rumbling noise. It's every Black against Hispanic stabbing, killing one dorm after the other, just ignited.
Dan Pashman: One of the doors to Goose’s barracks opened to a small courtyard, a grassy square surrounded on all sides by other buildings. In a building across the courtyard, there were a bunch of young Black prisoners, who were involved in the riot. Then were trying to escape it. Dozens of them poured out into the courtyard.
Gustavo Alvarez: They looked into our barrack and saw there was a bunch of Hispanic, you know, bald headed guys in there just, you know, looking at them. And they somehow picked up this pipe and started smashing a door, an emergency door, that's in the back of our dorm, which is right in our bed area. It reminded me like of a medieval times where they have this huge log and they're ramming it against the fortress to break the door down. Right? But in this case, it was a humongous pipe against the door hinges and broken them. And so then they just started bending the door inwards, you know, so that they could fit in there to do their damage.
Dan Pashman: The building next door was on fire. Goose says you could feel the heat through the wall. The men in the courtyard had almost bent the door back enough to get through. Goose and his crew began getting ready for a fight. They put on all the jackets they had to protect against stabbing, tied towels around their necks to cover their jugulars. Some of them did try to escape out the back. But not Goose.
Gustavo Alvarez: I already know that I'm not going to be able to leave with them because in my little area, all I have that's valuable to me was pictures of my kids. That's all I had. That was everything to me. And I wasn't about to sit there and take down 80 pictures from my wall, one by one, without ripping them.
Dan Pashman: Goose says, looking back on it now, maybe it would have made more sense to just try to get out of there, save his own life, forget the photos. But when he went to prison that second time, he’d become estranged from his wife and children. Those pictures were his only connection to his kids. So in that moment, it felt like the photos were all that mattered.
Gustavo Alvarez: This is it, guys. This is where I'm going to stay and I'm just going to stay with my kids.
[HEART BEAT SOUNDS]
Gustavo Alvarez: I actually thought I was going to die. You know? This is where the road stops for me.
Gustavo Alvarez: I'm looking at their pictures as I'm standing in my cubicle area and just sad that I never got the opportunity—you know, thinking I'm never going to have the opportunity to have that daughter dance or do what I needed to do for my sons. And it hurt me because I was like, wow, it's all my fault. But this is it. I got to just accept it. And I was ready. I looked like an idiot with my neck tied with towels and three different jackets and boots and a makeshift weapon. But I had to go out swinging. You know, that was just—that was my law. You know, I had to stick with it to the end.
Gustavo Alvarez: But in the midst of all this, what I didn't know, what I couldn't see was an older Black gangster was watching all this in our dorm, never talk to us, always kept to himself. When he saw this, he took it upon himself to walk up to one hundred inmates. They could have told him, move out the way, you old battle cat and did something to him and hurt us anyway. But he had some type of respect. Wherever he was, he had a lot of respect. And just, hey, check this out. You guys aren't coming in here. You know, I'm such and such. There's no way you're going to go through me. And then the argument began for about forty-five minutes and we just sat there ready, like it's going to happen, guys. He's not going to be able to stop them. But sure enough, he did. And they just walked away. We all looked at each other dumbfounded, like what would happen. I thought this is our demise. No, it wasn't. It was actually a beginning of something...something amazing, you know?
Dan Pashman: By now it was the middle of the night. The prison guards were still somewhere else, just trying to get control of the place. All these men were left standing around outside in the courtyard. They couldn’t get back in to the building they had come out of, and they hadn’t fully broken down the door to Goose’s dorm. So they were basically trapped, and it was getting cold out there. The older guy who had calmed the situation was still talking to some of these young men through the crack in the half broken down door.
Gustavo Alvarez: And started handing them a little bit of coffee and whatever goodies he had in his commissary, which wasn't much. I noticed, you know what? This is this is an opportunity, right here, and I'm not going to miss it. And so I gathered the homies. I said, you know, gather up all the ramens, everything you have in your locker, whatever you find in other people's locker, we're making a spread. They're like, "What are you talking about?" I'm like, "Just cook."
Gustavo Alvarez: Canned oysters, canned tuna, every seafood that we could find, with every chips, every—everything. I mean, I even see some guy bringing out some beef sticks and some chicharrones. And we did it in this humongous plastic trash bag and poured all the ramens in there first and then boiled them in the drain the water. And then started adding the seasonings, the mayonnaise and all the cans. And then with this huge spoon, just mixed it all up. Tied the bag in a big balloon, so to speak, and just shook it around and pop—cut a little hole at one end and just used it as a thing to squeeze in the the ramen in every blow. And we're just passing it out, passing it out.
Dan Pashman: So full bowls of ramen are going out through the crack in the door, and empty bowls are coming back in to be refilled and sent back out.
Gustavo Alvarez: My God, the guys on our end, they looked at me like, "What are you crazy?" And then the guys that we were feeding looked at us like, "What, are you crazy?"
[DAN PASHMAN LAUGHS]
Gustavo Alvarez: But I'm like, hey, you know what? This guy took a stand for us. And we thought, what, are you crazy? And so, you know, some people were using the same bowl. Some people took the bag and are out of the bag. I mean, whatever, just to feed them. You know? And give them some sense of, it's going to be OK.
Gustavo Alvarez: We're finally getting to know each other and we realized, dude, we're the same. We're the exact thing. And at that point I started having second thoughts about a lot of things. And, you know, we were helping these guys make phone calls because some of the phones we had access to were on. So we called their families—hey, they're OK. They're fine. You know? Took us a few hours that until the National Guard came in. They're stopping everybody out and taking us out of there.
Dan Pashman: What was it that you saw in those younger prisoners out in that courtyard, in that moment that made you…
Gustavo Alvarez: Me. I saw me. I saw my little eighteen-year-old stubborn butt. I saw it. I saw exactly where I was at. I said, wow. I go, maybe somebody's back then would have intervened at that age, you know? It would have prevented a lot. He's just misled, just a misled kid. That's all it is. And he could be led the right way by showing love. And that's what I thought we did.
Dan Pashman: I asked Goose if he ever talked to the older guy who calmed the prisoners in the courtyard that night.
Gustavo Alvarez: [SIGHS] No, it's funny. We never saw him again. I never saw him again, up until maybe—what? Three, four years ago, I found him on Facebook. And I touched base with him. His name is Phil. I touched base with him and I thanked him. And I thank him and I told him that, my kids, they thank you. You know? And he's like, aw, no problem, man. And then I wanted to keep a dialogue with him. And then a few days went by. I looked back, he was gone. No more Facebook, no more nothing. He's just—I tried to ask friends about and no body know where's he's at. So I'm praying that he's okay somewhere safe. No, but I owe a great deal to that man.
Dan Pashman: What was the first meal you ate when you got out of jail? Gustavo Gustavo Alvarez: Oh, my God. Which time?
[DAN PASHMAN LAUGHS]
Gustavo Alvarez: You're gonna laugh. You're going to laugh but the most recent—and people say you're disgusting. Why'd you do that? I'm not trying to knock this franchise, but I ate a Big Mac. I'm not gonna to lie. I had a Big Mac. For some reason, I just craved it because of years of never eating it for so long. You know, as a kid growing up, McDonald's was a thing. Wow, where are we going? McDonald's. Cool. And I just thought, "You know what? I'm craving a Big Mac." And I went and I ate me a Big Mac.
Dan Pashman: And how did it taste?
Gustavo Alvarez: Awful, but you know, hey, don't tell McDonald's it.
[DAN PASHMAN LAUGHS]
Gustavo Alvarez: But I needed it. You know, it was—I wanted to, you know, capture some of my youth again, which obviously is long gone. But it was just—it wasn't the same Big Mac as I ate back as a kid, you know?
Dan Pashman: That’s Gustavo Alvarez, he’s the author of Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars. These days Goose tells us, he's still cooking. He’s making his Prison Ramen, but with some new innovations, like octopus. And he’s still writing. Last year he self-published his first novel, The Pawn. We’ll have a link to it at Sporkful.com.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, you know how McDonald’s ice cream machines are always broken? I'll talk to a couple of former accountants, who tried to fix those machines, only to get caught up in a tale of ice cream espionage. That’s next week. While you’re waiting for that one, make sure you check out last week’s episode with Top Chef lead judge Tom Colicchio.