I was in Prison and You Did Not Feed Me

In preparation for certain medical tests (the torturous “tum-and-bum” procedure, I call it), I recently spent five days on an extremely restricted diet. Shall we say that if you consumed that diet over a period of weeks, death might soon be scooping you up.

And on the Sunday before the test, I spent the afternoon with a book group discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison (1997 edition). You can’t help but notice, as his prison stay extends way past what he expected, that Bonhoeffer mentions food a lot more than at the beginning. That realization led to comments about Ancel Keys’s study of human starvation during World War II. And Keys’s observation that starving people think about food constantly. In reading Sacred Hearts: A Novel, by Sarah Dunant, (2009), about a young noble daughter incarcerated against her will in a Ferrara convent, I also found starvation  and food issues appearing again and again.

On the morning of the test, I found myself lying in a narrow hospital bed, my teeth chattering due to the freezer-like temperature in the tiny windowless room, the size of a monk’s cell. That bone-chiseling cold, as well as fatigue and a glance at the rough-weave blankets covering me, lulled me into thinking about the people incarcerated in Hitler’s concentration camps.

Why would a mere blanket trigger this thought?

The texture of the cloth with its blue-and-white stripes closely resembled Jewish prayer shawls I’ve seen, as well as the Israeli flag.

Although the human body often adapts to reduced caloric intake and stabilizes, in my weakened state I lay on that bed, tethered to an I.V. drip, confined as it were, and marveled at those death-camp survivors who woke up in the frigid German or Polish winters, trudged out to labor on roads or other projects, all the while dressed in skimpy prison pajamas, their stomachs roiling with watery soup garnished with a few rotten potatoes and some moldy black bread. Never knowing when, if ever, they would be freed of the hunger that haunted them.

My short-but-trying period of starvation ended with a hamburger and a vanilla milkshake and a whole lot of gratitude for being able to eat again. The smoothness of cool ice cream, the richness of meat and cheese,  a moment to savor, to feel fed, nourished, freed from restraint. What joy.

And that is the dream of starving people, especially those starved in prisons.

Take the women of Terezín, who created a cookbook, in which “cooking with the mouth” helped them to cope with their precarious day-to-day existence. They produced what became In Memory’s Kitchen : A Legacy from the Women of Terezin, edited by Cara da Silva (1996). As Lillian Berliner says in the Holocaust Survivor Cookbook; Collected From Around the World (2007),

We were starved in Auschwitz, and to alleviate our numerous hunger pangs, we invented frequent ‘dream meals.’ This may sound delusional, but during these meal-planning sessions we were briefly transported to a normal world, a world far away from our miserable reality.

But it wasn’t just in Hitler’s camps that people starved. A poignant book by a U.S. Army colonel, Recipes Out of Bilibid, by H. C. Fowler (1946), documents the trials of American prisoners of war held by the Japanese in the Philippines.

As Fowler’s aunt, Dorothy Wagner, says in the introduction to Recipes Out of Bilibid:

No matter how the conversation began it always turned to food, the food the prisoners had once relished and were determined to enjoy again. … Surely those mothers would be deeply moved to learn that their Martha-tasks had been transmuted into Mary-tributes, serving to sustain their sons in their long, unspeakably cruel ordeal.

In the whole array of prison literature from across the centuries, food always appears in a highly exalted ways. Food in prisons is a powerful symbol, both for prisoners and those who imprison them.*

In other words, you could say that cooking, and the memory of it, helps people to live through terrible events. That’s something to think about in these times of fast food and microwaveable instant everything.

Pächter’s Pirogen (from In Memory’s Kitchen)

Make a noodle dough and roll it out. Now take boiled grated potatoes, chopped cracklings and browned onions. Fill the pockets [squares], press the edges together and boil them [the pockets]. Pour hot fat and lot of browned ion [over the pirogen].


*Remember U.S. suffragists like Alice Paul who went on hunger strikes and Woodrow Wilson’s supporters then ordered them force-fed? Women got the vote when the media began reporting what was happening to these women inside the prison walls.

For more on starvation and prisons, begin with the following, a small sampling of the vast field of prison literature:

Birds of Kamiti, by Benjamin Garth Bundeh (1991)

Recipes Out of Bilibid, by H. C. Fowler (1946)

“Dining in: The Symbolic Power of Food in Prison.” Howard Journal of Criminal Justice. 45 (3):  255-267, July 2006, by Rebecca Godderis.

Cookbooks and Concentration Camps,” by Dr. Myrna Goldberg

The Prison Cookbook, by Peter Higginbottom (2010)

Ravensbruck 1945: Fantasy Cooking Behind Barbed Wire, by Edith Peer (1986) (Only 500 copies printed.)

In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezín, edited by Cara da Silva (1996).

Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals from Death Row, by Ty Treadwell and Michelle Vernon (2001)

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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