How a Prison Cooking Show Connects Residents to Life Outside

John “Yahya” Johnson

Photo by Damien Maloney

John “Yahya” Johnson

Over the past 24 years that I’ve been incarcerated, I have missed holidays and birthdays, monumental achievements like my son’s many graduations and the birth of my granddaughter, as well as smaller, everyday special pleasures—namely, my mom’s cooking. Two decades later, I still find myself thinking about the rich smell of her Jiffy Blueberry muffins, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese—all the delectable things she made in her hot kitchen. I remember how much I adored her, knowing what a labor of love it was for her to feed her only child. Recreating my mother’s dishes from inside my prison cell brings all my memories of her and her cooking to life.

One of my favorite dishes to make is a version of her pepper steak and rice. I’ve had to improvise, resulting in a creation all my own, but it’s still deeply rooted in my mom’s legacy. Instead of sirloin steak strips, a cut that’s foreign to San Quentin State Prison, I use halal beef summer sausage sliced into quarter size pieces. And though I can buy brown gravy through the quarterly package program, I rarely do because I have fallen in love with curry. The rest is chopped onions, red or green bell peppers (whichever is available), yellow chile or sliced jalapeño peppers, shiitake mushrooms (my own addition), adobo seasoning, garlic powder, and chile powder. My version never turns out as delicious as hers, but it manages to help keep me connected to her, my family, my home.

All the ingredients in Johnson’s recipe.


Curry Pepper Steak

Photo by Damien Maloney

How John Makes His Curry Pepper Steak

Slice one Halal Beef Summer Sausage into quarter inch slices and add into a pre-heated hotpot. Place a lid on top and cook for fifteen minutes, stirring periodically. After the sausage has browned, place one sliced red or green bell pepper, half of a sliced onion, six diced yellow chile peppers, and three dehydrated shiitake mushrooms broken into small pieces into the hotpot and cook for thirty minutes until vegetables are tender. Meanwhile, make gravy by mixing 1 tablespoon curry powder, 1/2 teaspoon adobo seasoning, 1/2 teaspoon garlic, ½ teaspoon chili powder, 1 tablespoon sriracha chile sauce, 1 packet of artificial sweetener, and 2 ounces of water in a bowl, stirring until contents are fully integrated. Add to pan with sausage and peppers, stir to mix, then allow to simmer for five minutes. Spoon over cooked rice, and serve.

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