Most New Yorkers have been rushing around buying turkeys, searching for cranberry sauce recipes and buying the perfect bottle of wine. On Rikers Island, a small group of inmates have also been been busy preparing turkey, stuffing and rice. While they won’t get to enjoy the meal themselves, the poor and homeless who show up for a Thanksgiving meal at two Upper East Side churches will.
To get into this kitchen at Rikers Island, you have to turn in your cellphone, go through a metal detector, enter two secure gates and be escorted by a guard. Once you’re in, the equipment isn’t state-of-the-art, but everything is clean and oversized.
There are several kitchens at Rikers. This one feeds more than 1,000 men. Several ovens, each able to hold five large turkeys, line one wall. There are also special rules. Knives are allowed, but they are carefully tracked. Tin cans must also be accounted for, a lid with a jagged edge in the wrong hands could be dangerous. Just like most kitchens, the cooking crew is dressed in hair nets and white uniforms. Carl Hodge is one of the trainees and was about to season a steaming vat of rice. “It’s going to be like a gravy and we’re trying not to make it too salty. We’re watching our sodium,” he joked.
Hodge says cooking has taught him to be both creative and patient. “Patience to take time and make a good meal and also to be a good listener. You gotta listen to the instructions on what ingredients are to be put in. You can’t move too fast or the food will come out tasting terrible,” he said.
Hodge is in jail for selling drugs and is scheduled to be released January 16. He’s hoping to get a restaurant job once he leaves. Many of the men learned to cook at home, including Nathaniel Harris who massaged oiled turkeys seasoned with fresh garlic, oregano and tumeric. Harris said cooking at Rikers has helped him figure out what do when he leaves. “It opened a door to what I really love to do and that’s cook,” he said. Philly cheese steaks and shrimp platters are his specialties.
Between 40 and 50 people graduate from this culinary arts program each year — a very small portion of the jail’s population. More than 13,000 inmates are incarcerated at Rikers at any given time. A group called the Osborne Association runs the culinary arts program at Rikers. While they couldn’t say how many men find food service jobs once they leave, they did say about 25 percent of the men in the program end up back in jail, compared to about 60 percent of the entire Riker’s population.
The men are making 64 turkeys and dozens of pans of stuffing. Spanish rice and gravy was also being stirred in huge, steaming food vats. Even though the men will spend the holiday incarcerated, Harris considers the poor and homeless people he’s cooking for less fortunate and he said it makes him feel good to give back.
Terrell Cherry, who is at Rikers for violating his probation, feels the same way — even though he says he’d rather be spending the holiday with his family. “But it’s a learning experience. Now I know not to put myself in bad situations to get me here in jail. I’ll just go on and better my life from here,” he said.
Most of the men in the program will be released within the next few months. At least one will make it home for Thanksgiving.