orange is the new black

A History of Food on Orange Is the New Black

Slop. Photo: JoJo Whilden/Netflix

The women at Litchfield Penitentiary technically have only one option when it comes to food. But despite the lack of variety, the way food is dealt with is no less complicated than it is for women on the outside. At Litchfield, food becomes everything from a vessel for conflict to a talisman imbued with spiritual energy. At times, it’s divisive — a punishment for making the wrong move. Other times, it’s a reward, a symbol of alliance and an olive branch. Barely an episode goes by without a cafeteria scene, the setting for a tri-daily tableau where prisoners are forced to cohabitate as one seething, hungry organism. Whether on hunger strike or in chemotherapy, showing up to the cafeteria is obligatory. There is no high-school-style sulking in the bathroom. But, like high school, mealtimes are when Litchfield’s cliques form, disintegrate, and face off.

On so many occasions, the food in Orange Is the New Black is a device that moves the plot along or settles on a simple point: the novelty of eating (or drinking) for pleasure. Inmates save up for commissary, pass each other ramen packets, and make homemade hooch from moldy bread, Kool-Aid, and old fruit. (Tip: Kool-Aid, when mixed with Vaseline, makes a quick, tasty lip gloss, à la Sophia.) And where so many television shows choose not to portray female characters’ appetites and eating habits — especially in such a primal way — OITNB points the camera directly at these moments. Below, a look back through OITNB’s most ferocious food moments. Spoilers ahead.

“The Tampon Muffin” (Season 1, Episode 1): From the get-go, OITNB makes it clear that food is a weapon used to divide and disgust. Quickly, Piper is initiated into Litchfield’s cafeteria culture. “Don’t eat the pudding,” she’s warned. “It comes in cans marked ‘Desert Storm.’” Huddled in the prison womb and feeling a little too cozy at her first breakfast, Piper lets slip what everyone already knows — the food is disgusting — but would never say out loud. And in front of the cafeteria’s dictatress, Red. The next day she’s served a dirty tampon on an English muffin, following a painful few days of being “starved out.”

“Grocery List Sex” (Season 1, Episode 3): “Are those groceries?” asks Piper, talking to Larry on the prison payphone. “What’d you get? Be specific. Tell me,” she begs. Larry starts slow. “Crispy snap peas. Cherry juice for my smoothies, purple kale.” He goes into the vegan cookies, whole roasted almonds with the sugar coating — crack almonds. And the heirloom tomatoes. “Plump, ripe, engorged.” He accidentally segues into phone sex: “My cock is hard and I’m rubbing it against your ass.” But Piper — mostly interested in hearing more about the wet, juicy mozzarella — just can’t get there with the woman crying into the earpiece next to her.

“Moldy SHU Baloney” (Season 1, Episode 9): Though this episode begins with a focus on Thanksgiving — in which Red has to make a feast for $1.05 per inmate and Pornstache pees in the gravy — it ends with Piper in SHU for “lesbian’ing” with Alex to Kelis’s “Milkshake.” When a cafeteria tray is slipped into her cell, she picks up a flaccid piece of flesh-colored meat and wonders aloud, “There’s mold on the baloney?” Indeed, Piper. This is prison, and there is mold on the baloney.

“Kitchen Exile” (Season 1, Finale): Red’s reign in the kitchen comes to an end owing to her defiance of Mendez and all his icky skeaziness. But before she hands over the keys to Gloria and the ladies of Spanish Harlem, she prepares some serious kitchen sabotage — a grease-slicked oven, salt-spiked rice, and a short-lived strike against eating in her old kingdom. To her dismay, upon returning to the cafeteria’s Everyman ranks, Red is starved out, a sad reversal from the first episode, and the ultimate example of war waged via mealtime.

“Egg Yolk Art” (Season 2, Episode 1): After beating up Pennsatucky in the season-one finale, Piper is in solitary reveling beneath a self-fashioned mural depicting a “yellow warbler drinking out of a daffodil.” The guard who comes to fetch her wrinkles his nose at her, “It smells like old Easter in here.” Piper, even in solitary, can’t let go of her bougie penchants: “I hate cooked egg yolks.” Thus, a wacky, Waldorf-y finger painting is born.

“The Deceit Is in the Funfetti” (Season 2, Episode 3): An unwitting Gloria trades the villainous Vee a pack of (very old) cigarettes for a Funfetti cake with chocolate icing, which Vee uses to manipulate the ghetto girls into her power. It’s at this moment that the balance of season two is upset, with Vee sitting on a throne of yellow cake and frosting, proving that Technicolor sprinkles swirled with that impossibly moist crumb is still one of the best artificial flavors out there.

“The Bagnut” (Season 2, Episode 5): With their spouses estranged, Larry and Polly have begun to play house (chastely, at first), running around the city doing things New York couples do. Over the phone, Larry recounts to Piper the two hours he waited with Polly for a Bagnut — a cross between a bagel and doughnut — which plays on pastry chef Dominique Ansel’s legendarily overrated Cronut craze. The Bagnut is, perhaps, the most obvious foreshadowing of Larry and Polly’s betrayal, because you really have to dig a person to stand in line for something that dumb.

“The Penis Cookie” (Season 2, Episode 6): One of the rougher dates on the prison calendar, Valentine’s Day, approaches, but the ladies of Litchfield insist on celebrating. Sugar cookies in the usual cutout shapes — hearts, Cupids, penises — are baked, frosted, and devoured. Though the cookie shows up throughout the episode as a symbol of the day’s heartache (Healy and Pennsatucky sharing a broken heart on a bench, etc.), the best moment is when sweet, gentle Fischer stuffs an entire penis cookie into her mouth like some magnificent V-Day BJ.

“Lettuce and Colt 45” (Season 2, Episode 9): Given the rare, coveted furlough, Piper is home for her grandmother’s funeral and immediately insists — in typical narcissistic fashion — that they go to the Spotted Pig for burgers and rye Manhattans. But, of course, there’s a wake to attend — which is more a Piper show than an occasion to mourn. Back at her mother’s, Piper chugs white wine and munches on lettuce like a rabbit. “Do you know how long it’s been since I had a vegetable that actually crunched?” she says to Larry as she blows through leafy green after leafy green. After a failed attempt to jump Larry’s bones, Piper heads out to check on Red’s restaurant, which is closed. Piper — her Waspy taste apparently dulled by prison food — reaches for a burger and a Colt 45 that she devours beneath the twinkling lights of the Empire State Building.

“The Hooch in the Olive Jar” (Season 2, Episode 10): Bummed out by Vee’s sadistic bullying and dealing talk, Poussey turns to the bottle. Among her friends, Poussey’s known for part-time hooch-running and ingeniously hides her stash in an olive jar in the library ceiling. She provides her hooch gratis, a sweet departure from the everything-is-currency Litchfield routine. From the library, Poussey does what we all do when we seek forgetful comfort: drinks herself into a sad, sullen stupor.

“Chang’s Frito Fritters” (Season 3, Episode 6): Chang, the keeper of the commissary — a relatively low-profile character — demonstrates just how resourceful time behind bars can make a woman. Instead of dealing with the disintegrating cafeteria food situation, she secrets away two milk pints with peas, mashes them together with crushed, soggy Fritos, and microwaves the patties until they solidify. And voilà, Frito fritters. She’s also managed to stash a phone hidden in a shed where she goes to watch movies and eat clementines.

“We’re All Jewish Now” (Season 3, Episodes 7–9): When Red requests a Kosher meal (pre-prepped TV-dinner-style trays), everyone jumps on the bandwagon, pretending to be Jewish to get at that sweet, semi-fresh broccoli that still crunches when eaten. And the orders multiply with Red back in power and Caputo replacing her cooking with manufactured bags of liquefied sludge, which “tastes like brown,” according to Morello. Eventually, a rabbi is called in to interview the Jewish poseurs, resulting in a fabulous monologue from Black Cindy, who confuses cultural Judaism for being a committed, practicing Jew (Episode 13 spoiler: Black Cindy really wants to be a Jew).

“Doughnuts for Sex” (Season 3, Episodes 8–9): One of the sadder story lines to hinge upon pleasure-eating takes place throughout the latter half of season three, when Coates, a new guard, coaxes Pennsatucky out of her hardass shell with doughnuts from his part-time job at a local place. On a van run, the slippery slope begins simply with the two waxing philosophical while housing chocolate cake rings. But soon Coates is ordering Pennsatucky to crawl through a mud pit to retrieve a red-velvet doughnut and then raping her over the backseat of the van. It’s the most basic illustration of OITNB’s power dynamics: Nothing comes for free, especially not doughnuts from a creepy guard.

“Ramen Money” (Season 3, Episodes 8–10): With the same enterprising realization that occurred to her in the soap-making days, Piper figures out how to appropriate Whispers’ silky fuchsia panty fabric, recruits girls to wear them for a few days at a time, and then sells them on the dirty-undie-fetish black market. Before the women catch on to how much cash is rolling in, Piper gets away with paying them in MSG and sodium — i.e., ramen-seasoning packets (spicy chicken is the most popular, obviously), which are in high demand owing to the whole bagged beef Wellington cafeteria situation.

“It Might Be Corny” (Season 3, Episodes 12): The Golden Girls’ garden continues to flourish, and, magically, a flat of corn arrives to the kitchen glistening in the morning sun. With the care of a mother hen, Red turns the corn into a feast, which plays out like a scene from an underground supper club, complete with corn and leek quiche with a fried-sage garnish. As a gratuity for Healy’s support in starting the garden, Red gifts him his own slice of fresh, prison-yard quiche.

“Finale Surprise” (Season 3, Episodes 13): Aside from the fact that Norma rises to full cult-leader status with her likeness perceived on a piece of toast, lifestyle chef Judy King self-surrenders at Litchfield. Martha Stewart has arrived, bitches. And there’s a whole lot of craft time and cocktail-hour etiquette coming in season four.

A History of Food on Orange Is the New Black