Ceyenne Doroshow is an activist and founder of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (GLITS), a non-profit organization dedicated to providing health care and sustainable housing for BIPOC transgender people. She is also the author of “cooking in heels», a memoir and a cookbook she wrote while she was in prison, serving time for prostitution. The kitchen is at the heart of who Doroshow is and in this voice in food story, she tells how it literally saved her life.
I learned to cook with my grandfather, my grandmother and my mother. My grandfather was a famous chef. As he cooked for his job, he only cooked for our family during the holidays, but on those days it was play. He would wake up at 6am to start cooking and his meals were art pure. He was making these yeast cookies with a nice buttery top that I can still almost smell if I think back. I was her sous-chef for those big meals. We cooked all day together.
My mother loved entertaining back then and every good party needs food. She loved to make everyone’s favorite food special just for them. For example, my uncle loved chitlins, so she made them just for him. As for me? I loved his deviled eggs. She whipped the filling until it was airy and light. Oh, and his bacon fried rice. It was another one of my favorites.
I had a babysitter, Flora, who also liked to cook and we cooked together. Flora was an Italian and we made things like minestrone soup. She liked the well-organized kitchen. She always said to me, “You have to keep the counters clean. All of these lessons taught me how to maneuver in the kitchen and prepare delicious home-cooked meals.
The first person I cooked for was my father. I was 10 years old. My mom had to be somewhere, so my dad, my brother, and I were alone for dinner. My dad had made us TV dinners to eat and I was like, “Oh no, that’s not okay.” I made us fried chicken, Spanish rice and salad. I have to say my dad was impressed. It turned out really good.
“We communicated via the ventilation system. Someone was asking me through the air vent, ‘Hey, I’m hungry. What can I do ?’ I would ask them what they had for stewardship, then give them something simple they could do with just the microwave.
– Ceyenne Doroshow
Obviously, I grew up eating a lot of good meals, and the last meal I ate before my arrest was also good. It was ribs, collard greens, macaroni salad and candied yams. That’s what I was eating when the cops came and broke down my door.
I was so hungry in prison. So, so hungry. In fact, I started writing recipes to clear my mind. I didn’t have access to the quality ingredients I used to cook with, but I got creative using my list of curators. I also helped other inmates to prepare meals, teaching them how to make casseroles in the microwave. A casserole I taught them was made by tossing Vienna sausages into ramen noodles and crumbled tortilla chips on top, microwaved it all. Or you can use the ramen noodle seasoning and sprinkle it over rice, cooking it in the microwave. I also taught that to people.
Knowing how to cook actually saved my life in prison. I wouldn’t have done it without knowing how to cook. People who would probably have harmed me otherwise have come to me asking for advice on how to cook with their limited ingredients and advice on how to support themselves. Before going to prison, I was a social worker, so many inmates knew me that way. When I was arrested, the police showed [them all] my photo, this fallen sex worker who was a social worker. They did it to be mean and to expose me. But people always wanted my opinion on the kitchen.
We would communicate through the ventilation system. Someone was asking me through the air duct: “Hey, I’m hungry. What can I do ? I would ask them what they had for stewardship, then give them something simple they could do with just the microwave. Or sometimes I would tell them how to take what was given to us and make it better. As if we had grilled cheese for dinner, I would tell them to add tuna to it so it has more food. But prison food is just awful. You can’t do much.
“Knowing how to cook actually saved my life in prison. … People who would probably have harmed me otherwise came to me asking for advice on how to cook with their limited ingredients and advice on how to support themselves.
When I cook for myself now, I make foods that nourish my body and my soul. I love pies. I like really rich sauces and vegetables that aren’t totally soft but still have a bit of a crunch. And I love a good grilled medium-rare steak with a baked potato topped with bacon and chives.
The pandemic actually taught me to cook for myself. Before, I always cooked for others. But suddenly, like so many others, I was alone. I went into a state of depression during the pandemic. I didn’t feel like cooking, but eventually I started doing it; I started nurturing myself in that deeper sense. Food is our way of surviving. This is how we are creative. Food is also what makes us happy and that’s important. This is perhaps what is most important.