It’s 5:35 p.m. on a Friday evening when Big Tree walks into the kitchen. Immediately, all eyes focus on him. Big Tree is 52 years old, about 6’8” and weighs about 300 pounds. He towers over everyone. I guess that’s why they call him Big Tree.
If you didn’t know better, you might think everyone is watching him because they’re scared. That is far from the case. Big Tree is known around Wallkill for his exquisite cooking, and not a day goes by that he’s not seen with a spatula in his hand. People actually pay him to cook for them. That is how he survives in prison.
Big Tree walks straight to the cooking table in front of the stoves and begins to unload bags full of cooking utensils and ingredients.
“Ayo, Big Tree. What’s on the menu for tonight?” one onlooker asks.
“Just some fish and macaroni with cheese,” Big Tree replies. “Nothing special.”
The onlooker’s face is full of skepticism. Everybody knows that everything Big Tree cooks tastes special.
Big Tree pulls out a big, round tin pan, fills it with water and sits it on top of one of the burners. The prison won’t allow real pots and pans, so everybody cooks with tin ones. While he’s waiting for the water to come to a boil, he mixes one cup of pancake mix and two cups of flour into a bowl. He adds water and then whips it up until there are no clumps.
“Perfect,” Big Tree says.
He then pours a pile of corn flakes into a rectangular pan, grinds it down until it’s almost dust and sprinkles in some unknown seasoning. This is the sort of thing that separates him from other cooks. Everybody else usually seasons the batter.
“Big Tree, what kind of seasoning is that?” somebody asks.
“Just a little bit of this mixed with a little bit of that,” Big Tree replies. The man has his secrets.
By this time, the water for the macaroni is boiling, so Big Tree takes a bag of elbow noodles and dumps them into the water. Meanwhile, he takes out six pieces of pollock and rolls each one around in the pancake and flour mixture. He then puts each piece of fish in the bowl with the seasoned corn flakes and rolls it around until it’s well coated.
By this point, the macaroni is done cooking, so he drains the water and dumps the pasta into a bowl filled with four different cheeses already chopped into near-perfect cubes. He then takes a mixture of Egg Starts and flour and pours it into the noodles. This is to pull everything together. Then, he places two risers on the burners before putting the macaroni and cheese back on the heat. The risers keep the mixture from burning.
“It’s showtime!” he says as he prepares to fry the fish.
Big Tree takes another circular tin pan and fills it with just enough corn oil to cover the fish. Once it’s hot enough, he slides each piece of fish into the oil with a steady hand.
“Oh shit,” Big tree says, “I knew I forgot something.”
He’s forgotten to cover the macaroni with aluminum foil to contain the heat and help the cheese melt faster. He turns around and catches my eye.
“Weezy, could you watch this food real fast while I run and go grab some aluminum foil? Also could you flip these pieces of fish for me?”
“I got you,” I reply.
The sight and smell of that fish frying immediately has my stomach growling. By the time I flip the last piece, Big Tree is back.
“Thank you, Weezy,” he says, “I’ll hook you up with a piece of fish and some macaroni when I finish. It should be about 10 more minutes, so I’m going to need your bowl.”
Man, I must have made it to my room and back with my bowl in less than 60 seconds. While I was waiting for Big Tree to get done, I happen to notice a few people shooting me envious looks. They probably heard him tell me that he’s going to spread the love. I pay them no mind.
Big Tree tells me he’s been cooking for about 25 years. “I give all the credit to my grandmother, may she rest in peace,” he says. “All I did was watch her.”
He begins placing the food carefully into bowls. “When she passed, cooking was a way for me to stay connected with her,” he says sadly.
He hands me the bowl, and I don’t waste any time.
“Mm mmm,” I say. “You definitely should try to get your own cooking show, you’ve got some skills.”
“Thank you,” he says. Then his eyes glance up at the ceiling as he adds with a smile, “And thank you, Grandma.”
Wayne Mosley is currently enrolled in the NYU Prison Education Program at Wallkill Correctional Facility. This story was approved for publication by a Department of Corrections official.
Email Wayne Mosley at [email protected]