If you’ve ever so much as flirted with the poverty line then you already know: instant noodles are the shit. Show me someone who doesn’t fizz for these salty, soupy little locks of non-perishable gold and I’ll show you a liar. For students it’s a staple; for the time-poor and the cost-effective, an inarguable necessity; and for those individuals incarcerated in the increasingly destitute public prison system, now a form of black-market currency.
According to a recent study by University of Arizona sociologist Michael Gibson-Light, packets of instant noodles are fast overtaking luxury items such as cigarettes as the most-prized item of exchange in the “underground economy.” Ramen noodles, to be precise.
This should come as little surprise to anyone who’s ever had so much as a mouthful of ramen. The rich Asian dish is good enough to have become the unofficial halal snack pack of Japan, with late-night diners flooding the eateries in hordes to drunkenly slurp the stuff down by the bowlful.
On a broader scale, as Gibson-Light is quick to point out, “Ramen is notably embraced by cash-strapped college students”—and, as it turns out, prisoners are fawning over it for much the same reasons.
“Because it is cheap, tasty and rich in calories, ramen has become so valuable that it is used to exchange for other goods,” he said in a news release on Monday.
As the amount of funding going toward United States correctional facilities diminishes, Gibson-Light wanted to investigate the effect that the shrinking budgets have had on prisoners. Interviewing and observing some 60 inmates and staff over the course of a year, he discovered that as food quality and portion sizes went down, shares in ramen went way way up.
The Washington Post reports that Gibson-Light “saw prisoners put down ramen packs, or ‘soups,’ as literal bargaining chips during card games. According to the study, one inmate put it succinctly: ‘Soup is money in here.’”
Another inmate explained that an individual’s stash of ramen was typically viewed as a sign of affluence and status—the more instant noodles you have, the more highly regarded you are in the eyes of others.
“You can tell how good a man’s doing by how many soups he’s got in his locker. ‘Twenty soups? Oh, that guy’s doing good!'” he said. “Prison is like the streets. You use currency for everything. In here, it’s soups.”
In conversation with Washington Post, ex-convict-turned-chef Gustavo ‘Goose’ Alvarez got a bit more carried away. “It’s gold. It’s literally gold,” says Goose, who probably doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘literally’, but who literally did write the book on prison ramen, titled Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars.
In the book, Goose discloses the kind of fucked up innovative ramen recipes that prisoners were forced to cook up on the inside. Take the so-called “ramen-wich”—a moist brick of ramen noodles on a slice of bread with cheese and mayo—or the dry brick of noodles spread with peanut butter and jelly that Goose remembers eating in prison, and these ‘meals’ start looking a lot like the kind of haphazard rations any student and/or crackhead would throw together in their darkest hours.
“I would eat them before a handball tournament or a workout,” said Goose. “For some reason, it would give that an extra push.”
But while prison may sound like a riot when the 2-minute noodles are flowing freely, the ramen trade—like any black-market—can get ugly when product’s in short supply. Goose has witnessed first-hand exactly what this MSG-laced culinary crack can do to a man.
“People will actually—and I hate to say this but—they’ll kill for it, believe it or not.”
Feature image: Gizmodo