In many jails and prisons, inmates devise a cuisine that supplements –– or replaces –– the official meals provided them. Nearly every evening in the San Francisco County jails, inmates make ““spread,”” the generic term for this cuisine, out of dried ramen noodles and ingredients saved from their meal trays or purchased on weekly commissary orders. Based on a series of over thirty interviews, inmate's recipes indicate wide ethnic variations in spread, as well as skills in inventing pies and other desserts. Obtaining ingredients and sharing spread establishes bonds between individuals and groups within the jail setting.
As both product and practice, spread's significance emerges out of its oppositions –– in appearance, taste, and origins –– to jail food. According to the inmates, despite its adherence to nutritional standards, the jailhouse diet represents monotony, insufficiency, and a lack of autonomy; spreading thus provides a creative and social outlet that counters the constraints of incarceration.