Ceyenne Doroshow is an activist and founder of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (GLITS), a nonprofit dedicated to providing sustainable health care and housing for BIPOC transgender people. She’s also the author of “Cooking in Heels,” a memoir and cookbook she wrote while in jail, serving a sentence for prostitution. Cooking is a core part of who Doroshow is and in this Voices in Food story, she shares how it literally saved her life.
I learned to cook from my grandfather, grandmother and mom. My grandfather was a celebrity chef. Since he cooked for his job, he would only cook for our family on holidays, but on those days, it was game on. He would wake up at 6 a.m. to start cooking and his meals were pure art. He’d make these yeast biscuits with a nice, buttery top that I can still almost smell if I think back. I was his sous chef for these big meals. We’d cook the whole day together.
My mom loved to entertain back in the day and every good celebration needs food. She liked to make everyone’s favorite food special just for them. For example, my uncle loved chitlins, so she’d make them just for him. As for me? I loved her deviled eggs. She would whip the filling until it was airy and light. Oh, and her bacon fried rice. That was another one of my favorites.
I had a babysitter, Flora, who liked to cook too and we would cook together. Flora was an Italian woman and we would make things like minestrone soup. She liked the kitchen real organized. She would always tell me, “You gotta keep the counters clean.” All these lessons taught me how to maneuver in the kitchen and how to make really delicious, home-cooked meals.
The first person I cooked for was my dad. I was 10 years old. My mom had to be somewhere, so my dad, brother and I were on our own for dinner. My dad had got us TV dinners to eat and I thought, “Oh no, this will not do.” I made us fried chicken, Spanish rice and salad. I have to say, my dad was impressed. It turned out really good.
“We would communicate through the vent system. Someone would ask me through the vent, ‘Hey, I’m hungry. What can I make?’ I’d ask them what they had from the commissary and then I’d give them something simple they could make with just the microwave.”
– Ceyenne Doroshow
Clearly I grew up eating a lot of good meals and the last meal I ate before my arrest was a good one, too. It was spare ribs, collard greens, macaroni salad and candied yams. That’s what I was eating when the cops came and kicked my door in.
I was so hungry in jail. So, so hungry. I actually started writing recipes to clear my mind. I didn’t have access to quality ingredients I was used to cooking with, but I got creative using my commissary list. I would help the other inmates make meals, too, teaching them how to make casseroles in the microwave. One casserole I taught them was made by mixing vienna sausages in ramen noodles and crumbling tortilla chips on top, cooking the whole thing in the microwave. Or you can use the seasoning from the ramen noodles and sprinkle it on rice, cooking in the microwave. I taught people that, too.
Knowing how to cook was actually my lifesaver in jail. I would not have made it without knowing how to cook. People who probably would have hurt me otherwise came to me for advice on how to cook with their limited ingredients and for tips on how to sustain themselves. Before I went to jail, I was a caseworker, so a lot of the inmates knew me as that. When I got arrested, the police showed [them all] my picture, this fallen sex worker who was a caseworker. They did it to be nasty and to out me. But people still wanted my advice about cooking.
We would communicate through the vent system. Someone would ask me through the vent, “Hey, I’m hungry. What can I make?” I’d ask them what they had from the commissary and then I’d give them something simple they could make with just the microwave. Or sometimes I’d tell them how to take what was given to us and make it better. Like if we got grilled cheese for dinner, I’d tell them to add tuna fish to it so it had more sustenance. But the food in jail is just horrible. You can only do so much.
“Knowing how to cook was actually my lifesaver in jail. … People who probably would have hurt me otherwise came to me for advice on how to cook with their limited ingredients and for tips on how to sustain themselves.”
When I cook for myself now, I make food that nourishes my body and soul. I love pot pies. I love really rich gravy and vegetables that aren’t totally soft but still have a bit of crunch. And I love a nice, broiled medium-rare steak with baked potato topped with bacon and chives.
The pandemic actually taught me how to cook for myself. Before, I was always cooking for other people. But suddenly, like so many others, I was alone. I did get into a state of depression during the pandemic. I didn’t have the drive to cook, but eventually, I just started doing it; I started feeding myself in that deeper sense. Food is how we survive. It’s how we’re creative. Food is also what makes us happy and that’s important. It might be what’s most important.