*This essay contains spoilers for all three seasons of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black*
In Orange is the New Black’s Litchfield Women’s Prison, food is a primary object of affection, and with it comes the violence and devotion that accompanies desire. A spilled King Cone leads to a beat-down. The kitchen can’t keep cucumbers or other phallic-shaped items in stock. In one Season 1 phone call, Piper (Taylor Schilling) pleads with her bourgeois stick-in-the-mud fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) to recite the fruits of his grocery visit, and she flushes with desire at the thought of “purple kale” and “crispy snap peas.” Larry’s erotic descriptors quickly segue into phone sex, Piper’s excited reaction to the “plump, ripe, engorged tomatoes” a reasonable transition into Larry’s attempt to turn the conversation more directly toward prison-inhibited carnal arousal. At this, Piper is turned off. It isn’t Larry she wants (at any point, really), it’s what Larry can offer: a window to the outside world, a world that is, for this yuppie couple, heavily defined by co-op shopping, vegan dining choices, and the perfect smoothie.
Food (eating it, obtaining it, desiring it, withholding it) is a central concern of Orange is the New Black’s economy as a whole; the prison system’s wholesale removal of the individual autonomy to eat what one wants immediately raises the value of food and its accompanying pleasures astronomically. Eating food that you have chosen or that someone has cooked for you with care becomes a moment of self-governance, an instance of control asserted on both the body and its immediate surroundings, while being forced (whether by prison or economic circumstances) into eating processed food out of a bag, a box, a container, etc., contributes to the feeling of being trapped. Leslie Pariseau at Vulture recently provided an episodic list of OINTB’s most noteworthy food-related plots, pointing out that food in the show is both “divisive—a punishment” and a “reward, a symbol of alliance and an olive branch.” Though the “grocery list sex” is certainly one micro example, so many of the show’s primary arcs revolve around food as well. Think Piper being “starved out” by Red after insulting the kitchen’s food (S1), Red’s ousting and Gloria’s subsequent replacement of her (S2), Pennsatucky’s devastating donut runs with Officer Coates (S3), and corporate takeover MCC’s meal regime-change (S3).
All of these examples reveal essential information about the characters they center on, positioning food as a primary story apparatus for exploring and charting character development. Food is a functional part of the economy at Litchfield, and is deployed as one of the foremost bargaining chips in character interactions, symbolizing a rotating host of kinship bonds and conflicts. In keeping food front-and-center in the viewer’s understanding of the identities of these characters, Orange is the New Black matter-of-factly presents women’s various relationships to food in a manner that is unmatched by any other major television pop phenomenon.
Inside Red’s Kitchen
The arc of kitchen matriarch Red (Kate Mulgrew) is the most writ-large example of food’s functionality and influence in the prison environment, both positively and negatively. With Red at its helm, the kitchen staff prior to MCC’s arrival creates a community with more autonomy than any other in the prison. The viewer’s introduction to Red marks her as the top of the prison power structure, nearly beyond reproach. She almost starves Piper, the viewer’s initial proxy, to death within the first three episodes, and the show wastes no time revealing the breadth and scope of her smuggling operation, further solidifying her centrality and deepening the viewer’s understanding of the reverence some characters initially show her, like Annie Golden’s servantly Norma and Natasha Lyonne’s Nicky. Revealingly, the further Red is moved from the kitchen as the show progresses, the more she is brought low; she loses her bargaining power, her alliances no longer stand, and her confidence withers.
Though gardening eventually offers Red a substitute for the kitchen in terms of autonomy and racketeering, the grounds work also renders her relatively marginal to the prison’s hierarchy. When she is no longer in control of the kitchen, she is no longer the center of the prison’s infrastructure. This set-up increases the tragi-comic nature of her eventual return to the kitchen in Season 3, and that season’s turn towards the bigger picture: Red is back where she belongs, but the importance of the kitchen head’s role is wildly diminished by the corporate takeover, which requires the kitchen workers to warm up revolting bags of pre-cooked factory meals. As we are reminded more and more as the series progresses, any semblance of self-determination is undermined by the system, little more than a necessary illusion for day-to-day operations. Red’s relationship to food is the most all-encompassing thematically; her passion for cooking and eating is authentic, but she uses her cooking skills and the authority lent by the kitchen in order to promote her own ends, and the ends of those she considers “family.”
The Power of Pastry
In spite of the cafeteria’s banal grotesqueries, “illicit” food (food obtained outside of the cafeteria, or the kosher meals) and its consumption, do importantly emerge in Season 3 as one of the primary avenues the prisoners have towards moments of humanity. Red’s dinner party in the Season 3 episode “It Might be Corny” serves to ingratiate her back into the good graces of the many inmates wronged during her Season 2 war with big bad Vee, but it also does the very real work of offering the prisoners something beautiful. As Pariseau notes, Red’s dinner party plays out like a scene from “an underground supper club,” and though the atmosphere is a recreation, an illusion, it does not diminish the value of that experience. The consumption of Red’s delicate corn and leek quiche is a decadent pleasure, and even as the prisoners wear their uniforms instead of finery and drink Poussey’s hooch instead of wine, the dinner succeeds in making them feel human again. A similar truth is evidenced by Chang’s humble daily routine, revolving around the luxuriously slow ingestion of clementines in the shed, and the make-shift Frito fritters that save her from relying on cafeteria fare.
As such, the promise of “good food” for the prisoners is one easily manipulated, and food as a theme here is also deployed to illustrate the discrepancies between characters, whether economic or in terms of power differentials. Piper’s flashbacks to the deprivations of faddish juice cleanses in Season 1 stand as examples of trendy WASP privilege that set her apart from most of the inmates around her. While Piper is missing fresh greens and “crack almonds,” Taystee’s tragically hasty return to prison is accompanied by a monologue exclaiming “Man, at least in jail you get dinner.” The satire surrounding Piper and Larry’s “foodism” was well-documented following Season 1 by India Mandelkern at The Huffington Post. These contrasts set the stage for Piper’s ascension to semi-ruthless white gang leader, exploiting labor from inmates, often inmates of color, like Flaca, who actually needs the money. Piper’s ability to buy the commissary out of ramen packets allows her to supplant real payment with “sodium and MSG.” In addition to serving as a prime bargaining chip for inmates, various prison guards’ promises and bribes also revolve around food, exploiting the prisoners’ lack for their own gains. Healey promises cookies to those who attend his “safe space,” Bennett offers Diaz fresh spinach as a romantic gift for their unborn child, and CO Coates wins Pennsatucky’s favor with daily “free” donuts, resulting in the most horrendous abuse of power in the show’s run thus far. In most of these instances, the promise of culinary pleasure outweighs logic or competing desires.
The fleeting pleasure of food consumption emerges in Orange is the New Black as a primary thematic aspect because it offers so many narrative possibilities, all of which co-exist. Food’s usefulness in prison as an avenue towards bribery and exploitation fails to cancel out its value in bolstering the inmates’ sense of personal agency, or the value of pleasure in an arena where there is so little to be found. There is an intimidating wealth of instances to discuss where food is concerned within the world of Litchfield and its accompanying narratives, but even the brief considerations detailed here provide a sense of the centrality of the theme within the show. It is rare in American pop culture to see such continued emphasis on the daily relationship of women to food, and in so doing, Orange is the New Black does something special. Food’s consumption and use here can be explosive, orgasmic, decadent, hedonistic, and animalistic, but it is always accurately central and realistically valued.
Katlyn Williams is currently a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Iowa, studying contemporary American literature and culture with a focus on the identity politics of science fiction and fantasy works of art. When she isn’t reading or writing, she enjoys watching horror movies, eating popcorn, and trying to explain how it is possible to be both an avid feminist and a horror fan. She urges you to tweet her your pop culture recommendations @katy_earl.