Prisoner Fudge

A son remembers how his father mixed servings of chocolate and justice

By Sam Kean Nov. 20, 2007

My father disdained the simplicity of Prisoner Fudge—a stripped-down recipe of sugar, milk, margarine and chocolate chips. He’d plop the ingredients into his metal mixing bowl, and since no real cooking was involved, he’d melt the chips and margarine, stir, then pour the brown silk into a pan. For a day, it tasted like jellified chocolate syrup. Soon after, it hardened into a shale that Neanderthals might have chipped to make spearheads.

On weekdays my father was a sober, black-robed judge in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. On weekends, he’d mix, crimp and fluff until midnight, wearing a white, open-chested V-neck T-shirt like an Italian papa in a tenement house. A prodigious baker, he made so many carrot cakes during one bleak stretch of my adolescence that, despite the infinite variations of ingredients—cloves, raisins, walnuts, allspice, pecans, Brer Rabbit molasses, and butter-cream, cream cheese and sour cream frostings—my mom banned them for nine years. Prisoner Fudge was the easiest thing he made. After the skill he displayed lightly toasting meringues; after the patience he showed getting just the right spring on his Johnny Cake; he must have smoldered watching an infantile dessert disappear faster than his delicacies.

Prisoner Fudge earned its name because local do-gooders baked batches for inmates at the penitentiary every holiday. It became a regular Christmas routine for my family: one batch to relieve the souls of prisoners, one for us. The recipe appeared amid those for casseroles and other desserts in the local Argus Leader newspaper. It differed in that, at the bottom, where recipes normally encourage innovation with nuts or butterscotch, this recipe reminded patrons that the State Pen rejected any and all enhancements. No drizzled toppings, no caramel ribbons, no peanut butter. People even had to drop off batches uncut at the penitentiary a mile from my house, so volunteers could pare each pan into one-inch cubes and probe for contraband ingredients with a knife.

Most assumed these measures were meant to reduce the chances of smuggling in nail files or heroin. But the real reason was simpler and baser. The guards didn’t worry about contraband; they worried about the prisoners. Even tasteless walnuts made one batch different, raised one man from proletariat to bourgeoisie. And better the dystopia of everyone being equally bad off than someone getting shivved in the shower for a few cents of marshmallow.

All batches came in anonymously, so no prisoner my father sent to jail could have known the origin of the fudge he savoured. Most, I suspect, would not have been grateful. Yet a minority of those men, after paying their debts to society, would approach him in the grocery store, shake his hand, and confess that the conviction he had laid down had straightened them out. When the ex-con resumed shopping, my dad would relate his crimes, and in this way I heard about dozens of despicable acts involving drunk driving, manslaughter or meth. All the D.A.R.E. and evil-alcohol campaigns in the world couldn’t have scared me off mind-altering substances more than watching those men try to resume their lives and shop like nothing had ever happened.

But as a doctor leaves death behind him on his personal time, the stories never bothered my father. He’d swing his cart around the grocery store and head for the baking aisle.