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Broncos and Boudin: The Angola Prison Rodeo

It was our story King's Candy: A Prison Kitchen Vision that led us to the Louisiana State Penitentiary and the Angola Prison Rodeo. That Hidden Kitchen story aired in November 2005, a few months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit. The Gulf Coast was reeling.

It was the story of Robert "King" Wilkerson, a man who spent 29 years in solitary confinement at Louisiana State Penitentiary. The prison emerged from a tobacco and cotton plantation named Angola. Legend has it that many of the slaves were brought there from Angola in Africa. When the plantation became a prison, the name stuck.

At 18,000 acres, the prison is so large that the island of Manhattan would fit inside its gates. Five million pounds of vegetables are grown there annually. Angola is hilly and beautiful, its rich agricultural soil deposited by the Mississippi River.

A Self-Feeding Prison Farm

The crops feed the inmates of Angola and many other "sister prisons" in the state. Warden Burl Cain says the facility spends only $1.41 a day to feed each inmate three meals because so much of the food is grown on prison grounds. Corn, wheat, cotton and soybeans are cultivated there — and crawfish and frog legs are taken from its lakes and ponds. Huge groves of pecans cover the hillsides. It was those pecans that found their way into the prison pralines Wilkerson was secretly crafting in his cell.

Wilkerson's story brought a flood of letters and calls, including one from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot said they were big Kitchen Sisters fans and really liked the Hidden Kitchen series.

She also said there was no way the story Wilkerson told us could be true. It would have been impossible, Fontenot said, for him to have made clandestine candy in his solitary-confinement cell. She invited us to come to Angola to prove it.

Fontenot also wanted us to make the trip because of Hurricane Katrina. She, like every other Louisiana resident, was in shock and grief from the devastating events of the flood and the hurricane.

Preserving Culture After Katrina

And then there was the rodeo. "The Kitchen Sisters really should come to the Angola Prison Rodeo," Fontenot said. Now that was a hidden kitchen.

"At the time of the hurricane, I really felt that so much of culture in terms of our music and food would be lost," she said. "It was ironic for me to realize as we had the rodeo two months after Katrina and Rita struck, that the smells and tastes were still alive in Angola through the inmates who were from those devastated areas.

"The inmates are preserving culture from prison," she said. "They kept a unique beloved part of Louisiana culture alive for people who had traveled all across the world to come and see this wild rodeo show. It was ironic to see how much of our culture had not been lost because so much of our culture happens to be in a maximum security prison."

Fontenot guided us through the Angola Prison Rodeo when we showed up for the event in April. She's right. Alongside the rodeo, some 43 inmate organizations had set up food concessions, started doing some down-home cooking and sold their Southern delights to the hungry, hopped-up public.

The Lifers Organization had the snow cone booth. The Toastmasters made crawfish etouffee and boudin balls. The Latin American Cultural Brotherhood did shrimp po-boys. And the Angola Men of Integrity sold funnel cakes.

A Prison Tradition

Dozens of traditional dishes are prepared and sold inside this fertile prison farm. Nearly all the ingredients are grown on the grounds. The man selling snow cones is in for rape. The man selling pig tails kidnapped his girlfriend. The guy selling the Tornado Potato is in for life.

"Rodeo is as traditional as apple pie," said Cain, the warden. "And it's traditional for the inmates to have the concessions and cook." They are raising money for a year-end banquet. Cain insists no taxpayer money is spent giving these men this special meal.

Fontenot said the rodeo idea started around 1964. "Employees and inmates backed up pickup trucks in a field and would go out there and play around on horses. Now the arena seats over 10,000 people," she said.

The prison puts on the rodeo twice a year. Inmates compete in seven events, including bull dogging, wild horse riding, "convict poker" and something called "guts and glory." Cain says most of the men have never trained for rodeo or gotten in the ring with a bucking bronco or an angry bull.

Why do they do it?

For the glory of a belt buckle and $100, for the chance to get a break from the daily routine, and for the attention and the applause from the public. And for the possibility of having some cash to send home to their families or for cash to buy some of their own supplies.

Cooking from Opportunity

The prison officials took us into one of the big kitchens where prisoners were cooking in huge industrial ovens and big pots. We thought about Wilkerson first learning to make candy from an older prisoner named "Cap Pistol," who gave him his recipe for pralines, which Wilkerson ultimately adapted for his Coke can stove in his cell. The prison also showed us a cell, the same size as Wilkerson's, to prove that he couldn't have made candy there without being discovered by a guard.

We heard about all kinds of secret cooking that goes on inside of jails. "Pruno" is a booze made from anything that ferments, like orange rinds or old juice or Twinkies. We heard about the spreads prisoners make out of vending machines, whole meals crafted from Cheetos, jerky, ramen, Cup O' Noodles. You name it.

Back at the rodeo, we walked from booth to booth, sampling blooming onions, boiled peanuts and cracklins, and talking to the men who were making them.

Donald Harvey Valare grabbed our attention with the Tornado Potato. "It's more fascinating to watch than it is to eat," he said. "I have been down 22 years and I have a life sentence. Short story: A guy had a baseball bat, I had a pistol. The pistol won. I was a former professional jockey. I'm a boxer now. And an inmate. That's me. What's left of me."

Potato Man and Other Local Cooks

Another inmate called out from his booth: "Snack at the shack, when you're hungry come back? We got a bull that can't run cause we got him on a bun."

And another: "Get your red hot sausage. Make your blood hot."

The smoke and the rhymes filled the prison air. Across the way, a huge shed roof covered booth after booth of inmate-made crafts and furniture. But convicts can't touch the money from the sales. The "freemen," as guards are called in Angola, do all the transactions.

A guy with a rap and a beat approaches. "One potato, two potato, three potato four...." Something tells us, it's Potato Man.

"They call me the Angola Potato Man," Clyde Dwayne Richard said. "They have things to eat here in Angola that you can't find in society. I take a big old potato, chop it down the middle, smother it with butter, then I put my crawfish, shrimp, sour cream and boudin.

He said he plans to open a potato shack when he gets out. "I think my family is going to help me — my mom and my wife," he said.

Most of the men we met will never get out.

"Around my house, if you didn't cook you was in trouble," an inmate named Ricky Westfall said. "I'm from North Louisiana and I've been here for 28 years. I can cook just about anything. My mama taught me that and I give her credit for that."

We made our way to the rodeo arena, which was jammed with convicts and visitors. The prison had them wear black-and-white old-fashioned jailbird shirts. Some were in pressed work shirts. They sat in fenced-in groups in the stands.

Angola is a prison with religion. Cain says there are four things that make a good prison: "Good eating, good medicine, good playin' an good prayin'." The arena prays together and a lot of the formation riders are riding for Christ. Their red banners snap in the late afternoon wind as they charge down the ring. Rodeo clowns, wild horse races, bull dogging, they do it all. The food hawkers could be heard in the distance.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning, NPR series, Hidden Kitchens, and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below-the-radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food. The Hidden Kitchens audio book, narrated by Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, received a 2006 Audie Award.