Sometimes, a story that seems like a lark becomes remarkably thought-provoking. When reader Christian Palmer suggested I do a story on the last meals of prisoners, it seemed like a "fun" thing to do. The more I looked into it though, the more I started thinking about life and death, and how those of us who are free have opportunities to celebrate our lives through the act of eating.
In many countries, prisoners sentenced to death are given an opportunity to make a final request for their last earthly pleasure: their last meal. Prisoners can thank inmate Lawrence Russell Brewer, who participated in the horrific murder of James Byrd, Jr., for the discontinuation of the practice in Texas in 2011. He ordered:
• Two chicken fried steaks smothered in gravy with sliced onions • Triple meat bacon cheeseburger with fixings on the side • Cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapenos • Fried okra with ketchup • One pound of barbecue with half a loaf of white bread • Three fajitas with fixings • "Meat Lovers" pizza • Three root beers • One pint of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream • Peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts
When the feast arrived, he didn't eat a bite of it. After a formal complaint from Senator John Whitmire that the meal requests were inappropriate (since murder victims certainly did not get such a boon before their deaths), Brad Livingston, Executive Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, declared the practice discontinued.
How did the granting of a last meal to violent criminals come to be? It turns out that while it was practiced in ancient Rome, Greece and China, European superstitions may have been what ensured it was continued for so long. Writer Christoph Reilly researched the origins of the last meal request and wrote: "In pre-modern Europe, the tradition is deeply rooted in superstition. When the condemned accepted a last meal it symbolized making peace with the executioner, judge, jury, and witnesses, and furthermore, prevented the executed from returning as a ghost to haunt those responsible."
Fortunately, for us law-abiding folks who don't plan to spend the end of our lives in jail, the last meal is a concept we can consider for ourselves. Well, it may be hard to predict what the "last" meal will be. (Oregon, Montana and Washington each have a "death with dignity" act, which makes this type of planning more feasible.) Long, slow illness may take us, stealing our appetite. We may die suddenly, such as in a car accident.
Still, the quality of the end of our lives is important and worth thinking about. Eating is one of the first acts we accomplish. Hopefully, eating, with joy and with our friends and family near us, will be one of the last.
I'm a Texas woman. I've spent my life here since I was a little over a year old. My choice is a quintessential Texas meal of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and green beans. Some fried okra on the side might be nice, too, as well as some sweet tea. It can't be just any old chicken fried steak, though. It has to be a perfect one, with a crispy, thick crust that crunches, at least until the country gravy softens it.
I asked some people what they would choose, and here are their responses. The responses reflect the variety and individuality that exists in each of us.
Some of us will hanker for Mom's cooking until the end. Taylor Byrne of My Table Magazine answered quickly: "My mom's pot roast. It tastes like love." (Taylor's mom, of course, is Teresa Byrne-Dodge, Editor of My Table, who apparently also cooks an awesome pot roast.) Jenn Molholt also went the maternal route, saying "My last meal would be Mom's cooking. Or spaghetti."
Some Houston restaurants can pat themselves on the back, as they were chosen to provide a theoretical last meal. Industry professional Linda Salinas chose noted Italian restaurant Da Marco, while former engineer and accomplished home cook Carol Osborne said, "It will be at Oxheart. Of that, I am sure."
Realtor Sharon Wicker went regional when she said "something Mexican," while someone at Apple Moving questioned why one would choose anything other than Mexican, writing "It's ALL delicious!"
Some dishes were very specific, probably for personal reasons. "Shrimp scampi with angel hair pasta," said a reader named Mary, while local chocolatier Nancy Burke of Chocola d'Arte detailed a Maine dinner: "lobster roll, steamers (clams), Italian sandwich, whoopie pie and cider." Noted "beer nerd" and blogger Chris White chose "BBQ crabs and a pitcher of great IPA."
Former Houston cab driver Alex Feigelson has found some great food in his new home of Chicago, as he picked "omakase sushi by Chef Mike at Tanoshii (a cool place here in Chicago) served with prosecco. Dessert would be dark chocolate mousse cake."
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Credit goes to noted local food enthusiast David Leftwich for considering how setting and music affects the eating experience. "A pig roast on a beautiful farm with an amazing bluegrass and/or old-timey country music band playing," was his choice.
Maybe we'll get a chance to pick a last meal, or something close to last. However, just in case, perhaps the best advice is to follow the adage about living each day as our last.