originally published May 26, 2014
Sometimes sinking one’s brain-fins into the waters of a good hypothetical topic and paddling about with one’s friends can be a healthy exercise. “What ten albums would you want on a deserted island?” “Which three children’s books would you travel back in time to read to a young Calvin Coolidge?” “If you could repaint the Great Wall of China in any shade of turquoise…” But my favorite of all hypothetical dalliances is the notion of the final meal.
The problem here is that we don’t generally know when our final meal will take place. It has crossed my mind upon consuming the occasional flaccid offering of meat-like McFiller-Material that I might be condemning my taste buds to an anticlimactic splatter of blandness, should a tragedy befall me suddenly. In order to become lucidly aware that your next meal will truly be your last, you’ll have had to have made some pretty nefarious life choices. For those of us who will probably never be on death row, each time we order off the menu we’re rolling the dice that we’ll get another chance.
The last meal is the one romanticized element of capital punishment. In truth, the condemned prisoner is usually not allowed to order with the full breadth of his or her imagination. If they could, I’m sure the final meal would often consist of a key to their cell baked into a Twinkie, along with a fully-armed rocket launcher, maybe garnished with a side-salad. In the US, even alcohol is usually on the forbidden list.
Of course, the real reason prisoners are entitled to a glorious final meal has nothing to do with mercy or consideration for the doomed. It’s all about ghosts.
The last meal for the condemned is rooted in ancient superstition. Serving someone a free meal implies making a form of peace with the host, a truce if you will. The prisoner’s acceptance of the complimentary grub implies that he or she has forgiven the judge, the executioner and the witnesses. It was the state’s (or the crown’s) way of saying, “Here, enjoy this feast. Please don’t come back and haunt us. We’re cool, right?” The better the food and drink, the less likely the prisoner will return to spook those involved with his death.
Even in biblical times, the notion of giving a condemned soul a pleasant gustatory so-long was a thing. Though to be accurate, there is no mention in the old texts about feeding a prisoner, only getting them drunk. “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.” I can dig that. Even the Talmud says that those who are on their way to the gallows should be intoxicated for the experience. I don’t know if they were worried about being haunted so much as wanting to make the transition for the doomed a little more pleasant. Or maybe a drunk prisoner put up less of a fight, I don’t know.
Once the notion of getting hunted down by the recently-undead was no longer so much a concern, the final meal either carried on as a tradition or died out, depending on the administration in charge. Eighteenth-century English law wiped out the final meal, indicating that during the period between sentence and execution, the prisoner should be kept in solitary confinement and given nothing more than bread and water. The French tradition was to give the prisoner a little glass of rum just a few minutes before they met the guillotine. There was no final meal, as the period between sentencing and off-with-his-heading was usually only a matter of a few hours.
The tradition of the final meal is alive and well in most parts of the United States that still execute people. They call it the prisoner’s “special meal”, as it’s served one or two days prior to the execution, and is not necessarily the last thing the person is going to eat. Something to consider for the lactose-intolerant – whatever you order for your big feast, you’ll probably have to contend with the full breadth of its effects on your innards before you’re snuffed out, so you may want to steer clear of your love for cheese fondue. Just saying.
There are specific restrictions (beyond the rocket-launcher idea), on what you’ll be imbibing for your final chow-down. In America the default is no booze and no cigarettes. In Florida the food must be local (so no escargots in butter sauce from that place you love in Paris) and it can’t cost more than $40. Make that a limit of $15 in Oklahoma. You murder someone in Tulsa you’ll be lucky if you can swing a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal and a Hot Apple Pie for your final repast.
Some inmates choose to share their final meal with another inmate, or even to have it distributed among the others in his or her cell block. In special cases someone from the outside (such as the inmate’s mom) can join in on the meal. In Louisiana it’s customary for the warden of the prison to sit down and join the prisoner. I’m not sure if there’s a special story behind this tradition or if wardens in Louisiana just love to eat.
When Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s infamous mass-murderers was sentenced to be hanged in Israel, he requested a bottle of Carmel, a dry Israeli wine. Saddam Hussein refused the offer of chicken and cigarettes for his last meal. Mona Fandey, a former pop singer, witch doctor and murderer from Malaysia, turned down a final meal at Kajang Prison, so her captors took the opportunity to make her suffer a little more and gave her KFC the night before her hanging.
Pizza, burgers and steak are big among the condemned. Ted Bundy refused his final meal, perhaps hoping he’d get the chance to haunt the prison officials after he was gone. One Alabama prisoner requested turkey bologna and grilled cheese. Dobie Gillis Williams, executed in Louisiana in 1999, opted for a dozen chocolate bars instead of a well-balanced meal. Gerald Lee Mitchell in Texas asked for a bag of Jolly Ranchers. James Edward Smith asked for a lump of dirt, but the guards refused him. Victor Feguer, executed in Iowa in 1963, asked for one lone olive.
But the real prize goes to Lawrence Russell Brewer.
Brewer is the guy who ruined it for everyone in Texas. For his final meal he requested a modest portion of two chicken-fried steaks (with gravy and sliced onions, of course), a triple-bacon-cheeseburger, an omelet with cheese, beef, tomatoes, onions, peppers and jalapenos, a bowl of fried okra with ketchup, a pound of barbecued meat, a half-loaf of white bread, three fajitas, a meat-lover’s pizza, a pint of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts, and three root beers to wash it all down. For whatever reason, Texas prison officials complied, gathering this table-full of food for Brewer to enjoy before heading for the great beyond. Brewer looked at the feast, then pushed himself away from the table without eating a bite. He claimed he wasn’t hungry.
With that little prank, Senator John Whitmire pushed through legislation that eliminated the last meal tradition in Texas prisons. Brewer might have thought he was punking the system; actually he was screwing over everyone else who would ever be on death row in his state.
For myself, I don’t know. A serving of Mr. Cecil’s Ribs from L.A., a juicy pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli in New York, maybe a slice of key lime pie and a pint of chili lager from Dadeo’s, my local haunt… I think it’s probably best that I’ll never have to make this decision.