Here are few highlights:
- Studiofeast, an invitation-only supper club in New York City, hosts an annual event based on the best responses to the question, “You’re about to die, what’s your last meal?” There are books and magazine articles and art projects that address, among other things, what celebrity chefs—like Mario Batali and Marcus Samuelsson—would have for their last meals, or what the famous and the infamous ate before dying. Newspapers reported that Saddam Hussein was offered but refused chicken, while Esquire published an article about the terminally ill Francois Mitterrand, the former French president, who had Marennes oysters, foie gras, and, the pièce de résistance, two ortolan songbirds. The bird is thought to represent the French soul and, because it’s protected, is illegal to consume.
- The idea of a meal before an execution is compassionate or perverse, depending on your perspective, but it contains an inherently curious paradox: marking the end of a life with the stuff that sustains it seems at once laden with meaning and beside the point. As Barry Lee Fairchild, who was executed by the state of Arkansas in 1995, said in regard to his last meal, “It’s just like putting gas in a car that don’t have no motor.”
- In America, where the death rows—like the prisons generally—are largely filled with men from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, last-meal requests are dominated by the country’s mass-market comfort foods: fries, soda, fried chicken, pie. Sprinkled in this mix is a lot of what social scientists call “status foods”—steak, lobster, shrimp—the kinds of foods that in popular culture conjure up the image of affluence.
- The final turn of the screw is that prisoners often don’t get what they ask for. It is the request, and not what is ultimately served—let alone what’s actually consumed, which is often little or nothing—that is released to the press and broadcast to the public. Most states have restrictions on what can be served and how much of it, a monetary limit, for instance, or based on what’s in the prison pantry on a given day.