I suppose mine would be: A starter of sliced chorizo and manchego cheese, followed by a main course of two Chicken Kievs (the ‘fresh’ ones from Sainsbury’s, although how ‘chopped and shaped’ chicken can ever be considered ‘fresh’ is beyond me), a generous portion of boiled broccoli and two potato waffles (a childhood throwback that one, as I didn’t really eat real potatoes until I hit 22 and had to be taught how to peel, boil and mash them by my girlfriend). And for dessert, a big slice of pecan pie drowning in fresh single cream, and all of the above washed down with a half-litre of wheat-beer (any of the mainstream German brands will do). Finally, a mug of milky English breakfast tea (no sugar) to round it all off.
They say you are what you eat, and to judge from the above, I’ve got an awful lot in common with Katie Price (or perhaps we’re just both awfully common), whose own choice would be Kievs, sweetcorn and chips.
What am I talking about? It’s the condemned prisoner’s last meal. It seems odd at first glance that the final meal of those condemned to execution enjoys such a disproportionately high degree of public interest – apparently, it’s one of the questions journalists always ask when writing up a story on a criminal’s impending execution, since they can reliably assume their readers will be interested. The ‘last meal’ isn’t even a last meal anyway as it is typically served some days before the execution (owing to an understandable loss of appetite in the prisoner as their final day approaches). But that the meal is publicly highlighted in this way shows that this is something that is being held up to us as significant, and demands interpretation. So what’s going on here?
To start with, I suppose we think it tells us something about the condemned man’s character (and it is usually a man). We crave some insight into people who have committed acts that are beyond the capabilities of most of us ordinary folks, so we seize on something, anything, that might give us a clue about the mysteries of how their mind works. After these people arrive on Death Row, their lives must become quite drab, whatever details their gorily colourful pre-prison biographies might contain, and we rarely hear anything about them personally as they wait out the drawn-out process of legal appeals. So with little for the outside world to go on, we look to this meal – a break in routine for the prisoner before the ultimate break in routine - to tell us what kind of person this might be.
At first, it gives us an unsettling insight: it suggests that they’re a bit like us really, as they like the same things we do (‘Hey, I love pigging out on double meat cheeseburgers too!’). On that basis, it’s another version of the banality of evil again. Our man might be a killer but, like John William Elliot (rape and murder with a bicycle chain), he still loves his chocolate chip-cookies just like we do.
That might be an unpalatable notion to many, but it's possible to view this phenomenon positively, of course, in that that it provides a crumb of the common humanity we all share that the condemned had otherwise turned his back on when he committed his crimes. So it reminds us that the condemned is an ordinary human being, whatever his or her outrageous deeds.
But once we realise that the inmate is in some way like us, and not to be pigeonholed off as ‘evil’ or ‘incomprehensible’, he becomes open to interpretation. And a closer look at the last meal tells us quite a bit more about the eater.
For starters (so to speak), one notices that the meal requests can be positively Rabelaisian in scope: a read through the excellent (if hard to use) gallery of last meals on http://www.crimelibrary.com/photogallery/last-meals.html reveals, for example, ice cream requested by the gallon, lagoons of fizzy drinks, and what feels like fried chicken by the battery-farm. For example, take James Blake Colburn (attempted rape, then strangulation of his neighbour), who ordered 6 Cokes (Coke’s slogan: ‘Life begins here’); or Ruth Snyder (murdered her husband for the insurance money) and her flatulent 12-pack of grape soda; or even Jeffrey ‘8 pints of chocolate milk’ Dillingham (a contract killer). I suppose they are taking Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 32, to heart… like a bolus of potassium chloride, as it were.
Moreover, ordering food that they cannot hope to consume in its entirety also represents a failure to understand the consequences of their actions, a lack of the imagination needed to anticipate the results of one’s decisions – and that, once again, is something that is emblematic of the kind of person who might end up on Death Row.
But while some men order and have no grasp of the implications, it has to be said that some prisoners clearly do understand that the choice of meal has the power to make a statement. For many, it is a last assertion of autonomy that was lost when they were condemned.
Some just want to assert that autonomy as an end in itself: Kevin Green (robbed a shop, murdered the shopkeeper) refused to let his last meal be disclosed; and Lawrence Russell Brewer (a neo-Nazi white supremacist who dragged a black man with his truck until he had died) ordered a staggering amount of food and then refused to eat it – seemingly an attempt to score points off the authorities to the last (which worked: Texas ceased to grant last meal requests to Death Row inmates from that point on).
Others clearly understand that the final meal will not only receive publicity that they have some control over, but also that their choice has some symbolic import – it will be their one of only two opportunities to reach a wider audience (the other opportunity being their reported last words), other than writing letters to the sundry crazies who choose to correspond with Death Row prisoners.
That the choice of food has a sub-text is clear enough when you ask people (I mean non-criminals) what their last meal would be. Jordan and I may have answered the question ‘straight’, but our answers must reveal something or other about us (if only that I have a hitherto undiscovered affinity with retired Page 3 girls). And the comments on a CNN article about this subject (http://eatocracy.cnn.com/2010/09/27/last-orders-death-row-menu-requests/) are a nice illustration of this point: while most people answer the question straight, one or two contributors very self-consciously (and for me, significantly) choose their meals to advertise what they clearly perceive as their own middle-class credentials and considerable culinary sophistication (one even wanted a lemon sorbet to cleanse his palate – a word he spelt incorrectly – prior to his mushrooms ‘au jus’ and cosmopolitan Spätzle – and this is to say nothing of the last meal described by the author of the article).
So here, too, that last meal choice is a way of more or less self-consciously sending everyone a message about your view of yourself. Some people, of course, just crack a few jokes (have a look at the pickled eggs/beer one, which was my favourite).
I wonder, too, (and this is just based on an entirely unscientific and unsystematic review of last meals) if prisoners are getting more middle-class in their dining habits (I get the impression that more steaks and less burgers, pizzas and tacos have been ordered in recent years – I notice that people still only rarely ask for fish, though) or that prisoners are (for some reason) more sophisticated in states outside of Texas (just to take two anecdotal examples: Edward Ernest Hartman [shot his mother’s ex in the head] dined on a Greek salad and linguini with white clam sauce in North Carolina, while Daniel Wayne Cook [rape, kidnap, torture, murder] supped on aubergine lasagne with sprouts and asparagus in Arizona. Very chi chi).
The issue of social class leads opens another avenue of investigation. For in the bigger picture, the last meal tells us something about society too.
The last meal ritual was supposed to be a way of demonstrating that the condemned man had made peace with the authorities. Some prisoners have apparently shown precisely such signs of reconciliation with society: Gary Lee Davis (rape and shooting of his neighbour) shared his ice-cream with his jailer; the ‘Lonely Hearts Killer’ Raymond Fernandez shared his meal with the other inmates; and Philip Workman (shot a police officer) wanted a vegetarian pizza bought for a homeless man near the prison.
But of course, there are some counter-argument to all this. For example, the last meal can equally be interpreted as an act of sadism by the authorities: the justice system, processing the prisoner by serving them their processed food, is reminding him that this will be one of the last times he will enjoy any meal – it is rubbing his face in the fact of his impending doom. Or again, could it be that focussing on this ritual feast is a distraction (one in which journalists who report on the last meal are complicit), one that tries to divert the public’s attention from the realities of the grim but necessary administration of capital punishment? In that sense, the authorities too are trying to use the symbolic power of the last meal to further their own agenda - in the context of a form of legal punishment that is still hotly debated and highly controversial today. In other words, execution doesn’t seem so bad if we are talking about people washing burritos and onion rings down their cakehole with nine bottles of Big Red.
Oddly, I found myself complicit in what might be a similar process of distracting myself from the realities of capital punishment. I support the death penalty whole-heartedly, but, as if my mind wanted to make light of the way I was immersing myself in all the horrific details of these criminals’ crimes and their ultimate execution, I couldn’t help seeing humour in some of the meal choices - perhaps this is a kind of warped coping mechanism. (I am not alone in finding humour in this topic: see this Australian satirical website imagining Singapore refusing Van Nguyen’s [drug trafficking] choice of chewing gum as a last meal, as chewing gum is banned here: http://www.chaser.com.au/2005/singapore-denies-van-nguyen-chewing-gum-as-last-meal/.).
After uploading the above piece, I discovered this article by Paul Mullins that addresses many of the same points (a lot of it went over my head, but it is good stuff): http://paulmullins.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/the-final-choice-the-materiality-of-last-meals/
I got the Chicken Kiev photo from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chicken_Kiev_-_Ukrainian_East_Village_restaurant.jpg) - author is Jason Lam, source is: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mesohungry/4872466163
If you agree or disagree with what I said, why not leave a comment? It would be great to hear from you!