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February 28, 2006

Eat Your Heart Out—February 28, 2006

Among foodies, a question invariably arises at dinner parties that results in a macabre game of one-upmanship: If you were to die tomorrow, what would you choose as your last meal?

The answer to the question usually goes one of three ways. People either select simple foods from childhood, foods that elicit nostalgic memories, or foods that are so improbable and outlandish that it is evident they have been compulsively researching, waiting for this very moment to exhibit their gastronomic knowledge and prowess.

The acclaimed food writer Jeffrey Steingarten falls into the latter category, as evidenced by his response to the question on the food website eGullet. He would like to have the merenda given by Cardinal Carlo de Medici in honor of the 1661 marriage of Cosimo III de Medici and Marguérite-Louise, the daughter of Gaston, Duke of Orléans. This consisted of 35 cold dishes, several whole fowl and other game, a table of cheeses and sweets, and a smattering of other delicacies.

While answers like his can prove amusing, they are nevertheless based on whim and fancy. People are interested in the real deal, which perhaps explains the proliferation of books on last meals. Some fall into the theoretical last meal category, such as the book Last Suppers: If the World Ended Tomorrow, What Would Be Your Last Meal? by James L. Dickerson. But some of the more interesting ones are those about real individuals’ last meals.

Because of the nature of the subject, these books deal with convicts on death row and often take a more political than gastronomic approach. One such book is …last meal by Jacquelyn C. Black, which features on one page a picture of a death row inmate with his date of execution and final words and on the opposite page, a color photograph of his last meal against a black backdrop.

Last meals are described in depth on www.deadmaneating.com, a blog founded by Mike Randleman. I asked Randleman recently whether he noticed any trends in final requests.

“Fried chicken and steak and Southern comfort foods dominate. Almost everyone loves French fries,” he replied.

Simple foods like hamburgers and ice cream abound. Elaborate meals are just not to be found, though this is most likely due to the $20 limit on the last meal. Nevertheless, some of the most interesting requests are the simple ones. Randleman’s all-time favorite request belonged to Robert Buell, an inmate executed in 2002. What did Buell opt for?

“A single black, unpitted olive,” Randleman explains. “Actually, Buell was paying homage to Victor Ferguer, the last prisoner executed by the federal government until Timothy McVeigh. Ferguer was hanged in 1963. His last meal [was] an olive with the pit still in it. He told prison officials that he hoped it would sprout from his body an olive tree—a sign of peace. Ferguer’s body was unclaimed by family and was quickly taken away by a funeral home after the execution and buried. His unmarked grave, in a barren corner of a public cemetery, bears no olive tree.”

Randleman’s own last meal would be a little more complex.

“Three chili cheese dogs with mustard and onions from Lafayette Coney Dogs in Detroit; a BBQ pork steak from Strawberries in Holcomb, Missouri; one pepperoni roll from Morgantown, West Virginia; an order of BBQ bologna from the BBQ Shoppe in Memphis; fried okra; a big bowl of macaroni and cheese; strawberry shortcake; a box of Teuscher’s champagne truffles; and a six-pack of Pepsi One.”

While researching this article, I often thought about what I would request for my last meal. I honestly couldn’t come up with a single meal that I would want. Rather, what I took away from this was more philosophical: Eat well every day, embrace the pleasures of the table, and treat yourself to the bounty of life. You never know when your last meal will be.