Mark R. Vogel
If you were on death row, what would be your last meal? Think about it. It’s not as simple a question as it appears. Your first instinct might be to pick your favorite food. But maybe you might select your most meaningful food, such as the first meal your wife made you, or one of your mom’s memory-laden classics. Or maybe your desolation and bitterness would leave you so resigned that you would forgo a final feast.
As morbid as it seems, there exists great fascination about the last meals of condemned prisoners, especially the famous ones. Man has always been beguiled by the macabre. Just look at the historical popularity of horror stories and movies, murder mysteries, forensic TV shows, and the countless traffic jams created by the curious queue of commuters, anxious for a glimpse of the adjacent accident.
The state of Texas used to keep a list of its inmates’ last meals on its website. One of their convicts who participated in preparing last meals compiled them into a cookbook entitled Meals to Die For. A similar book is entitled Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals From Death Row. However, despite all the interest, there are detractors as well. Texas eventually eliminated the last meal list from its website due to complaints that it was in poor (do not pardon the pun), taste.
The tradition of providing a condemned person a final meal hails back to the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans, who all practiced this custom. Ages ago in Europe the provision of a last meal had superstitious underpinnings. It was believed that if a condemned person received a last meal, he tacitly accepted his fate and forgave those responsible for his demise, such as the judge or executioner. Thus, his acquiescence and absolution would prevent his spirit from vengefully haunting those who had played a role in his prosecution.
Today, most governments provide a last meal to those who are sentenced to death. In the United States, the actual parameters of the last meal vary from state to state. Naturally there are limitations on the requests. You will not find any convicts chowing down on foie gras and Russian caviar before meeting their maker. Texas limits the meals to food that can be made within the prison. At one time, Florida imposed a twenty dollar price limit. Some states will allow takeout from pizza parlors, or other popular restaurants. Maryland conversely, does not offer its inmates a special last meal. Alcohol is universally forbidden and a final smoke depends on whether the prison is smoke-free or not.
So what is so fascinating about the meal choices of those on the precipice of daeth? Undoubtedly it emanates from the aforementioned allure humans have with the lurid side of life. More specifically, the last meal gives us a glimpse into the darkest recesses of the human mind. What does a soulless serial killer want to consume on his last day on earth? Why does he choose that? And more frighteningly, what does it mean if I might choose the same? Does the fact that I’d also pick fried chicken mean that something sinister is lurking within me? Or is it just an eerie coincidence?
So what are some famous last meals? Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer and necrophiliac, dined on steak, eggs, hash browns and coffee. Don’t see anything crazy there. And before you anti-red-meat crusaders attempt to link carnivorousness with savagery, consider the last meal of Oklahoma inmate Michael Pennington: a vegetarian pizza, salad, and dessert. John Wayne Gacy, another depraved serial murderer, chose fried chicken, fried shrimp, French fries and strawberries. Velma Barfield, the famous female arsenic killer asked for a bag of Cheez Doodles and a Coke. Aileen Wuornos, another infamous female killer who took the lives of seven men, declined a last meal. Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber), received ice cream. Victor Feguer, who kidnapped a doctor and killed him, asked for a single olive. Adolf Eichman, the notorious Nazi, in what could only be considered sadistic and twisted, requested an Israeli wine. California murderer Robert Alton Harris desired Kentucky Fried Chicken and Domino’s pizza. Joan of Arc asked for Holy Communion.
As to what these specific choices mean, if anything, about the individuals is really anybody’s guess (with the exception of Joan of Arc; she suffered from religious delusions). What’s more revealing is the larger picture, namely, the role that food plays in life. Food is so much more than the sustenance needed to biologically survive. Food is woven into virtually every meaningful event in our lives, be it the joyful or morose.
The last meal is a symbol of our empathy. Even though we may be putting to death the most despicable person on the planet, those of us who are not despicable, still feel some consternation, and sometimes even sympathy. It’s our attempt to ease the individual’s suffering and somehow make their final journey, (this time pardon the pun), more palatable.