What would you eat as your final meal?
When Victor Feguer was sentenced to death, his last meal was a single olive, pit included
Between 2007 and 2013, New York underground eating club Studiofeast asked their mailing list members the following question: You’re about to die, what’s your last meal? Lobster, cheese and chocolate featured heavily in the answers, and on New Year’s Eve in 2011, 2012 and 2013, the Studiofeast team held an invitation-only supper in a New York City loft featuring a menu built around those last meal fantasies.
It’s an evocative question, one that simultaneously taps into the pleasure of eating and the morose reality of our own mortality. A few days before his death , former French president François Mitterrand is said to have indulged in an extravagant last meal with family and close friends. Alongside platters of oysters and foie gras, Mitterrand controversially requested to dine on the tiny, endangered songbird l’ortolan.
A tradition since ancient Roman times and a part of the menu in the Danish film Babette’s Feast, it’s an illegal delicacy these days as the bird is captured, fattened and then drowned in Armagnac before being roasted and eaten whole by diners. It’s said that Mitterrand tucked in to the ortolan following tradition, with a linen napkin covering his face. Some say the ortolan represents the soul of France and the napkin is to hide the diner’s greed from God.
The New Zealand-born Brooklyn-based photographer Henry Hargreaves published a series of photographs entitled No Seconds in 2012, where he recreated the last meals of Death Row inmates. “In my photography, I have always been fascinated by the mix of the mundane and the extraordinary,” said Hargreaves. “So while I was reading about efforts to stop the last-meal tradition in Texas, it sparked my interest. Researching this topic strangely personalised these people for me, and for a moment I was able to identify with them through the common denominator of food.”
Though predated by the French traditional of the “little glass of rum” offered to those facing execution, the last-meal tradition that Hargreaves documented is otherwise known by its euphemism as the “special meal” and is thought to have originated in Texas in the 1920s. There are restrictions such as the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco, or the food having to be local or costing under $40 or even $15 in some states.
A single olive One of the meals that Hargreaves reconstructed was that of Victor Feguer, a 28-year-old from Iowa convicted of kidnapping and murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. His last meal was a single olive, pit included (above). It’s reported that Feguer thought that an olive tree would grow out of his body, once released from its mortal coil, and become a symbol of peace.
Comfort food abounds in the series, with 49-year-old Ronnie Lee Gardner, convicted of burglary, robbery and two counts of murder, requesting a lobster tail, steak, apple pie with vanilla ice cream while watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy before being put to death in 2010 by firing squad.
In 2013, Kevin M Kniffin, a researcher at Cornell University, published a study he conducted on the correlation between the refusal of a “special” last meal and claims of innocence. Though Kniffin is careful to point out that the denial of guilt is very different from proof of innocence, he reviewed 247 cases of people condemned to die in the US between 2002 and 2006, and his research showed that people who denied their guilt were three times more likely to turn down a last meal as those who confessed their guilt.
Iit’s not just meals of those on Death Row that can be morbidly fascinating fodder. Rumours of Elvis Presley’s last meal before his death in August 1977 include ice cream and chocolate-chip cookies, while Hemingway is thought to have indulged in his favourite meal of steak, baked potato, Caesar salad and a glass of Bordeaux before he took his own life in the summer of 1961.
In the book Last Supper: A Collection of Final Meals Through the Years (2014) authors Caroline West and Mark Latter present a collection of macabre meals said to be consumed by well known figures such as Julia Child (a bowl of French onion soup reportedly) and Jimi Hendrix (a tuna sandwich, according to West and Latter), as well as the final suppers served on the Titanic.
On the blog Come Here To Me!, which focuses on the life and culture of Dublin city, historian Sam McGrath relays an account of a meal cooked for Pádraig Pearse and his brother Willie on Easter Monday morning 1916, found in the Witness Statements of the Bureau of Military History. Mairead O’Kelly, a member of Cumann na mBan and sister to future Irish president Sean T O’Ceallaigh, wrote about how her mother gave her the orders to cook breakfast for the Pearse brothers.
“She said she had prepared a tureen of bacon and eggs... and a turreen of mutton chops. She said they must be very hungry and God knows when they will get a meal again.”
So, you’re about to die. What’s your last meal?