Bon Appétit

BON APPÉTIT

Gacy really knew how to live.

If you find yourself on death row, you can look forward to a special treat on the way to the chair.  In many parts of the USA, prisoners about to be executed are allowed to request whatever they’d like as their last meal on this earth.  While the last meal tradition has roots in England and France, today it is inextricably tied to America’s relationship with capital punishment.

The archetypal last meal is something like John Wayne Gacy’s: a dozen deep-fried shrimp, a bucket of Kentucky Friend Chicken, french fries, and a pound of strawberries.  One might think 33 counts of murder warrants no special treatment, but tradition allowed Gacy a final moment of gluttony.  Timothy McVeigh ordered two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream (I approve).  Since Ted Bundy didn’t make a special request for his last meal, he was given a generic last meal of medium-rare steak, eggs over easy, buttered toast with jelly, hash browns, juice, and milk.  It seems that most death row inmates go for a last hurrah of excess.  Jessy Carlos San Miguel, who was put in prison for robbing a Taco Bell and shooting the restaurant’s manager, requested a pizza topped with beef, bacon bits, and double cheese; 10 quesadillas (5 mozzarella and 5 cheddar), 5 strips of open-flame grilled beef, 5 strips of stir-fried beef, broccoli, chocolate peanut butter ice cream, double fudge chocolate cake, grapes, and sweet tea.  

Others are more minimalist: Victor Harry Feguer, the last inmate to be executed before the death penalty’s temporary ban in 1972, asked for a single olive with the pit in it.  Robert Anthony Madden, who was executed at 23 for the murder (and postmortem binding and disposing of) a father-son duo, asked that his final meal be given to a homeless person instead of him.

In 2011, Lawrence Russel Brewer requested a large dinner before his lethal injection.  The white supremacist had been convicted of chaining a black man to his pickup truck and dragging him along the road, which decapitated his victim.  Brewer requested a pound of barbecue; half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a ground beef, tomato, onion, bell pepper, jalapeño, and cheese omelet; two chicken fried steaks smothered in gravy with sliced onions; a triple bacon cheeseburger; a large bowl of fried okra; a meat lovers pizza; a pint of vanilla ice cream; a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers.  When he was given his meal, he refused to eat.  This was seen as an exercise of power against the prison system, forcing them to waste resources on a pointless act.  Texas officials decided that enough was enough, and officially ended the last meal custom in the state.

Final meals are inspired by Judeo-Christian values, drawing upon Passover and the Last Supper to indicate unity, forgiveness, and gratitude for salvation after a sacrifice of self.  They are ceremonial, with the potential to range from humorous to haunting.  But it seems bittersweet that after such a strong tradition held on in the States for so long, Texas is denying their death row inmates their final salvation.  I imagine they now have little left to look forward to.  While some, like Brewer, use their last meal request as a political tool to miff the prison officials, others may just wish to have a final taste of their free life.  Gacy was a KFC manager for years, and it seems like his last meal was more for his own pleasure than as a fuck-you to the prison.

After Texas’ decision, jailhouse chef Brian Price offered to prepare death row meals for free, but they denied him.  Since he cooked 218 last meals before the ban in 2011, Price noted in an interview: 

“The Texas Department of Corrections has a policy that no matter what the request, it has to be prepared from items that’s in the prison kitchen commissary. And, like if they requested lobster, they’d get a piece of frozen pollock. Just like they would normally get on a Friday, but what I’d do is wash the breading off, cut it diagonally and dip it in a batter so that it looked something like at Long John Silver’s — something from the free world, something they thought they were getting, but it wasn’t. They quit serving steaks in 1994, so whenever anyone would request a steak, I would do a hamburger steak with brown gravy and grilled onions, you know, stuff like that. The press would get it as they requested it, but I would get their handwritten last meal request about three days ahead of time and I’d take it to my captain and say, “Well, what do you want me to do?” And she’d lay it out for me. I tried to do the best I could with what I had. Amazingly, we did pretty well with what we did have. They are served two hours before they are executed and it is no longer a burger and fries or a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich or whatever they requested. All it is, two hours later, is stomach content on an autopsy report.”

 

- Rachel Hsu