My friend James recently left an astounding list on my desk: "Final Meals Requested by Inmates Executed in Texas." Two pages, 34 names (all men), 28 meals. He picked it up from a Mr. Brown, in charge of public relations at the state penitentiary in Huntsville. It had never occurred to me that PR would be a necessary part of prison, but considering the image problem — remember Attica? Rikers Island? — it makes complete sense. I only wonder what purpose this release is meant to serve.
Name: Charles Brooks. Ex # (execution number? starting from when?): 592. Ex date: 12/07/82. Last meal requested: T-bone steak, French fries, catsup, Worcestershire sauce, rolls, peach cobbler, iced tea.
Ronald C. O'Bryan. 529. 03/31/84. T-bone steak (medium-well to well done), French fries and catsup, whole-kernel corn, sweet peas, lettuce and tomato salad with egg and French dressing, iced tea with sweetener. Saltines, ice cream, Bostom cream pie, rolls.
Jesse de la Rosa. 713. 05/15/85. Spanish rice, refried beans, flour tortillas, T-bone steak, tea, chocolate cake, jalapeno peppers.
Jeffery A. Barney. 714. 04/16/86. Two boxes of Frosted Flakes and one pint of milk.
Chester Wicker, lettuce and tomatoes. John Thompson, freshly squeezed orange juice. Charles Rumbaugh, one flour tortilla, water. Stephen P. Morin, bread w/o yeast (unleavened bread). Michael Evans, Joseph Starvaggi, Raymond Landy, Leon King, James Paster, Carlos Deluna: no last meal requested.
Steak was the entree most frequently asked for; I counted seven T-bones and one smothered. (When I was a kid, T-bone steak was my tag for "a real good meal," and I can still get excited by the phrase. But I learned "filet mignon" a few years later.) Hamburgers and cheeseburgers were next, at six. There were only three fish; why would fish be a surprising choice? Too healthful, placid? Two chickens; two enchiladas (meat, cheese); and one pizza. Later, I realized there was no wine, no beer — of course.
It is tempting to generalize from these American working-class staples, as if the sullen, simple food committed the crime. But it's not right.
I pored over the list, imagining, and felt guilty for doing so. It lent itself to too many grisly jokes. A prisoner's last meal should be his most private moment; it isn't as if he's sharing, at this point in his career, from some communal pot. And his selections, retrospectively, typed up like this in a list, take on symbolic freight: the weight of taste.
This man, no matter what else he did or had done to him, preferred one flavor to another. It looked as if Thomas A. Barefoot, number 521, arranged his meal with unusual care: chef soup w/ crackers, chili with beans, steamed rice, seasoned pinto beans, corn "O'Brien," seasoned mustard greens, hot spiced beets, iced tea. I became curious to know what foods he rejected in his menu exercise, and why. The hot spiced beets especially seem signature: what was the young Thomas like who first tasted them? Robert Streetman requested half a dozen scrambled eggs — if eggs were his final food, at least he'd have enough of them — but with flour tortillas instead of toast. When did you, reader, last eat all the salty scrambled eggs you wanted? Interrupting their flabby sweetness with a pull and floury chew?
I suppose I have to admit that reading this list of dead men's meals made me hungry.
I was pushed to consider myself on death row, to anticipate any next meal as my ultimate. With nonexistence looming, the fork in the road seems clear. Should I resign my senses or embrace them? I ate with pleasure, I could say, virtually every day of my life. Is that how I want to end, ruled, as some have said of those like me, by my appetites?
Or would I do as the six did who rejected a last meal, or perhaps a more meditative option, ask for my one tortilla and water, to make that last bite stand for everything that has gone before and everything I would miss?
What would I do? How could that prison kitchen cook what I want: a meal that would remind me of growing up and, at the same time, offer me something fresh from the current world to taste? That's the old jest: I'll have elephant ear on pumpernickel. Sorry, sir, we're out of pumpernickel.
And so I have no choice but to proceed as if no meal will be my last. After all, the list doesn't help me with my choices. This is simply the food these prisoners asked for: whether or not they ate it, we cannot tell.