The Executioner’s Special
by Andrea Fischer
illustration by Manny Silva
PART OF my apprehension about flying has always been the thought that, should the plane crash, a plastic-wrapped meal warmed up next to what amounts to an airborne outhouse would be my last meal. Even worse, though, is the thought that the plane could crash before the food service reached me. I’m afraid that, while others were scrambling to get into the crash position, I would be the one asking, “Are you going to eat that?”
So, it was with some interest that I discovered that, on their website, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had cataloged the last meal requests of executed inmates. The site also listed the inmates’ last words, but it was the last meal requests that drew my attention. They seemed less self-conscious than the prepared words, yet just as much of a last statement, if not more so, as the last purely selfish act allowed an inmate. (Although the list has since been removed from the TDCJ website due to complaints of poor taste, it can still be found at memoryhole.com or deadmaneating.com)
The question of what one would eat for his last meal is hardly a novel one; it was even the subject of the book, Last Suppers: If the World Ended Tomorrow, What Would Be Your Last Meal? Author James L. Dickerson posed the question to various celebrities and public figures, including Bill Clinton, who opted for enchiladas, and John Elway, who chose the somewhat sinister-sounding hamburger soup. Death row inmates, though, are in a unique position in terms of this question. Execution by the Texas government is virtually the only situation wherein death is a certainty. Collapsed veins, contradictory DNA evidence—Texas is the little executioner that could. While the statistics published by the state included the number of brothers executed (six), the cost of the injection ($86.08) and the shortest time on death row (8 months and 18 days), there is one statistic that has never needed to be published: the success rate.
Wake Me Up, Weigh Me Down
What, if anything, could a person’s choice for a last meal reveal about that person? Under the theory that sometimes the easiest way to solve a maze is to start at the end and work backwards, I decided to take a closer look at the requested last meals of Texas’ executed inmates
The word “gala” is derived from “gallows,” and with good reason. The tradition of the last meal was, historically, a much more elaborate affair. In 18th-century England, prisoners on their way to execution were treated to a banquet and the service of a prostitute. While escorting the prisoner, the whole party would stop for drinks in pubs along the way.
It turns out that Texas, unsurprisingly, is less generous in its treatment. According to Michelle Lyons, Director of Public Information for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, although inmates are free to request whatever they would like, they can only be fed what is generally available on the unit. She did point out that the inmates are provided several food and beverage items, regardless of whether they request them or not, including those execution crowd pleasers, punch and pastries.
And you can forget about that final cigarette. In a spectacular feat of mental gymnastics (the rhythmic sort—all ribbons and pointless pivots) then-Governor George W. Bush outlawed all tobacco in Texas prisons at the same time the state was setting records for executions. The theory being, I guess, that if you can’t die with a clean conscience, you can at least die with clean lungs. It should go without saying that alcohol is also not an option. Only one inmate made a request for light beer, which I consider a crime in and of itself.
Also on Texas’ no-eat list is bubble gum, which was requested by executed inmate #66, 15 years old at the time of his crime. Bubble gum is banned in Texas prisons as, according to TDCJ, “it can be used to jam, locks, etc.” I am guessing the “etc.” refers to those contentious and often violent bubble-blowing competitions prisons are known for.
So what then, is the most popular food choice?
Alas, the moniker-beleaguered french fry leads the gustatory charge, with 35.88 percent. Following the Freedom (Not!) Fries are cheeseburgers (19.6 percent), nothing (18.6 percent), steak (15.95 percent), salad (12.96 percent), fried chicken (11.63 percent), and the underdog of vegetables, the onion (10.96 percent).
Among the list of food choices are some certainly questionable choices, such as the inmate who ordered only a pot of coffee. I would have assumed that the thought of impending death would be enough to keep you from nodding off. Apparently not: Nearly 1/3 of the inmates opted for a caffeinated beverage.
Our Final, Comforting Rewards
The term “comfort food” began popping up in the public lexicon with increasing frequency during the late 1990s, culminating with the publication in 2003 of the bestselling book, Cooking for Comfort. As a nation, we seemed to experiencing a collective anxiety; during the same time period, the amount of food ordered by the average inmate went up.
Take for example, executed inmate number 271, who ordered two 16-ounce rib-eyes; one pound of turkey breast (sliced thin); twelve strips of bacon; two large hamburgers with mayo, onion, and lettuce; two large baked potatoes with butter, sour cream, cheese, and chives; four slices of cheese or one half-pound of grated cheddar cheese; chef’s salad with bleu cheese dressing; two ears of corn on the cob; one pint of chocolate chip ice cream; and four vanilla cokes or Mr. Pibb.
Or number 248, who requested “chocolate birthday cake with 2/23/90 written on top, seven pink candles, one coconut, kiwi fruit juice, pineapple juice, one mango, grapes, lettuce, cottage cheese, peaches, one banana, one delicious apple, chef salad without meat and with thousand island dressing, fruit salad, cheese, and tomato slice.” Quantity it seems, can be a comfort all its own when options are limited.
I wondered, too, if an inmate’s guilt or innocence could be reflected in that final choice of food. Of the inmates whose last statements contained a protest of innocence, seven out of 17 ordered no meals. Out of the 33 inmates admitting guilt in their final statements, 30 chose to eat. In June of 2006, the Chicago Tribune uncovered evidence that Carlos de Luna, Texas executed inmate #33, had been wrongly executed. His final meal was “none.”
There seems to be something about a good exit that atones for—or at least partially explains—whatever has transpired before. We skip to the ends of books. We dread when someone tells us how a movie ends. The middle stuff: not so much a concern. Or, as Seinfeld’s George Costanza explained it: “I knew I had hit my high note, so I thanked the crowd and I was gone.”
Which may explain the fascination with last meals. We all like to imagine that our end will be tidier, more graceful, will make more sense than its beginning and middle. In the end though, we are all curators of our own museums, collecting favorite colors, familiar gestures, and even last meals—ghosts of the way in which we have bruised the world, in all manners sensible and insensible.
Andrea Fischer is writer whose previous forays into the world of scientific study have consisted largely of flipping through the Discovery channel on the way to another program.