Death and food are two inevitable parts of life. Everyone dies- and everyone needs food to live. But perhaps what sets most of the legally condemned people apart is their ability to choose what their final meal will be. Think about it. Those who die spontaneously don’t know that their final meal will be their last. To me, this makes the last meal one of the most interesting aspects on the spectrum of food history.
In most American states, when a person is condemned to be executed, they are given the option to choose a final meal. Some murderers jump at the chance to order expensive status foods that they never would have eaten otherwise. Others choose to eat something from their childhood. A smaller number refuse to eat anything at all. What a condemned murderer chooses to eat before he takes his final breaths says a lot about the crime they committed and the importance of food in the grand scheme of life.
The Beginnings of the Last Meal
The tradition of serving a soon-to-be executed man a final meal has been a regular occurrence since the late 18th century, and has been mentioned since antiquity. The meal was seen as a symbolic peace offering between the punisher and the punished (the correctional institution and the prisoner). Accepting free food was seen as an act of peace- and by eating the last meal, the condemned was thought to have forgiven everyone involved with his execution. This was important during superstitious times, when it was believed that a vengeful spirit could return from the dead to haunt those responsible for their death. In eighteenth-century London, favored or better-off prisoners were allowed a party with food and drink and outside guests on the night before they were hanged.
Though the whole “party atmosphere” of putting a man to death has definitely disappeared, providing the condemned with a memorable last meal has not. For example, Florida takes extra care to provide a last meal- offering all condemned inmates $40 to spend locally on whatever they want. This is not the case in all states. Though prisoners can request any food item that they want, it doesn’t mean that they’ll get it. When Texas still offered last meals, an inmate ordering steak would get them a slab of hamburger meat drowned in salisbury sauce and onions. The mega requests of the condemned is what makes the news- large, artery blocking meals that make your head spin and your stomach ache- but don’t typically make it to the table in its entirety. Though some prisoners may order a lobster tail and a filet mignon, they’ll actually get some diced fish-sticks and a cutlet of Salisbury steak.
Crimes, Choices, and Calories
Some condemned killers choose their final meals according to their background and upbringing. For example, panhandle murderer Arthur Rutherford selected a full-on southern state dish of fried catfish, fried green tomatoes, fried eggplant, hush puppies and a mug of sweet tea. Puerto Rican killer Angel Nieves Diaz ate a Latin-influenced meal of tacos, rice, and pinto beans. While some final meals say a lot about where a killer is from, it also says a lot about the crimes they committed- and if they accept their guilt. According to published research, “Prisoners who were “at peace” with their sentence, as the researchers put it, asked for 34 percent more calories than those who insisted they were innocent, and the “innocents” asked for “significantly fewer brand-name food items.”” So apparently, the more you eat- the more guilt you’ve accepted. While combing through last meal archives, it’s pretty obvious that quite a few of the condemned didn’t want to think about dying, let alone their last meal. Take for example the two infamous serial killers, Aileen Wuoronos and Ted Bundy. Ted Bundy, who killed over 30 young women in his heyday, would ultimately deny a last meal- in addition to filing numerous (failed) appeals in the days leading up to his execution. Aileen Wuornos, who would maintain until her execution that she had shot all 7 of her victims in self-defense, forwent her last meal for a cup of coffee.
While some killers decide to order nothing at all- others go above and beyond in choosing their last meals. According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, rapist and murderer Gary Carl Simmons Jr. requested the following meal: “One Pizza Hut medium super supreme deep dish pizza, 8 packs of parmesan cheese, ten packs of Ranch dressing, One family size bag of Doritos nacho cheese chips, 8oz jalapeño nacho cheese, 4oz sliced jalapeño peppers, 2 large strawberry milkshakes, two (20oz) cherry Cokes, one super-sized order McDonald’s French fries (extra ketchup and mayonnaise) and any brand of two pints strawberry ice cream.” He was able to finish about half of his meal. He did much better than Lawrence Russell Brewer, who purposely ordered a whopper of a meal- a plate of two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions, a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger, a bowl of fried okra with ketchup, a pound of barbecued meat with half of a loaf of white bread, a portion of three fajitas, a meat-lover’s pizza, topped with pepperoni, ham, beef, bacon, and sausage), a pint of Blue Bell, a serving of ice cream, a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts, three root beers- and didn’t eat a single morsel. (Miller) As a result, Texas would do away with the entire last-meal request system in 2011.
These large meals speak volumes about the criminals who requested them. Lawrence Russell Brewer, a racist and white supremacist convicted of killing a black man by dragging him by a rope from his car, requested a large meal that would be difficult for people to procure. Once his wishes were requested, he celebrated his life of crime and debauchery by turning his nose up at the entire meal- denying any act of peace between him and those who kept him imprisoned. He also furthered his life-long list of vile acts by taking away the privilege from other inmates. He lived the life of a criminal, ordered the meal of a glutton, and went out like a monumental tool.
While there are those like Lawrence Russell Brewer who strived to be as heinous after-death as they were in life, there are some who strove to make a difference with their final request. Phillip Workman was a Tennessee inmate who simply requested that someone buy a homeless guy a pizza. The prison refused to succumb to his request, but when local news outlets got wind of the story, homeless people in the state of Tennessee were rewarded with pizza parties. Citizens who had heard Workman’s request were donating pizzas to local homeless shelters by the truckload.
Final meal choices even differ among gender lines. According to the author of Last Suppers,:Final Meals From Death Row, over half of the women executed in the past decade chose to forgo their last meal.
Can I Have some Food with my Death, Please?
Though some people may be appalled at offering condemned prisoners the privilege to choose a meal before they die, it’s really not all that heinous. Death can be a grisly topic for some- but food instantly makes everything more relatable and approachable. We eat food daily and we know we need it to survive. Some of us eat certain foods to keep us healthy, while others gorge on whatever is around to keep us happy. We are fascinated with condemned killers picking their final meals because it is something that most of us will never get to do. They are not limited to food that will keep them in shape for the upcoming summer or a food that won’t give them heartburn- they’re picking foods that will seal up a life-time, taste heavenly on their tongues, and speak for them after they are executed. What a condemned murderer chooses to eat before he takes his final breaths says a lot about the crime they committed and the importance of food in the grand scheme of life.
Last Meals (Brent Cunningham)
Killer Orders Pizza for Homeless as Last Meal (Ashley Fantz)
Murderer Who Carved up Victim with Knives Gets 29,000 Calorie Last Meal (Brayden Goyette)
A La Carte Death Row Meals off the Menu after Inmate Refuses to Eat His Massive Order Daniell Miller and Mark Duell.
Ex-Inmate Shares Stories of Stint as a Death Row Chef (Timothy Williams)
A Year of Killing (Henry Hargraves)
Henry Hargreaves Photographs Death Row’s Final Meals (Matthew Francey)