As a young girl, I loved to fish, especially with my granddad on the pontoon early in the Missouri summer. We would fish Pomme de Terre Lake around 6 or 6:30 a.m. and angle for crappie, sunfish, and perch until lunch. When we had a “mess of fish,” Granddad’s language, he and grandma would clean and scale the fish, readying it for a colossal fish fry. While my beloved grandfather has been dead for six years and those summer mornings gone for about 25 years of my 40-year-old life, I can still feel the beauty of waking up early, of being quiet and still with my grandparents, of watching the sun rise over muddy-green waters as we reeled in fish.
The what-if parlor game of what would you have for your last meal often takes me back to my paternal grandparents’ fish fries. There would be cornbread, navy beans or black-eyed peas that had simmered on the wood stove all day with an ample ham bone, my grandmother’s perfect blackberry cobbler with a stalk of wheat artfully slit on the top the piecrust, and my granddad’s homemade vanilla ice cream, made with rock salt and a manual crank, which was eventually replaced with an automatic ice cream maker some Christmas or my granddad’s birthday.
As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, one of the founding fathers of the gastronomic essay, put it, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” While the artifice of the last meal is that most of us do not know when or what that is, what one chooses to eat daily not only nourishes the body and soul, but also has the potential for defining what we valued and who we were while living (or what we wished to have been as well).
While no one knows for certain, barring the medical examiner, what chef, author, and Parts Unknown documentary star Anthony Bourdain’s last meal was prior to his sad departure this summer, there is a haunting final Instagram photograph of one of his last “light” lunches: braised pork knuckle, horseradish sauce, sauerkraut and cervelas sausage from Wistub de la Petite Venise in Colmar, France. Without even knowing what a culinary badass Bourdain was, you would know this was a man who did not suffer fast food gladly (except, of course, Popeye’s spicy fried chicken).
Henry Hargreaves, who recreates and photographs death-row inmates’ last meals (or at least the prisoner requests various Department of Corrections release to the media), says he created his “No Seconds” series when he found out Texas was ending its last-meal tradition for inmates on death row in September 2011. Texas, the most prolific death-penalty state in the union, put a stop to the practice when Lawrence Russell Brewer, one of the three white supremacists (John William King and Shawn Allen Berry) convicted of the heinous 1998 murder of James Byrd, Jr., ordered an obscene amount of food that he did not even eat.
Brewer’s repulsive crime and outright rejection of his own last meal notwithstanding, the last-supper tradition is complex. The Biblical significance of the last supper and the origins of communion (and the likelihood that Christ did not eat the eels and orange slices as Leonardo da Vinci painted and put on his own grocery list) imbues the final meal with mystical and paradoxical significance. As Brent Cunningham asked in his excellent essay, “Last Meals,” for Lapham’s Quarterly, “Why mark the end of life with the stuff that fuels it?” Food as pleasure, symbol, and remembering one’s quaint childhood on the lake are all reasons, sure. Food is often the first action a mother shares with her newborn child. Psychological research even indicates that what we are first offered as sustenance shapes not only our bodies but also our emotions for the rest of our lives. So, of course, many last meals, real or imagined, are comprised of what a child remembers and the comfort she yearns for in the end.