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Dinners of the Damned

"Prison Trolleys" photo from Backyard Believers

Thanks to Dead Man Eating, I now know that most states actually offer you your “special meal” a couple of days before your execution date, when you’ve still got enough of an appetite to enjoy it.

If you were going to be put to death tomorrow morning, what would you order for your final meal? If this question has never crossed your mind, take a look at the website Dead Man Eating, which keeps tabs on all the final meals requested by US prison inmates destined for execution.

There’s also a collection of readers’ ideal menus, notable and historic final meal requests, souvenirs for sale, and unusual information on the subject. Did you know, for example, that those due for execution in Indiana are allowed to have a cat with them during their time on Death Row? On the other hand, if you’re executed in Maryland, you don’t even get the option of a last meal request, let alone an animal companion to share your final days.

The site is light-hearted, but the subject is not. As a matter of fact, the more you think about it, the more bizarre and barbaric it seems, this custom of a “last treat” for those about to be subjected to the even more archaic ritual of state execution.

Unsurprisingly, according to Dead Man Eating, many prisoners have no final meal request, which suggests, naturally enough, they are unwilling to play the game, and regard this odd rite less as a “last treat” than a final indignity. Personally, I always wondered how anybody could be possibly feel like wolfing down a Colonel’s Bargain Bucket and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s the night before their execution; thanks to Dead Man Eating, I now know that most states actually offer you your “special meal” a couple of days before your execution date, when you’ve still got enough of an appetite to enjoy it. Isn’t that nice.

Inevitably perhaps, most condemned prisoners gravitate toward childish comfort food, heavy in fat and grease; after all, this is one situation where you won't have to worry about loading on the calories, hardening the arteries, or annoying loved ones with your garlic breath. Fried pork chops and fried chicken are popular choices, along with T-bone steak, Mexican food, pizza and cheeseburgers, followed by donuts or ice cream, accompanied by a carbonated beverage.

There are, however, some oddities in the collection of menus featured at Dead Man Eating. Veggie-loving Christopher J. Newton of Ohio wanted Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and feta cheese to go with his steak, and Timothy McVeigh requested two pints of Ben and Jerry’s Mint Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream (did they veto his original choice of Neapolitan Explosion?).

American food may be the top preference of death row inmates, but the final meal isn’t an exclusively American custom. In fact, the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans all had a tradition of offering a final meal to the condemned, and before that, the Aztecs fed their human sacrifices for up to a year before their death, like cattle being fattened up for the slaughter. In many ancient cultures, food would be placed in the coffin or crypt to sustain the deceased on the journey to the underworld – and, if necessary, to provide the customary sop for Cerberus.

In fact, final meals have been served since long before Jesus and friends sat down to their famous Last Supper; the ritual has its origins in the idea of the meal as a symbolic social act. In most cultures, to break bread with somebody is to befriend them, to make your peace with them. By eating together, both guest and host are affirming their shared humanity, meeting on equal ground, and accepting there are no hard feelings between them, which can be particularly helpful if you live in a culture that fears ghostly repercussions from vengeance-seeking revenants.

For the condemned man facing death by the state, the offer of a final supper was originally a way of assuring spectators that the execution would be a successful spectacle, that the prisoner had accepted the verdict and was prepared to go peacefully to the scaffold. His courage would be bolstered, in the early days of executions, by enough shots of whisky to stop him kicking up an embarrassing fuss at the last minute.

"Prison Food" from Okorpine.fi

Yet today’s version of the “special meal” caters to none of these important ritual functions. In most states, rather than breaking bread with judge, jury, and executioner, the condemned man is left alone in his cell with his Baconators and his Extreme Gulp soda, observed and befriended by no-one. These days, to make matters even worse, requests for alcohol and tobacco are usually denied – just two of the many rules and restrictions governing the “special meal” request.

Most states specify that the requested food must come from within the prison system, which helps explain why so many of the menus listed at Dead Man Eating seem so ordinary and unexotic, so you can forget about quail’s eggs and coquilles St. Jacques. In fact, poor Thomas J. Grasso didn’t even get the simple Spaghetti-O’s he’d asked for. His last words were “I did not get my Spaghetti-Os. I got spaghetti I want the press to know.”

Now that’s what I call cruel and unusual punishment.

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