“So, Shaw, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow morning, what would you want for dinner tonight?”
Friends who are alternately amused and appalled by my obsession with eating well have often asked that question, and I’ve never known how to answer. But some people do. They’re on death row, and according to long-standing tradition on death rows almost everywhere, they can ask for virtually anything they want for dinner on the night before their execution -- and, within reason, they’re likely to get it. (In California, for example, there’s a $50 limit on an inmate’s last meal.)
Morbid though it may seem, people are so interested in convicts’ last meals that, until last month, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice listed its inmates’ requests on its website -- every item requested for every final dinner since Texas resumed capital punishment in 1982.
When the department redesigned its website in mid-December, officials decided to delete the last-meal listings.
“We had gotten some complaints from people who thought it was in poor taste,” says Michelle Lyons, a department spokesman. “Of course, now people are complaining that the last meals are missing from our site.”
But why had the state listed the final meals for so long? I always thought it was because Texas was proud of its record of being, by far, the nation’s leading official killer, having executed 314 people since 1982. But Lyons said the last-meal information was listed solely because “That was the No. 1 inquiry from the public” about death row inmates.
Other states report similar curiosity about inmates’ final meals, and at least two -- California and Arizona -- continue to list those requests on their websites. But those states don’t have nearly as many executions as Texas -- there have been 10 in California since 1978 -- so their menus are far less revealing.
Before it was discontinued, the Texas list of last meals provided fascinating if macabre reading. In fact, Brian Price, who prepared 220 final meals in the Huntsville, Texas, prison kitchen while an inmate himself before he was paroled last year, has written a book featuring recipes for some of those last bites before oblivion. “Meals to Die For,” scheduled for publication next month, will have 42 recipes, including those with such jarring names as “post-mortem potato soup,” “Uh-oh I’m dead meat loaf” and “rice rigor mortis.”
“Meals to Die For” will be published by Paige Corp. of San Antonio, whose president, Frank Wesch, is Price’s nephew. The 504-page book will contain Price’s personal recollections of the execution day for each of the 220 killers whose last meals he cooked, as well as his accounts of the cases that led to 42 of the executions.
Although I often buy cookbooks for my wife, I don’t expect “Meals to Die For” to be on my shopping list; Lucy’s taste runs more to salmon with red wine mushroom sauce than to Price’s “Last-wish fish with time’s-up tartar sauce.”
Hold the onions
Not that fish was a death row favorite. What was? I guessed steak as the top choice. I was wrong. It’s French fries. Of the 314 inmates, 111 asked for fries. (Apparently, one’s last meal is not an occasion to worry about government studies that say fries are one of the most unhealthful foods on the planet.)
Hamburgers were the second-most-popular food, with 85 requests. Price’s cookbook calls the inmates’ favorite final meal “chopping block cheeseburger and firing squad French fries.” (I guess killers in Texas aren’t completely different from the rest of us; according to two-thirds of the respondents in a nationwide poll by Food & Wine magazine last year, a burger and fries is seen as “the quintessential American food.”)
There were 54 last-meal requests for steak (mostly T-bone) in Texas, but none was honored. “We give them what they ask for but only if it’s available in the prison cafeteria -- and we don’t have T-bone steaks for inmates,” says Larry Todd, a former official with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The Great State of Texas also declines to fulfill requests for alcohol or tobacco. But it did honor 56 inmates’ final requests for ice cream (plus 19 more for milkshakes) and 50 for chicken (mostly fried).
Some prisoners’ requests were remarkably specific: “Two bacon cheeseburgers (cut the onions), deep-fried home fries (with chili powder on top); two scotch eggs (boiled and packed in a sausage roll, battered and deep-fried and served with syrup).”
Other final dinner orders were stunning in sheer volume: “Twenty-four soft shell tacos, six enchiladas, six tostadas, two whole onions, five jalapenos, two cheeseburgers, one chocolate shake, one quart of milk.”
A few inmates’ requests were surprisingly ascetic. “An apple.” “A jar of dill pickles.” “One pot of coffee.” “One flour tortilla and water.”
Although the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website says, “The final meal requested may not reflect the actual final meal served,” authorities do their best to fulfill the inmates’ requests. “Sometimes, if an inmate has been cooperative and asks for a particular kind of fruit that’s out of season, the chaplain will go to a special market and get it for him,” Todd says.
(Vernell Crittendon, public information officer at San Quentin, told me recently that when a death row prisoner scheduled for execution there one November asked for fresh strawberries, “I had to tell him we can’t get fresh strawberries in November.” The inmate replied, “I’ll wait.”)
Most death row requests are down-to-earth and easy to fill. Not many murderers ask for caviar or fugu. But one did ask for “wild game.” He was to be executed in the summertime -- not game season, even in Texas, alas -- so prison authorities substituted a cheeseburger and French fries.
He refused to eat any of it and went to his maker (or whomever) hungry.
Though vegetables didn’t rank high on the convicts’ list of favorites, one man did ask that his fried chicken be accompanied by “fried squash, fried eggplant, mashed potatoes, snap peas, boiled cabbage, corn on the cob (3, with butter), spinach and broccoli (with cheese).”
I wondered if this young man had one of those mothers who, like so many others since time immemorial, had repeatedly told him to “eat your vegetables or go to your room.”
If so, one assumes that he didn’t pay quite as much attention to the other, somewhat more important lessons that Mom presumably taught him.
I found only one inmate on the Department of Justice list who was egalitarian. His request: “The same meal that is served to all other offenders in the main dining room.” A few doomed men did decide to think of others instead of themselves in their last act before death. Robert Madden asked that his final meal be given to a homeless person. Odell Barnes Jr. said that all he wanted for his final meal was “Justice, equality and world peace.” Carlos Santana (no, not the “Evil Ways” Carlos Santana) asked for “justice, temperance, with mercy.”
Given that these men were all convicted murderers, you could be forgiven for thinking that their humanitarian impulses arrived a bit late in life.
David Shaw can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous “Matters of Taste” columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-taste.