"Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.” - Proverbs 31:6
In the United States, alcohol isn’t allowed during the ritual we’ve come to know as last meals on death row, but back in Biblical times—and probably before—a lot of criminals were slurring their last words.
The Talmud, for instance, instructed that the condemned get tipsy before meeting their maker. Even centuries later, the French were putting a new twist on the concept of apéritifs by offering a glass of rum before the guillotine. In England, meanwhile, the gallows procession for some prisoners sentenced to hang would make a quick stop at the local pub for what might be the modern equivalent of a beer bong on the patio.
Not a bad way to shuffle off, all things considered. But the rationale behind these offerings – as well as any accompanying feast – was hardly rooted in compassion or festive atonement. It was more like fear and superstition. Last meals on death row originated as a sort of “Hey, no hard feelings, right?” gesture from authorities terrified that the souls of the executed would return to torment them.
Historically, what inmates choose for their own last supper has captivated Americans, maybe because the choice of meals can offer up an unsettling reflection of American taste and values.
In 2012, Cornell University Food and Brand Laboratory researchers Brian Wansink, Kevin M. Kniffin, and Mitsuru Shimizu released their study “Death Row Nutrition: Curious Observations From Last Meals,” which analyzed upward of 250 documented requests during a five-year period.
They found that fried foods accounted for almost 70% of them …with french fries as the front runner.
Soft drinks, meanwhile, clocked in at 60%. “Salad,” always the underdog, stayed neck and neck with “Ice Cream” and “Pie” in a three-horse race, but overall, the occurrence of “Desserts” obliterated “Vegetables” by a nearly two-to-one margin. Name brands were asked for by 40% of the inmates: Coke, Dr. Pepper, KFC, McDonalds, Pepsi, and Wendy’s were the big winners in that class.
“The growing macabre fascination with ‘last meals’ offers a window into one’s true consumption desires when one’s value of the future is discounted close to zero,” the researchers write.
Indeed, the only buckets on this list come courtesy of Colonel Sanders. With their time on Earth now officially measured in minutes, death row inmates don’t have the luxury of trying new things; instead, they cling to the old, the unadventurous, and the comfortable: “reliable” tastes like the chicken nuggets, the junk food used as reward for good behavior.
According to the Cornell study, which was conducted from 2002 to 2006, the average last meal contains 2,756 calories. The study goes as far as to suggest discontinuing the use of mortality as a motivating factor for physicians and nutritionists helping patients battle serious conditions brought on by excess weight. If people predisposed to overeating believe their death is imminent, the thinking goes, they might just abandon any sense of self-control they have left.
“These findings are respectfully consistent with a model of environmentally contingent temporal discounting,” the researchers conclude, “and they are consistent with studies of how food is used to mediate feelings of stress and distress.”
This gives us an unfortunate glimpse into why the majority of Americans might eat the way we do.
The last meals on death row cited by the Cornell study were “typically limited to a budget of $40,” which is a lot for one meal for one person. Budgets vary by state. Yet even inmates facing capital punishment who are bent on maxing out their allotment as one final middle finger to officials most often build a menu full of fast food and other readily available crap.
(Scarier still is that the components of many of these requests – burgers, pizza, Pepsi, sweets – can be found, albeit in more child-sized quantities, on the trays of school cafeterias across the country day in and day out, where the brands most popular with people about to be executed are, wouldn’t you know it, the same brands buying up sponsorship contracts in underfunded districts.)
Not trying to cause a big stink here, but does anyone else find it somewhat alarming that we’re feeding our kids the same crap we feed the worst of our violent offenders?
It seems more and more like only one of those groups will be spared in the coming years, and it’s not the kids. Last meals on death row as we know them are falling out of favor: Victims’ families, lawmakers, and some observers maintain that they’re an undeserved and offensive reward coming at the cost of taxpayer dollars.
Texas, which executes four times as many people as any other state, stripped the privilege in 2011. After the illustrious Lawrence Russell Brewer requested:
and then said he wasn’t hungry when staff delivered the spread, Democratic Senator John Whitmire threatened legislation if prison officials didn’t voluntarily shut down the program. They did. And others across the country have followed.
“They take it away, hopefully they’re looking to what they should be providing,” the Death Penalty Information Center’s Richard Dieter told the BBC at the time. “A last lawyer rather than a last meal is much more important.”
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