Friday, November 1, 2013

I am Eating General Tso's Chicken and Drinking Sapporo Beer: Food Anthropology and the Cultural Significance of the "Last Meal"

Daniel LaChance, an assistant professor of history at Emory University, has argued that the rituals of a last meal—and of allowing last words—have persisted in this otherwise emotionally denuded process precisely because they restore enough of the condemned’s humanity to satisfy the public’s desire for the punishment to fit the crime, thereby helping to ensure continued support for the death penalty. As LaChance puts it, “The state, through the media, reinforces a retributive understanding of the individual as an agent who has acted freely in the world, unfettered by circumstance or social condition.

And yet, through myriad other procedures designed to objectify, pacify, and manipulate the offender, the state signals its ability to maintain order and satisfy our retributive urges safely and humanely.” A win-win. The state, after all, has to distinguish the violence of its punishment from the violence it is punishing, and by allowing a last meal and a final statement, a level of dignity and compassion are extended to the condemned that he didn’t show his victims. The fact that the taxpayers are picking up the tab for these sometimes gluttonous requests only bolsters the public’s righteous indignation.
Being a food anthropologist or historian must be a great deal of fun. If pursuing that trade, one gets to study culture, food, consumption, history, sociology, economics, religion, and other topics. On the other hand, I can imagine that making scholarly work of something that ought to be pleasurable and taken for granted can be a great strain on a person's mental health and peace of mind.

Likewise, a food anthropologist could also be great drinking and dining company; the same person could be a horrible bore and jerk who had to give some type of annotated guide to what should be a physical and primal experience.

Knowledge is a blessing; Knowledge is a curse.

Lapham's Quarterly has some great writing on this topic. As such, it makes for some good sharing on a Friday. Ultimately, how a given society and culture determines what constitutes an appropriate last meal reveals a great deal about its norms and values.

To point. In an age of Austerity and neo liberalism, prison inmates are being robbed of this last moment of human indulgence. Drawing on the present, there are many examples of how a culture of cruelty has occupied the moral and philosophical heart of American society. The meanness visited upon death row inmates by states such as Texas, which have limited inmates' ceremonial last meals, is a window into the United States' moral rot.
And so it came to pass in Texas in 2011 that the state stopped offering special last meals, after Lawrence Russell Brewer ordered two chicken-fried steaks, one pound of barbecued meat, a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger, a meat-lover’s pizza, three fajitas, an omelet, a bowl of okra, one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream, some peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts, and three root beers—and ended up not eating anything. This prompted an outraged state senator to threaten to outlaw the last meal if the department of corrections didn’t end the practice. 
For his crackdown on taxpayer-funded excess, the senator surely earned hearty handshakes from his tough-on-crime constituents. But it is somehow fitting that the sham of the last meal, in Texas at least, which has executed hundreds more people over the last thirty years than any other state, was allowed to fade into history with its bundle of contradictions intact, buried by the calculated denunciation of a politician seizing on a way to stroke his base. Now in the Lone Star State, the men and women killed by the government get whatever is on the prison menu that day. Justice will be served.
If I had to choose my last meal, I would struggle between wanting something satisfying and full, and a yearning for a fine and elegant gastronomical experience.

Here is the dilemma. I am leaving this Earth. Do I want something to stick to my ribs? Or do I want a meal that I have always wanted, and which was typically out of reach because of cost and expense?

And there is a strategic element here too--could the optimal last meal be something that would take a long amount of time to eat? Consequently, this choice will potentially extend my/our life a few minutes or hours.

I am about to be on the slab. Rational calculations are going to be discarded. I think that my last meal would be the following:

1 large General Tso's chicken
1 quart of pork fried rice
2 pork egg rolls
1 quart of steamed white rice
2 pieces of ebi w. extra wasabi
6 pieces of California roll
6 cans of Sapporo bear
8 oz of filet mignon wrapped in bacon and coated with horseradish along with wild rice and a double stuffed baked potato or a side of pommes frites
A 12 pack of Coca-Cola in the can
1 very tart key lime pie with whipped cream

What is your last meal? What is the thinking that goes into assembling your final menu?


Learning is Eternal said...

Crawfish... tons of it & water to drink.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

This is a brilliant post, and a difficult question. I must say I am also disgusted by the state of Texas yet again, which keeps giving justifications for my decision to leave it.

I would want comfort food. If I could get a big plate with meatloaf, a chicken fried steak, mashed taters and sweet corn I would be satisfied. To drink I'd want a big frosty mug of a hoppy lager during the meal, and a cup of strong black kona coffee with my dessert, which would be key lime pie.

I would also want a shorter meal, mostly since I am the kind of person who just wants to get things over with. I don't like long good-byes. When I leave parties or family gatherings, I usually go right out the door with a minimum of fuss. I'd prefer death to be that way, too. When my time comes I don't imagine I will be clinging to life.

Here's a question: do we know who makes the meal? Is the last meal made on site, or brought in? I think a warm bowl of pho with a banh mi sandwich would be a fine last meal, but if it's cooked in the prison kitchen, no thanks.

DanF said...

Can I have BBQ ribs of the bastard who framed me?

I'd want one of the delicious birthday cakes my wife makes for me each year and some of the foods my kids love to eat at Christmas time. I'd want to go to thoughts of happier times and reflect on what a joy has been to be alive and aware in an incomprehensibly vast universe.

Bryan Ortez said...

carne asada and tortillas
seasoned rice refried beans
Sauteed vegetables

a lot of guacamole and sour cream
12 pack of Negra Modelo with 3 limes

Fresh unwrapped fruits; cantaloupe, watermelon, pineapple, apple, oranges, peaches, grapes, strawberries, blueberries,

dark chocolate

physioproffe said...

Pho Ga and Banh Mi sounds good to me! The best Banh Mi I ever had in my life was this:

"Pork Belly Confit “bánh Mì”

daikon radish & carrot, fresno chilies, hoisin, cilantro, sambal
mayonnaise, on baguette."

From here:

The unctuousness of the pork belly fat mingling in with the pickled vegetables and other condiments and then soaking into the body of the baguette while its crust remains crunchy is unbelieveable.

Kyle Younger said...

4 pieces of Popeye's Fried Chicken
Gullah Stew (Okra, shrimp and tomatoes)

Red Rice
2 BBQ'd pigs feet

BLT with mayo and ketchup

Pint of Makers Mark Bourbon
6 cans of 7-up
A Shake Shack hamburger
Sweet potato pie with whipped cream.

OldPolarBear said...

I remember at the time someone speculating that Brewer did this on purpose, hoping that it would cause them to stop offering last meals, knowing that most death row inmates are black and it would deprive them of this.

It's hard to even imagine being in such a situation and how I might be put there, but my first impulse would be to offer a big fk you to the people planning to kill me.

The second thought is that I would never be able to decide, possibly because my somewhat-controlled Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder has always made it hard to make decisions lolsob!

But I suppose I would opt for sweets and other unrefined carbs that I am not supposed to have because of diabetes:
Carrot cake like my mom made, with cream cheese frosting.
Chocolate fudge like my mom made, both with and without walnuts. Made with real butter, please.

Chocolate-covered pecan toffee, that I have learned to make very well.
Mashed potatoes with butter.
Lots of heavily buttered popcorn.
Other chocolates and sweets.

With any luck, the blood sugar spike would trigger a massive heart attack and I would cheat the executioner!

chauncey devega said...

Depriving the hangman of his prize. You trickster!

chauncey devega said...

Thems pigs feets be killing you! Now Popeye's I can cosign!

chauncey devega said...

Such a cosmopolitan. You don't want more a banquet?

chauncey devega said...

Gassy death :)

chauncey devega said...

Human meat? You need to embrace the death ritual. What else would you want to eat?

chauncey devega said...

So efficient Mr. Bear. This is your fete! Take your time and have fun. Chicken fried steak would be on my list too.

chauncey devega said...

Endless bucket?

Sujata said...

Enough nitroglycerine to blow up the execution chamber.

Bryan Ortez said...

well, if I'm in the chamber I hope to be givin' as good as I'm gettin' if you know what I mean.

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