In January 1985, Pizza Hut aired a commercial in South Carolina that featured a condemned prisoner ordering delivery for his last meal. Two weeks earlier, the state had carried out its first execution in twenty-two years, electrocuting a man named Joseph Carl Shaw. Shaw’s last-meal request had been pizza, although not from Pizza Hut. Complaints came quickly; the spot was pulled, and a company official claimed the ad was never intended to run in South Carolina.
It’s not hard to understand why Pizza Hut’s creative team thought the ad was a good idea. The last meal offers an irresistible blend of food, death, and crime that drives a commercial and voyeuristic cottage industry. Studiofeast, an invitation-only supper club in New York City, hosts an annual event based on the best responses to the question, “You’re about to die, what’s your last meal?” There are books and magazine articles and art projects that address, among other things, what celebrity chefs—like Mario Batali and Marcus Samuelsson—would have for their last meals, or what the famous and the infamous ate before dying. Newspapers reported that Saddam Hussein was offered but refused chicken, while Esquire published an article about the terminally ill Francois Mitterrand, the former French president, who had Marennes oysters, foie gras, and, the pièce de résistance, two ortolan songbirds. The bird is thought to represent the French soul and, because it’s protected, is illegal to consume.
While the number of yearly executions in the United States has generally declined since a high of ninety-eight in 1999, the website Dead Man Eating tracked and commented on last-meal requests of death-row inmates across the country during the first decade of the new millennium. One of the site’s last posts, in January 2010, was the request of Bobby Wayne Woods, who was executed in Texas for raping and killing an eleven-year-old girl: “Two chicken-fried steaks, two fried chicken breasts, three fried pork chops, two hamburgers with lettuce, tomato, onion, and salad dressing, four slices of bread, half a pound of fried potatoes with onion, half a pound of onion rings with ketchup, half a pan of chocolate cake with icing, and two pitchers of milk.”
There are also efforts to leverage the pop-culture spectacle of last meals to protest the death penalty. An Oregon artist has vowed to paint images of fifty last-meal requests of U.S. inmates on ceramic plates every year until the death penalty is outlawed. Amnesty International launched an anti-capital punishment campaign this past February that featured depictions of the last meals of prisoners who were later exonerated of their crimes.
No matter your stance on capital punishment, eating and dying are universal and densely symbolic human processes. Death eludes the living, and we are drawn to anything that offers the possibility of glimpsing the undiscovered country. If, as the French epicure Anthelme Brillat-Savarin suggested, we are what we eat, then a final meal would seem to be the ultimate self-expression. There is added titillation when that expression comes from the likes of Timothy McVeigh (two pints of mint-chocolate-chip ice cream) or Ted Bundy (who declined a special meal and was served steak, eggs, hash browns, toast, milk, coffee, juice, butter, and jelly). And when this combination of factors is set against America’s already fraught relationship with food, supersized or slow, and with weight and weight loss, it’s almost surprising that Pizza Hut didn’t have a winner on its hands.
The idea of a meal before an execution is compassionate or perverse, depending on your perspective, but it contains an inherently curious paradox: marking the end of a life with the stuff that sustains it seems at once laden with meaning and beside the point. As Barry Lee Fairchild, who was executed by the state of Arkansas in 1995, said in regard to his last meal, “It’s just like putting gas in a car that don’t have no motor.”