Food in the Field gives a sneak peek into what CNN's team is eating, and the food culture they encounter as they travel the globe. Today's contributor, photojournalist Jeremy Harlan is based in Washington D.C., but he travels. A lot.
Pictured above: death row inmate Hank Skinner
If we’re going to have this discussion, I have to start with Memphis-style ribs. I’d move onto a heaping amount of moist Texas beef brisket. Grilled asparagus. One In-n-Out 3×3 burger with fries, animal-style. A 12-oz dry-aged ribeye medium-rare. Wait, make it rare. What the heck. Wash it down with a cherry lambic and finish it off with peach cobbler and one piece of chocolate cream pie. Did I say one piece? Better make it two.
Over the past year, I’ve covered two executions in Virginia and have interviewed a death row inmate in Texas. At each of those events, one subject that always draws a lot of interest is the last meal request. Next to what a prisoner’s last words were, the most popular inquiry by reporters always seems to be what the person ate before death.
My reaction: that’s it?! Of all the things you could have, you just wanted chicken and cake? But as I later came to find out, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the menu options aren’t limitless.
As Larry Traylor, the Director of Communications for the Virginia Department of Corrections, explained, "For the last meal, the inmate may select any meal, or combination of items, from the institution’s 28-day cycle menu. The meal must be completed no later than four hours prior to the execution."
I’m sure the cooking staff does a fine job in making the meal, but I’d want a little bit bigger selection for my last eats on earth. Then again, if I’m on death row, do I really deserve to have whatever I want?
In Texas, prisoners get far more leeway in choosing their last meals. “I had three pieces of Popeye’s fried chicken, two catfish filets, a bowl of green onions, a bowl of tartar sauce, a bowl of homemade ranch dressing, a bowl of shredded cheese, a bowl of crumbled eggs, two double bacon cheeseburgers, a large order of fries, and a chocolate milkshake,” boasted Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner a month ago.
I know, I know. What’s crazier about that last paragraph - the half-grocery store that Skinner ingested for his last meal, or the fact he can still talk about it?
Skinner was set to die by lethal injection last March for the murders of his then-girlfriend and her two sons. Less than an hour before he was to enter the death chamber, the United States Supreme Court stayed his execution and agreed to hear his suit against the local Texas prosecutor, whom he has sued for violating his civil rights and failing to turn over DNA evidence. But let’s get back to what he ate.
“The guys over here [on Texas death row] make [the meal] out 14 days before our date. When guys are making it out over here, they’ve got real big eyes, they want this, they want that. None of them ever eat it all,” says Skinner.
But, for his own part, Skinner was determined to leave no bowl of cheese or green onion behind. He told us that he made it all the way to the last half of the second cheeseburger before stopping. I guess when you're about to die, you don’t worry about the digestive repercussions of such a huge meal.
Last week I found myself back in Jarratt for the execution of Teresa Lewis, the first woman put to death in Virginia in nearly one hundred years. Unlike her counterpart in the Lone Star state, Lewis kept it simple: two fried chicken breasts, peas with butter, apple pie or German cake, and a Dr. Pepper.
All of this got me to thinking - what on earth would I want to eat for a last meal? Granted, I don’t ever want to find myself on death row scribbling down a menu of my last grub. But if I were given a chance to plan it, where would I start?
Barbeque would be the first and the last word on the menu. And it has to be Texas-style barbecue. I love you, Carolinas, but my culinary heart belongs to brisket. And the brisket I really want is the moist version from Rudy’s Country Store. My grandma’s snickerdoodle cookies would be a must. Mom’s fried chicken, Matty’s prime rib, Emily’s chocolate chip cookies, artichokes with mayonnaise, ripe California avocados, El Pollo Rico rotisserie chicken….aargh, so many choices to make.
My wife’s list is pretty simple: my Caprese salad, my guacamole, my homemade applesauce, and a triple-scoop of gelato from her favorite shop in Rome, Giolitti.
It's a simple question but harder to answer than you'd think: what would you want on your last dinner plate?
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