The Passion of the Crust

Mark Jobson 10 November 2007

Mark Jobson

Bread, albeit washed down with wine, was the simple food that ended the most famous last meal, or rather the most famous ‘last supper’. This simple dish, recreated on canvas, board, paper and film by renaissance greats such as da Vinci through to Poussin, Rubens, Dali and Mel Gibson has captured the popular imagination. This iconic image peppers the walls of art galleries world over like shooting stars in Bethlehem. But why has this image proved so enduring?

The staples of broken bread and wine form the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist. In the course of the meal Jesus instructed future Christians to continue this practice in remembrance of his sacrifice. What became his last supper was the Seder meal that marks the beginning of the Jewish festival of Passover. Instead of the crusty loaf Di Vinci and his renaissance chums so adored to depict, the meal itself was probably centred around matzah, a dry cracker eaten by Jews to commemorate the exodus from Egypt.

Our curious attachment to the notion of a last meal extends much further than its biblical beginnings. Whether as a dinner on a condemned prisoner’s final day or simply the final dish eaten before some unwitting person’s death, there is something morbid about our fascination with this most macabre of meals.

The tradition of giving a condemned prisoner a last meal is hard to pinpoint although most modern governments that practise capital punishment subscribe to it. The Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans all had a tradition of giving a condemned man a final meal. Cleopatra is said to have had one last bowl of figs smuggled in past her guards. This deadly snack concealed an asp (a kind of poisonous snake) allowing her to commit suicide. Some of the civilisations of the Yucatan peninsular, portrayed beautifully in yet another Gibson epic, fed on their human sacrifices in a year-long last meal before their death.

In medieval Europe the custom of granting a condemned prisoner a last meal was thought to be a superstitious and symbolic act: accepting food offered freely meant making peace with the executioner, judge and public witnesses. More reassuringly it was supposed to prevent the future haunting of those people responsible for the killing by it symbolising the convict’s acceptance of their punishment.

If there was any doubt at the fascination people have for last meals, one need only look at the media coverage of executions in the United States. Not only does the media routinely report the details of a death row prisoner’s last meals, but such was the morbid fascination that until recently The Texas Department of Criminal Justice used to have their own ‘Final Meal Requests’ website. Being Texas, the list reads like the menu of a Kentucky Fried Chicken: “two bacon double cheeseburgers, French fries, onion rings, ketchup, coleslaw, two diet cokes, a quart of milk, a pint of rocky road ice cream” for example. With years spent idling time away on death row prisoners in Texas certainly have plenty of time to dwell on what their final meal should be; yet a surprisingly high number of convicts opt for the ‘State of Texas Special’: a traditional meal of steak (medium-rare), eggs (over easy), hash browns, milk, coffee, juice, toast, butter and jelly, that the authorities feel is fitting for one’s last meal. It all sounds like a last meal Homer Simpson might have chosen – in fact he has done better than most and already had two – despite avoiding the fate of the electric chair himself.

So, as I sit here in the grimy sweat pit that is the TCS office, an editorial deadline biting at my finger tips, I contemplate my last meal and think that the State of Texas Special, with a side of English Mustard (hold the Jelly) wouldn’t be unwelcome.