Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What if this meal were your last?

I can only assume I'm not the only person who's mind wanders this time of year to thoughts of death. Remembering those we've lost, contemplating our own mortality amid the sixteen-hour nights and dormant frozen life that surrounds us (okay, maybe it's more of a Northern, Midwestern thing than I first thought). Death, I imagine, is cold, and so is December.
I have a weighty collection of books of trivia in the den, and in one of them I found a list of some last meals of recently executed murderers in America. An aside: the book is "What?" by Erin McHugh, who has a five-tome series of the five W's, and they are a wealth of unimportant knowledge for the trivia lover on your gift list.
But back to the last meals. What is the fascination with them? A last meal is food that you know you will never fully utilize, or even digest. It is ingested solely for the gastronomic pleasure of eating it. When you're trying to decide with a few friends if you want Thai or TexMex for dinner, there is always the assumption that the runner-up can be the crown winner next time. Imagine trying to make the case for one of the two if you knew with absolute certainty that you would never swallow food again in this world. Do you try to fuse the best aspects of the whole spectrum? Do you choose one and have the absolute best of that thin range? Go simple with basic culinary staples? Wolf down some comfort food, whatever that may be for you? On McHugh's list there were two in particular that caught my eye. Executed two weeks apart, they could not be more different.
In May of 2002, Stanley Baker Jr. was put to death after being served the following menu: Two 16 oz. ribeyes, one lb. turkey breast (sliced thin), twelve strips of bacon, two large hamburgers with mayo, onion, and lettuce, two large baked potatoes with butter, sour cream, cheese, and chives, four slices of cheese or one-half pound of grated cheddar cheese, chef salad with blue cheese dressing, two ears of corn on the cob, one pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and four vanilla Cokes or Mr. Pibb. That is an autopsy I wouldn't want to sit in on. Thirteen days later, Walter Mickens was executed after having chosen to be served baked chicken, rice and carrots. It was what happened to be served in the prison cafeteria that night, and he ate only the chicken.
I was intrigued by the dichotomy of these two meals, and did a little more research. I found out that the internet really does contain at least one of everything when I found the Dead Man Eating weblog. The cases involving the two executions in question are covered here, in the third post down titled "Last Mealopolooza."
What strikes me the most about these two cases is that they both seem so cut-and-dried, but if you look at the last words you see two completely different men. Mr. Baker didn't have a final statement, and he even got his victim's name wrong. He was "doing what was expected of him," and never seemed to have believed he did anything evil. Mr. Mickens, on the other hand, showed nothing but remorse in his final statements, begged for forgiveness, and referred to his having been born again into the Christian faith. The man who ate a shopping cart's worth of everything before being put to death wasn't even clear on the details of the crime he was being killed for. The man who ate whatever the rest of the inmates ate was saved already by a higher power.
I guess if I were assured a seat at the right hand of the Father, I'd be a little more nonchalant about my last meal too. It appears Mr. Baker was less confident in his eternal lodging arrangements than Mr. Mickens.
Full Disclosure: If I got to choose, my last culinary adventure on this Earth would be a steak I grilled myself to a perfect medium-rare with hand-cut shoestring french fries dipped in garlic-pepper aioli, and Brussels Sprouts sautéed in a balsamic reduction. It would be served with a bottle of 1996 vintage Veuve Clicquot.

Friday, December 4, 2009

...and so this is Christmas...

So we got our tree up. Merry Christmas. While we were decorating, we had KQQL 107.9 in the twin cities blaring carols on the radio. It brought some ideas forth.
I have always loved Christmas music. Though I tend to skew toward the secular carols, I once performed O Holy Night for the assembled congregation of the Lutheran church in which I grew up, so I can hold my own with the Christchild, too. When I was small my parents had what had to be the oldest stereo system in the western hemisphere hooked up in the living room above the fireplace. The amazing thing was that it had better sound than any Bose radio on the shelves today - it just didn't have any components: just a tuner and a turntable. As such, my knowledge of Yuletide cheer was informed solely by Kenny Rogers' Christmas albums and a Time/Life collection of holiday classics on vinyl (I think the cover had some kind of Currier & Ives-ish, sleigh ride print on it). But man, when Perry Como tells you there's no place like home for the holidays, and you've got a fire going in the fireplace and you've never known a holiday away from your own family, damnit you believe him.
So now I'm older. I've noticed a happy trend in new recordings of old classics, and it distresses me. I do not have the gravitation toward fun carols that I once had. "Up on the Housetop" and "Here Comes Santa Claus" no longer hold the magic they once did. These days what I really want to hear is "Happy Christmas." The wholesome "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" has given way to the realistic "I've grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older," and I do need a little Christmas now.
Here's an example I've been thinking about lately: In 1943 Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote a song for the Judy Garland vehicle, Meet Me in St. Louis, and they gave it decidedly dark lyrics. More than just dark, though, they were topical to the plot - "next year we may all be living in New York." There was no way it would ever do anything but exposit storyline for this single movie and depress the viewers of the film. Luckily, they changed it slightly to be less ominous, and in the process made Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas a universal sentiment of the holiday season for anyone who's ever had an extended family.
The song took an unfortunate turn in 1957 when Frank Sinatra was cutting an album called A Jolly Christmas. Why he felt the need to include this beautifully melancholy song in any kind of Jolly compilation is beyond me, but he approached Martin with a request to "happy up" the song. That is when it received the loathsome anti-climactic lyric it is best known for today: "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." This is a Hollywood ending for what was never meant (despite it's cinematic beginnings) to be a happy-ending song. The first rewrite, and the one I know from my Time/Life childhood Yule dreams is this: "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." As someone who has family in three different states, and who sees the people with whom I was raised and with whom I came of age maybe once a year, this lyric speaks to me on a very deep level. In this version, there is no guaranteed reuniting "in a year" or "on Christmas Day" - we just know we're all getting by and god-willing we'll all get together soon to sit with one another and pretend it hasn't been that hard after all. It is what the Holiday season is about - hope for tomorrow's reunions, and resolve to keep a fire going in that ancient hearth beneath the old stereo, just in case someone graces my threshold bearing Yuletide cheer. I don't know if I'll be in a position to host guests in a year, but for the love of god, if you people show up at my door we will be together, and that is what matters. Until then, I'm happy to muddle through as best as I can. So Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Now.