When I was a kid, my sisters and cousins and I talked a lot about what we would choose for our final meal on earth. I’m pretty sure we got the idea from learning about The Last Supper in Sunday school. Of course, none of us were able to fully grasp the gravity of what we were talking about, but we took it seriously nonetheless. At first I always chose the foods that I loved most—mashed potatoes, Brigham’s chocolate ice cream, my grandmother’s grilled cheese sandwiches—but at some point it took a turn in the opposite direction. I started thinking that maybe I would choose a collection of the foods I hated—fish sticks, grape popsicles, those frozen carrot coins with the tine marks in them—to ease the pain of never eating again. What could be worse than filling your stomach with everything you love, knowing the whole time that you’ll never eat it again? Much better to stare down a plate of bone marrow and salt cod and say, “Okay, my time here is done.”
People have been obsessed with the notion of “the final meal” since ancient times, and today is no different. There are dozens of websites, like this one, dedicated to documenting prisoner’s last meal requests, which I have admittedly spent hours poring over in the past few years. In 2007, Melanie Dunea wrote My Last Supper, a book filled with interviews of famous chefs revealing what they would eat and drink if it was their last day on earth. The book was so successful, that Dunea wrote a follow-up, My Last Supper: The Next Course, which was published in 2011. Last year, a photo series by a photographer named Henry Heargraves depicting the last meals of death-row prisoners went viral, and with good reason; the photographs are fascinating, rage-provoking, heartbreaking. Most of all, they shine a light on the bizarre and long-held tradition of granting even the most heinous prisoners a final moment of happiness—a moment, many would argue, that they do not deserve, considering it was one not given to their victims.
The tradition of granting a prisoner one final meal dates back to pre-modern Europe, where it was a symbolic act of peace-making and forgiveness between the executioner and the prisoner about to be executed. It was also a superstitious act, thought to prevent the executed from returning as a ghost and haunting those who had killed him (smart). In those days, the prisoner would most likely have had no say over what he ate in his final moments, the meal would have been a simple one of bread and wine.
During a particularly introspective moment in an Amsterdam hotel–the hallways of which are filled with the smell of “sugary warmth: coffee and cinnamon, plain buttered rolls from the Continental breakfast,”–Theo ponders what he would choose for his last meal on earth. It’s a question he is familiar with, as it’s one that Hobie regularly brings up at his dinner parties, and Theo mulls it over while perusing the room-service menu, finding it “funny…to want something so easy, to feel such appetite for appetite itself.”
Even condemned men were allowed to choose a last meal, a topic of discussion which Hobie (indefatigable cook, joyous eater) had more than once introduced at the end of the evening over Armagnac while he was scrambling around for empty snuffboxes and extra saucers to serve as impromptu ashtrays for his guests: for him it was a metaphysical question, best considered on a full stomach after all the desserts were cleared and the final plate of jasmine caramels was being passed, because—really looking at the end of it, at the end of the night, closing your eyes and waving goodbye to Earth—what would you actually choose? Some comforting reminder of the past? Plain chicken dinner from some lost Sunday in boyhood? Or—last grasp at luxury, the far end of the horizon—pheasant and cloudberries, white truffles from Alba? (727).
Friends, it’s a dark question, but I’m still going to ask you: what would your final meal be?
Vegetable oil for greasing pan
1 cup heavy cream
Seeds and pod of 1 vanilla bean (or ½ teaspoons vanilla extract)
1 Tablespoon loose jasmine green tea (or 1 teabag)
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
¼ cup water
¼ cup light corn syrup
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ teaspoons fine sea salt
flaky sea salt for sprinkling (optional)
Grease an 8×8-inch baking pan and line it with parchment paper, allowing about 4 inches of paper to drape over on two sides (this makes it easy to pull the caramel out of the pan once it’s set). Grease the parchment with oil and set the pan aside.
Place cream, vanilla bean seeds and pod, and jasmine tea in a small saucepan, and bring it to the brink of boiling over medium heat. Remove it from heat and set aside to allow the jasmine tea and the vanilla to steep.
In a deep saucepan, whisk together sugar, water and corn syrup and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, swirling the pan occasionally (don’t stir!), until the mixture becomes golden-brown.
While the sugar is boiling, add the butter and sea salt to your warm cream and whisk until butter is melted.
Strain cream into a separate vessel and discard the tea and the vanilla bean pod.
When the sugar is golden-brown, turn off the burner and very slowly add the cream mixture to the sugar (be careful, it will bubble up and look scary).
Cook mixture over medium-low heat until a candy thermometer reaches 248F.
Pour caramel into greased pan and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight before cutting into desired shapes and sprinkling with sea salt.