Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Mashed: Disappointment on Death Row

At a gala hotel dinner I attended recently, the guest chefs cooking that night came into the restaurant to answer questions from the customers. Inevitably, one of the queries was 'what would be your last meal'. The reply involved large quantities of caviar, a lobster and a cote de beuof among other things. The luxurious excess of the answer was met with gasps, laughter and a smattering of applause. As a well traveled food writer, I too was asked the same question by someone at my table. My response, which I'll get to later, was met with palpable disappointment and a puzzled expression.

The last meal or death row dinner question has been popularised in recent times first by American bad boy chef, writer and broadcaster of note Anthony Bourdain (his most recent response to the question - really good sushi) and subsequently in a pair of books by Melanie Dunea called My Last Supper and My LastSupper: The Next Course. At the beginning of 2014, I was commissioned by a national British newspaper to write a last meal feature. I spoke to more than a dozen of the UK's leading chefs who offered suggestions ranging from a meal served on a beach in Thailand to bouillabaisse eaten in bed with a beautiful woman in Provence. The piece is yet to appear, although it may still do at some point, but in the meantime and entirely coincidentally, a rival paper has launched it's own Last Bites column based on exactly the same premise.

The gala dinner wasn't the first time I've been asked the question and I'm sure it won't be the last, but I've always found the fascination around the subject a little bewildering. If we're very lucky, most of us won't know that we're eating our last meal, which could quite easily be a packet of prawn cocktail Discos and a can of Tizer seconds before we're mowed down by the no 47 bus, blown up by a fundamentalist or drop dead on the loo while forcing out a recalcitrant stool (our constipation perhaps caused by a terrible diet of prawn cocktail Discos and Tizer).

And unless we're the fundamentalists doing the blowing up, few of us will be in a position to order a last meal on death row. And even if we are on death row, I'm not sure our appetites are going to be up to much, an opinion that has been reinforced recently by watching Werner Herzog's documentary film Into the Abyss and related TV series On Death Row. They make for fascinating, if harrowing viewing. During Herzog's interviews with the murderers who are the subjects of the films, the topic t of what they'll eat for their last meal doesn't come up. Mostly because these are serious films tackling the ethical issues surrounding capital punishment, but also because its a bullshit question that trivialises and demeans.


The death row cell, just a few steps away from the room where the prisoner will be strapped to a gurney for their last moments on earth is a solemn place indeed. Put it this way, it's not the fucking Ivy. And of course in reality, every death row meal is intravenous, consisting of an amuse bouche of sodium thiopenta (anesthetizing barbiturate) followed by an appetiser of pancuronium bromide (muscle relaxant) and a main course of potassium chloride to induce cardiac arrest. Maybe they get the sweet course in the next life, or maybe they've already had their just desserts.

So anyway, lets imagine for a moment that by some miracle I've avoided unexpected or slow painful death and I'm in a position to order up something tasty (perhaps I'm booked in at Dignitas before the cancer really kicks in or I've been sentenced to death for stabbing the last person who asked me what my death row meal would be). My last supper/final meal/ death row dinner would be (drum roll please), poached eggs on toast.

A poached egg on toast, yesterday (image from cookperfecteggs.com)
OK, I admit it, my choice is partly to pull the rug from under the whole thing which I find tiresome in its predictability. I also don't like being cornered by the question which seems to have the passive/aggressive undertone of 'oh, so you're a food writer are you? Prove it' and it also begs the sort of food snobbery that's still alarmingly common among the mostly middle class food writing community. But it's also something that I genuinely crave on a regular basis, something I think I could manage to eat given the (fictitious) circumstances and something that I would find comforting in my last moments. As much as I enjoy fillet steak, truffles, shellfish, rich sauces, expensive Burgundy and poncey multi-course tasting menus, its not food I find myself yearning for that often (well, apart from the expensive Burgundy).

For food to really make an impact, it has to be simple and memorable. I recall standing at the pass of Michelin-starred restaurant, observing a lunch service for an article I was writing about a well known London chef. One of the sous chefs proudly pushed a plate my way (not to eat, just to look at. I didn't even get a cup of tea that day, but that's another story) and said, 'That's the lamb dish', as though it was a 'thing' and not just a billion disparate elements forced together in time and space by a massively overstaffed kitchen brigade of testosterone-fueled bully boys and looking like every other main course being served up in every other Michelin-starred kitchen in the country at that exact same time.

So my simple, memorable last meal would be two slices of home-made bread (any home-made bread, even if it's baked with smart price flour, instant yeast, cheap table salt and tap water will beat the living crap out of anything you can buy in a shop, and I mean anything), well toasted, spread generously with the best butter available (ideally the unpasteurised stuff Claude Bosi of Hibiscus gets from Shropshire - how's that for a bit of culinary elitism) and topped with two fresh eggs poached in a large pan of gently simmering water (you can put a little vinegar in to help the coagulation, I don't mind as long as I can't taste it. Even better, take a tip from chef Tim Johnson at Apicius restaurant in Cranbrook and use a tall asparagus pot, the long drop and rise allowing for the perfect shape to form as the egg poaches). A pinch of Cornish sea salt, a twist of freshly ground pepper and a mug of builders tea and I'm all set. I'm just not dying to eat it.       

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