Food to die for Can the choice of a last meal tell us anything worth knowing?

A single olive, still with its pit? Or an impossible amount of chicken fried steaks, hamburgers, barbecue, ice cream etc. etc.? The last meal of a condemned prisoner carries an enormous load of cultural baggage and potential significance. It’s one of the few things I didn’t ask Clair Woods-Brown about in our conversation, almost certainly because Great Britain hasn’t executed anyone legally since 1964, so it wasn’t on our minds.

But while there’s an awful of theorising about the origins and significance of the last meal, there isn’t a huge amount of substance.

One article, The History of the Last Meal – A final compassionate act or an undeserved reward? points out that the last meal is “a tradition, not a rule”. Robert Walsh argues that the last meal is

a privilege, not a right. It’s also far more significant than being merely a kind gesture. It’s an important part of the execution ritual and has been for centuries. Barring last-minute legal action a prisoner’s last meal is usually their last chance to control anything that happens in their final hours.

Walsh links it to the Christian last supper. I don’t know enough to know whether Jesus was attending Passover as a Jew, or whether he made any specific requests for the menu. Did he invite Judas Iscariot in an effort to “make peace with [his] executioners”? More likely, in my view as well as Walsh’s, a good last meal made it less likely that a dead prisoner’s ghost would return to haunt his executioner.

That also seems to have been behind the German traditions of the Hangman’s Meal and St. John’s Blessing, a shared drink with the executioner. I got that from one of the more comprehensive essays – Last Meals – by Brent Cunningham in Lapham’s Quarterly. Cunningham writes:

Rituals like the Hangman’s Meal and the Aztec sacrificial feasts were anything but detached. They were concerned with the spirituality of death—forgiveness, salvation, appeasing the gods, marking the transition from living to dead. Although prisoners may still pray with clergy, the execution process has been drained of its spiritual and emotional content. The last meal is an oddly symbolic and life-affirming ritual in the vigorously dehumanized environment of death row. In that sense, it’s hard to see the modern last meal in America as actually being about anything.

Arts and sciences

And yet, although the modern last meal in America may not be about anything, it has provided the stimulus for activists, artists and, surprisingly perhaps, scientists. Among the artists, Henry Hargreaves set out to photograph recorded last meals, recreating the food and usually doing it the honour of an actual place setting. What inspired Hargreaves was, he said “This little bit of civility, ‘hey we are going to kill you but what would you like to eat?’”. Julie Green paints an impression of specific last meals on dinner plates because “final meal requests humanize each death row inmate”.

Those two artists represent, for me, the symbolism and ritual that Cunningham denies. The science, though, that’s truly strange, as exemplified by two published studies.

The first looks to last meals for human attitudes to nutrition. The researchers tabulated data on the 245 men and 2 women executed in the US between 2002 and 2006. They had to discard 51 people who “declined the offer of a last meal” and the 3 whose choice offered them less than 200 calories (“a single pitted olive”, possibly an homage to the olive with pit requested by Victor Feguer.) And then, rating the last meals for content and specific brand names, they discovered that condemned prisoners ask for more calories, at a single sitting, than the recommended daily allowance. They don’t ask for fruit, or vegetables, or grains; they want protein and carbohydrates, the latter especially as dessert, often more than one. “[Y]ogurt, tofu, and explicitly mentioned vegetarian meals never appear.” Coke was twice as popular as Pepsi.

There’s a lot more data, and a lot of explanations that draw on the evoutionary history of Homo sapiens and that would certainly make for lively discussions in undergraduate biology classes. In conclusion, the authors say that their work “offers a window into one’s true consumption desires when one’s value of the future is discounted close to zero”.

In this context, people whose shadow of the future is arguably shorter and more consciously known than members of any other group – including combat soldiers – demonstrate food preferences that match with the patterns that are found outside of prisons in resource-poor or food-insecure environments.


Innocence and appetite

The second paper, by two of the same authors as the first, emerges from a celebrated last meal and a documentary film. Rickey Ray Rector, executed in Arkansas in 1992 after Bill Clinton, then the Governor and running for President, failed to intervene, asked that some of the pecan pie he had ordered for dessert be saved so that he could finish it later. Scholars argued that Rector did not understand what was about to happen to him, and therefor should not be executed. In their film, Last Supper, Mats Bigert and Lars Bergström “assert that there is a connection between the declination of a last meal and whether or not a person’s guilt has been posthumously disputed and challenged”.

So there is this idea that last meals tell us something about whether the prisoner “ought” to die.

Given their previous database of last meals, the authors now use it to “ask whether a purportedly innocent condemned person is less likely to accept a last meal, and if they do, how does their meal differ from a person who has confessed guilt?” They looked at the database with a more strigent filter that required an explicit report that the last meal had been declined. And they looked at last words for protestations of innocence, and reference to religious ideas and “love”.

The people who denied guilt were more likely to decline their last meal. And the people who admitted guilt asked for more calories than those who did not. Furthermore, people who denied guilt mentioned brand name foods far less often than the rest of the sample. But although the findings are suggestive, the numbers are far too small to be really useful. Furthermore, as the authors point out, “the majority of those claiming innocence — 71% — still asked for a last meal. They were less likely to request a meal; and, they requested less [sic] calories, but the majority still wanted to eat.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that while last meals may provide inspiration for artists and ammunition for activists, their scientific study tells us almost nothing about either innocence or appetites.

Innocent until proven guilty

One reason beyond the actual results is their source. I didn’t identify them at the start because I didn’t want you to jump to conclusions before I had. The two papers are:

  • Brian Wansink, Kevin M. Kniffin and Mitsuru Shimizu (2012) Death row nutrition. Curious conclusions of last meals, Appetite, 59: 3, 837–43. DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2012.08.017.
  • Kniffin, Kevin M. and Wansink, Brian (2014), Death Row Confessions and the Last Meal Test of Innocence. Laws, 3: 1, 1–11. DOI 10.3390/laws3010001.

Brian Wansink has been in the news lately. Journals have retracted 13 or 14 of his papers (depending on how you count; one was retracted twice) over the past couple of years. A couple of days ago he resigned from Cornell. The day before, six of Wansink’s papers had been retracted by the JAMA network. The resignation came after Cornell closed its investigation of Wansink who, the report said, committed academic misconduct, including misreporting data.

Neither of those two papers appears in any of the lists of retractions I have been able to look at, but still. The corresponding author on both papers is Kevin Kniffin, an Assistant Professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell. While I was researching this piece I asked him outright “do you still stand by the results and conclusions of the papers”. He didn’t reply directly, but he was good enough to locate for me a copy of one of the papers, for which I am grateful.

The normal response to research like this is to say that it ought to be replicated. But that, I am glad to say, is becoming trickier, even though capital punishment is still alive and well in many countries. Top of the list, in absolute terms, is China, with an estimated 1000-plus executions a year. Unfortunately, there is no mention of last meals in the Wikipedia article on Capital punishment in China, and in any case something tells me that a country in which the number of executions is a state secret is unlikely to be a source of data for an independent replication. Executions in the USA are down now to about 20 a year, and Texas no longer even grants a last meal, after one prisoner made a mockery of it by ordering all those chicken fried steaks etc. etc. and eating none of it. So a fresh set of data could be a long time coming.

Maybe that single olive, with pit, was trying to tell us something. But maybe it wasn’t. There’s so much else that is interesting about prisoners and their food, and so much that is abhorrent about the death penalty, that in my opinion a replication isn’t really required.

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