After a while you get used to people wishing you dead. In my case it helps that the ones making the suggestion do so lightly. Often there’s the catch of a laugh in their voice. It’s that stifled amusement, the giggle before the darkness, which alerts me to what’s coming. I am on stage in a small theatre or comedy club, the meat of my live show behind me, and I am taking questions. I am working my way from upstretched hand to upstretched hand, trying to be the most entertaining version of myself that I can. “Jay, so… Ha!” Here we go. “What would be your death-row dinner?” The audience laughs. The audience always laughs. By asking the question the balance of power appears to have shifted, and brilliantly. There I am up on stage, owning the space. And now here’s a member of the audience bringing me back down to earth by asking me to imagine I am about to be put to death for some crime of which I am obviously guilty. Then again, they have heard the question only once; I have heard it dozens of times. I reply. Some of the audience laugh. Some of them look puzzled. Others look utterly furious. As far as they’re concerned, I really haven’t played the game at all.
The idea of last suppers, be they caused by the judicial system, suicide or misfortune of health, has long fascinated me. It seems such a simple question. You are about to die. What do you choose to eat? But it isn’t simple at all. For a start, we eat to keep ourselves alive. That’s the whole point of consuming food. It’s literally a bodily function. But if you knew your death was imminent, the basic reason for the meal would have gone. You’ll be long dead before you starve.
So now it’s about something else. Do you choose comfort food, something that reminds you of the good times when you weren’t about to die? Do you allow your meal to parent you, to enfold you in the biggest hug possible? Or do you go for ingredients as statement? Should your last meal not be a time to wade into luxury and excess? And how big a part does memory play in all this? Those of us who are more obsessed with our lunch than is strictly necessary build our stories around mealtimes. We construct our narrative one plateful at a time. What’s more, now we can eat what the hell we like because there are no consequences. Usually, too much deep-fried, sugar-rich food would result in you feeling queasy and worrying about your heart, about what type of person your appetites were turning you into. Now, who cares?
But there’s a problem. Let’s call it the mood issue. I am a man of appetites, but even I would be hard pushed to shove the thought of my impending death out of my head and get down to eating. Which is exactly what I tell the people who ask me about my death-row dinner. “I might be a greedy bastard,” I tell the audience, “but even I would lose my appetite if the next morning I was to be the victim of an appalling miscarriage of justice.” They wanted an account of unfettered, careless indulgence. Instead I’ve raised an issue of jurisprudence.
In 2007 photographer Melanie Dunea published a book also called My Last Supper, in which 50 big-name chefs from around the world gave an account of what they would eat for their last meal on earth. They were then photographed looking thoughtful about their own mortality. In his introduction, the late Anthony Bourdain, the one-time chef turned writer and broadcaster, explained that these were people who had already had the opportunity to eat anything and everything. You name it, they’d almost certainly been served it. Hence, when asked to describe a final meal, these chefs would probably go after something that reminded them of leaner, simpler times before the glamour and pressure of superstardom. And there is a bit of that. Jamie Oliver chose spaghetti all’arrabbiata. Gordon Ramsay wanted a roast Sunday lunch.
But they are in the minority. For example, Thomas Keller, once regarded as the greatest chef in America for his nerdy, intense cooking at the French Laundry, wanted half a kilo of osetra caviar, then otoro, the hyper expensive fatty belly of the endangered bluefin tuna. He followed that with a roast chicken, which sounded rustic enough, but then he went all in with a brie with truffles. All of this was to be served with a 1983 vintage champagne.
For a reality check you have to look at the work of the New Zealand-born photographer Henry Hargreaves, an opponent of the death penalty. In 2013 he put together a portfolio of photographs recreating various real death-row dinners. Some seemed obvious. The serial killer John Wayne Gacy, convicted of 33 murders and executed by lethal injection in 1994, asked for fried shrimps and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh went for a whole tub of mint chocolate ice-cream. These could indeed be interpreted as attempts by troubled adults to reach back to the innocent comforts of childhood.
In 2012 the academic journal Appetite published a paper analysing “death row nutrition”. The authors, Brian Wansink, Kevin Kniffin and Mitsuru Shimizu, looked at the contents of 247 last meals served in the US between 2002 and 2006, where the budget for the final meal ranged between $20 and $50, depending on the state. Some states allowed the food to be ordered in from nearby restaurants; others insisted it be made from what was in the prison store cupboard.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found the average meal was a hefty 2,756 calories, which is more than the recommended daily intake for an adult male. The requests from death-row inmates in two states, Texas and Oklahoma, were for meals that were between 750 to 1,000 calories more than in most of the others. Four of them were 7,200 calories or more. (One person ordered a dozen pieces of fried chicken, two rolls with butter, mashed potato and gravy, two soft drinks, plus a pint each of strawberry and vanilla ice-cream.)
More strikingly, the average meal had 2.5 times the daily recommended serving of protein and fat. Chicken was the most popular meat followed by both hamburger and steak. Nearly 70% wanted fried food. In pursuit of the familiar, there were a few requests for named brands. They wanted McDonald’s and KFC. Coke was the drink of choice for 16% of those heading towards execution. Curiously, three of them wanted Diet Coke. Maybe they just liked the taste.
There are other candidates for last meals. There are the suicidals, like Ernest Hemingway, who went for a New York strip steak, a baked potato, a Caesar salad and a glass of Bordeaux before shooting himself in the head. It sounds like a nice enough dinner, but is it unreasonable to suggest, given what he did afterwards, that this last meal was not an especially happy affair? Then there are the terminally ill. With the moment of death uncertain, timing is an issue, as is the ability to eat. Very few last meals eaten by the dying are like that served to François Mitterrand, the president of the French republic, who died of cancer in 1996. His last meal started with foie gras, oysters and capon, but all of that was merely an overture to the consumption of ortolan, a yellow-throated songbird, the eating of which was frowned upon by the majority of his fellow Frenchmen at the time and would eventually be made illegal.
Even in a country that has always been ahead of the pack when it comes to ritualising dinner, the process of eating ortolan goes beyond what is strictly necessary. Traditionally, they should first be placed in the dark for a month, so that, thinking it is their night-time feeding period, they fatten themselves up. Next, they are drowned in Armagnac. Finally, they are roasted for eight minutes, plucked and eaten whole, head and all, the idea being that the sharp bones puncture the inside of the mouth so that the diner’s blood mingles with that of the bird. You are supposed to eat them with a napkin over your head so that the Lord may not see your sin, or so your fellow diners may not see you spitting out the bones. One or the other.
Which is more extraordinary: the details of the last meal or the fact that this was the last meal of an exceedingly ill man? Illness murders appetite. Medication blunts and steals taste buds. Entirely reasonable existential angst, a fear of the end, can fill the belly with nothing but lead. The grandiose Mitterrand might have been able to pull off this final, shameless flourish, but I suspect that, were I in that situation, I could not. Indeed, I’m certain of it, because I am no stranger to near death experiences.
It is the summer of 1984. I am 17 and alone on a beach in Tangier, on Morocco’s northern tip. The late afternoon is shading into dusk. I came here with six friends, our Interrail cards securing the 48-hour train journey from Florence to a town where impoverished backpackers can afford rooms in a four-star hotel on the beach. I feel intrepid. I have travelled. So why not travel a little more?
While my friends explore the narrow alleys behind the hotel, I go alone to the beach. Bobbing on the steel-grey waters a little way offshore is a diving platform. What fun. I would go for a swim, a proper grown-up bit of exercise with a destination. I am 15 minutes into the swim when I realise the mistake I have made. The diving platform is much bigger than I had thought, which means perspective and distance have played their tricks. I have completely underestimated the length of the swim. It is a quarter of a mile from the beach, perhaps more. Currents are pulling in different directions. The waves are getting up as an evening breeze kicks in, and I am tiring quickly. But I am now closer to the platform than to the shore.
I stop for a moment and tread water, looking back at the empty beach. Behind it, lights are coming on in the restaurants and bars that cluster the corniche. Life is continuing. Not a soul knows I am out here. I turn and push for the platform, and somehow, 10 minutes later, drag myself up on to it. I sit there shivering, despite the warmth of the North African winds, trying to drag air into my exhausted lungs and looking back at the beach.
While I can see the people thronging the front, I can’t hear them, which means they cannot hear me. I look around for any passing boats, but there are none. I have no choice. I take a deep breath, drop off the side of the platform and push for the shore. The waves are no longer a gentle bob and heave. They are peaks and troughs that make the beach disappear from view. I try to focus on the lights, the symbols of undramatic life continuing, but they are rising and falling as I do and disappearing behind walls of water that, at their tops, shade now into a sky fading to the colour of ink.
All I can do is kick. And kick. And kick again. My legs are just one long length of cramping muscle. My shoulders are sore and with every third stroke I am getting a mouthful of water. My eyes sting and a nausea – part seawater, part fear – is closing my throat. Now there are only the lights and the surf and the sea and the wind and the salt and the words, “Not like this.” Twenty minutes later, my feet drag against the sandy seabed. Now the balls of my feet are digging in. I can hear the surf breaking on the beach. I crawl the last 5ft, clawing at the sand until I am up and out of the water. I turn and, in the darkness, drop on to my arse, my back to the corniche, looking out at the platform I have come from, my arms resting on my knees. I drop my head and sob.
A lot of thoughts went through my head during this experience. There was the slow-motion terror of my fight against the waves. I thought about my parents and my friends. I thought about all the things I wanted to do and hadn’t. However, not once did I think about food. Not once did I think, “If only I’d eaten properly last night” or “If I’d known this was coming, I’d have been more serious about dinner.” And afterwards I didn’t have much appetite either. A real brush with death can impact upon you in many ways. But take it from me – it doesn’t make you hungry.
The bottom line is this: last suppers are a brilliant idea, but they are wasted on the very people who are eligible for them. The more I thought about this, the more it seemed to me extremely unfair. I was excluded from enjoying this blissful meal by the piffling detail of not actually being that close to death. And so I came up with a plan: I would stage my own last supper now, when I was fit and well and able to enjoy it. Because this really is the right time. While my own death may not be imminent, I have been forced in recent years to think about my mortality. This year marks my 20th anniversary as a restaurant critic. I have earned part of my living courtesy of thousands of meals, both expensive and less so. I have given my body to my job, and it hasn’t always thanked me for it.
But there are upsides, too, not least the massive privilege of having food memories that stretch across years and continents: some good, some bad, some bizarre, all of them perfect material from which to construct a final meal. The long service also means one thing: I am no longer a young man. It is not simply that my beard is the colour of roadside slush mid-thaw, that I am now beyond 50 and aware there is almost certainly less to go than there has been.
Both my parents are gone. There is no one else in the waiting room ahead of me. I also have that other marker of adulthood, a family. This is surely the perfect moment in which to take stock. And how better to do so than by coming up with a definitive answer to the question I have been asked, and dodged, so many times? At least this way, when the moment to take my leave actually does come, I won’t be left feeling that there’s unfinished gastronomic business. I will have done the final meal properly.
Much more importantly, though, the idea presented me with the opportunity to indulge in one of the rarely discussed pleasures of the table: anticipation. Anybody with even just a passing interest in lunch will have daydreamed about what it will be, thought in detail about the process of getting the ingredients, then preparing and cooking and bringing them to the table. With my plan to build and then serve my last supper I was giving myself the licence to dream. And not only dream. I would have to test and taste and test again. I would need a main course, but also something to start. And something to finish. There would be side dishes. And bread. And butter. The right kind of butter, the stuff you can eat neat without the support of bread. And wine. Quite a lot of wine. Quite a lot of different kinds of wine.
But even dreamers need rules. I realised early on that the creation of my last meal would be the coming together of all my memories, hopes and appetites, shameful or otherwise. I was not creating the perfect meal. Perfection suggests balance and poise. I had no intention of being balanced and poised. I would be bloody outrageous and over the top. I would refuse to think about consequences or the next morning, for when you eat your last supper there isn’t meant to be a next anything. In this I would be lying to myself, because of course I would live on, unless something went terribly wrong (or, depending on your point of view, terribly right). I wouldn’t even be looking for the perfect ingredients. They might turn out to be so, but only accidentally. Or because I’m burdened with exquisite taste.
Happily, this journey could end only one way: with a set-piece meal surrounded by friends. It would be a major event. After all, how many dinners are there which, through each course, attempt to distil the memories of the person who organised it? Would it be a massively expanded version of Proust’s madeleine, a journey through my life one course at a time? Or would it, like the banquet at the end of La Grande Bouffe, be a complete overload of fat, salt and sugar? Would it, in short, be an obscenity? Or would it simply be dinner? Indeed, is it even possible to capture the essence of one’s life through food?
The only way to find out was to start cooking.
Jay Rayner’s book My Last Supper: One Meal, a Lifetime in the Making is published by Guardian Faber on 5 September at £16.99, buy it from the Guardian Bookshop at £11.99. The premiere of the accompanying live show, My Last Supper, in association with Guardian Live, is at Cadogan Hall, London SW1, on 9 September. For tickets and information on other dates around the UK visit jayrayner.co.uk
Styling by Hope Lawrie; Jay wears suit jacket from Moss Bros and tie and pocket square from Marks and Spencer; grooming by Juliana Sergot using Kiehls; props by Victoria Twyman; food styling by Camilla Wordie