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Morbid dining : writing the haunted history of last meals
chapterposted on 06.12.2017, 00:00 by Donna Brien
Special occasion cookery for religious and secular festivals such as Easter, Christmas, Passover and Valentine’s Day as well as individual milestones such as birthdays, weddings and anniversaries marks a popular and recurring genre of non-fiction food writing. In an era of both the market segmentation and the overall expansion of the food publishing sector, it is notable that culinary narratives of one of life’s central and inescapable rites – dying, death and its mourning – are almost completely missing from this form of creative production in the West. This is especially surprising given that food and feasting is a significant component of funeral rites around the world and certain foods have become closely associated with these commemorations. In this context, this chapter investigates a dark exception to this trend, and a highly unusual – and, therefore, revealing – type of food writing when most examples are decidedly positive and upbeat. In doing so, it provides the first detailed study of the cookbooks and other food narratives that describe, and otherwise engage with, the last meals of condemned prisoners. Focusing on the personal, professional, commercial and institutional narratives that occupy this liminal space, an analysis of these texts not only reveals what meals condemned prisoners request and what is consumed, but also how these requests are treated and where these final meals are prepared and served. It discloses how these most melancholy of meals are reported outside the walls of the condemned cell and how these narratives are consumed, as well as community attitudes to both this uncanny example of hospitality in the face of publicly-sanctioned murder and the publishing around it. Finally, what light this writing and publishing casts on the death penalty and the ultimate execution on which this tradition of the ‘last meal’ hinges is explored.