Last Meals

All good things must come to an end, and when they do, food is often present

Recently, I met the esteemed editor of this publication for dinner at Terra Cotta, one of his fave restaurants. An acute observer of human behavior, he asked why I was sad. I told him. He'd had a challenging week himself. We decided to have martinis. They do a respectable job there, by the way, with the dirty Tanquerays--complete with gorgonzola-stuffed olives.

We traded pleasantries for a bit--the kinds of things an editor and writer discuss (Why are YOU late on deadlines? Why are YOU so anal-retentive about it?)--and then discussed a project we have been talking about for some time, some community issues, and pitched a few story ideas back and forth. Being the sensitive guy he is, he asked what I was writing about next. Suicide, death and food, I replied. Last meals. "Fine," he said. "Make it interesting." We ordered wine.

There's a rich history of famous last meals. One, on which I was raised, is that of Jesus of Nazareth, who shared a final seder with his minyan-plus in a fabled room in Jerusalem, apparently knowing throughout the meal that it was to be his last. In college, I studied Socrates, sentenced to a cup of hemlock for corrupting the youth of Athens. I know only his drink of dispatch, not the meal--if any--that preceded it. But, Plato only covered the highlights. Tacitus tells us that Seneca's bloodletting end was made easier by a frugal diet, a note echoed in a letter Vincent van Gogh wrote his brother Theo in 1877: "... dry bread and a glass of beer--that is what Dickens advises for those who are on the point of committing suicide, as being a good way to keep them, at least for some time, from their purpose." Sarah Bernhardt reputedly overdosed on bouillabaisse, although her cause of death was listed as kidney failure. Marie Antoinette had some broth, but passed on the vermicelli that was brought her.

Singer Marianne Faithfull--not yet departed--told an interviewer that she would want a salad and pasta with white truffles. Psychic Uri Geller has on his mind "... hummus, tahini, pita bread, olives from the Holy Land, dates and figs. I don't believe in the end of life; these foods would give me the energy I need to pass through to the next." And there always seems to be interest in what the really bad guys desired for a last meal. Ted Bundy had a steak; John Wayne Gacy dined on fried chicken, french fries and fresh strawberries; Gary Gilmore ate a hamburger, eggs and potatoes; and Timothy McVeigh downed two pints of mint-chocolate-chip ice cream.

In the 1973 French film, La Grande Bouffe, a group of guys take over a villa and decide--among other pleasures--to eat themselves to death. Thirty years later, The Washington Post reported that famed French chef Bernard Loiseau took his life after his restaurants took a ratings hit. The French are, as we all know, serious about their food: Francois Vatel reputedly killed himself after supervising a meal with which King Louis XIV was disappointed.

An anonymous blog writer posted his feelings about final foodstuffs:

"I love food. If I didn't have to worry about calories, I'd eat everything. You don't have to worry about being fat when you're dead--you don't weigh anything if you don't exist. (I'd have) a Wendy's double bacon classic; a Reese's peanut butter cup, banana and ice cream shake; lobster soaked in butter, Ruth Chris Steakhouse's steak; movie popcorn; Iskender and Adana kebaps (my two favorite Turkish dishes); ... my favorite three subs (Italian, tuna and turkey with bacon); eggs and Swedish pancakes from IHOP ... you get the point. I wouldn't eat it all at once, because that's not as much fun. I'd spread it out over a month so I can fully get to savor all the different dishes. ... No sense in dying skinny."

I've been unhappy at the way some dishes have turned out, but never that unhappy. But I have been thinking a lot about last meals, and not only recently. Years ago, I came to the conclusion that I'd want to have the oysters Rockefeller, Caesar salad and rack of lamb that was my mainstay at the Palomino. Sadly, the Palomino departed this vale of tears before I have. The salsas at Poca Cosa and Guadalajara Grill are high on my list, as is the carne seca at El Charro. Almost anything at Janos and Tavolino would be a great food memory throughout eternity, and I know that the talent in the kitchens at Fiorito's, Kingfisher and Terra Cotta would whip up something special. Or maybe a bowl of miso and some albacore tatake at Bonsai or Sushi Garden, or a burger from the Home Plate. So many choices. Knowing me, it will end up being a large spoonful of Jif extra-crunchy peanut butter.

Speaking of last meals: The end of 2005 marked the end of a home away from home of mine for many, many years. Laurent Reux closed Le Bistro with his New Year's Eve meal. The Campbell Avenue spot--once a chain doughnut place--was a haunt of mine for more than a quarter-century, from its ebullient existence as Katherine and Company to the hearty French joy it has given with Laurent and his crew.

For the final night, the aforementioned esteemed editor, his significant other, a guest of theirs and Jorge, home from college, joined me. It was a bittersweet evening in many respects, watching Laurent work the crowd of friends and fans, remembering the many nights and the great meals there, knowing it was the end of an era. Champagne flowed, as did some tears, and there was a lot of laughter. It's hard not to be happy for Laurent, who has Costa Rica in his future and the opportunity to sleep late for days in a row if he so chooses. I can't wait to see what the next half-century will bring for him.

The memories--all of them--will always be rich. My thanks for that.

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