Food & Culture

AA Gill on the question of last suppers

A new collection, The Best of AA Gill, draws together some of the fearless, feisty and unfailingly funny late writer’s finest pieces. Among them is this gem, taken from the column he wrote for Gourmet Traveller for more than a decade.

By AA GILL
 AA Gill on assignment in Havana. The late writer ponders the question of what we'd choose as our last meal.
AA Gill on assignment in Havana.

Two double-cheeseburgers, two large servings of French fries, half a gallon of vanilla-fudge ripple ice-cream. Or perhaps cheese pizza, cheese omelette, green peppers and onions, white cake with white icing. Now, these probably aren't anyone's choice for a last meal – ever – except they were for John Schmitt and David Dawson, two executed American murderers.

Reading through the last-meal requests from death row is one of the most gastronomically and socially depressing things you can do. I really don't recommend it. Rubbish food. Yards of enchiladas. Stacks of well-done steaks. Towers of pizza and buckets and buckets of fried chicken. Swimming pools of ice-cream, root beer, Coca-Cola and fruit juice. Tenements of pies and peach cobblers and vast ranges of chocolate cake.

Very occasionally you come across something out of the ordinary. Farley Matchett asked for four olives and wild-berry-flavoured water. Arthur Rutherford had fried catfish and green tomatoes. Unusually for a last meal, he had it twice. The first time he was reprieved. The second time not.

Philip Workman asked that a vegetarian pizza be delivered to a homeless person. The prison refused. On the day of his execution, Nashville's Rescue Mission received 170 pizza deliveries.

These meals are small windows into the lives that lead to their consumption. Almost everything in them, you could get from convenience chains or diners. This is food without grace, without joy, without hospitality.

Johnathan Bryant Moore's life culminated in the self-inflicted dinner of Kraft cheese and macaroni and beef-flavoured Rice-A-Roni. Obviously, junk food doesn't necessarily make a drug-addled premeditated murderer, but it's an inescapable truth that with every last meal ordered at all executions over three years, not one of them was what you'd call home-cooked.

At the moment when a man might be expected to reach for comfort and a final taste of hearth and a family kitchen, something that his mother made, they only have franchised convenience food available. Almost all of it can be eaten with their fingers.

Only Sedley Alley, with an infantile pathos, asked for milk and oatmeal cookies.

I was interested in this because "What would your last meal be?" is one of the most common questions asked of food critics and chefs. Keen young home economists are always looking to turn out a celebrity cookbook of last suppers.

If your last supper includes something that isn't fried or you need to eat with a knife and fork and it doesn't come with ketchup or barbecue sauce or chilli, then it's almost certain you won't ever be asked to make the choice for real.

Asking for a napkin to go with that would probably be grounds for a retrial. Bad food doesn't lead to bad lives but rotten lives eat rotten dinners.

I always dodge the last-supper question because I think it's in bad taste. It's one of those things like "Make up a list of the 10 sexiest women ever". You have all the anxiety of the choice but none of the pleasure of the execution. You're never going to get a date with Uma Thurman and, in fact, your last meal will probably be an uneaten, cold tomato soup.

Much more interesting from a foodie point of view is the question "Which food would you choose for the rest of your life, if you had to live with one other people's national cuisine?" You can't choose your childhood food or a neighbour's that's too similar to make no odds. So if you're Irish, you can't say Scot. And you can't just say Italian because everybody just says Italian and there really isn't such a thing as Italian food – you have to specify a region.

I've thought about this a lot. In fact, sitting in airports and traffic jams and editorial pep talks, I think of little else. And I've got it down to four cuisines. Fourth is south-western France – foie gras and cassoulet, all sorts of duck, figs and Roquefort. This is the home of the French anomaly. People here eat more saturated fat than anyone else on Earth and have a very low incidence of heart disease. This is the food of old Gascony, of Cyrano de Bergerac: a cuisine for the last leg of life, of post-prandial naps, of meals that soak into each other, of a languid, replete and easy life. I could live with that.

In third place, there is the food of Piedmont, of northern Italy and the Po Valley, where they grow rice, make risotto, collect truffles, cook with butters, lard and the light olive oil of Genoa and have the youngest veal. I'd have to stretch it a bit to Parma, to take in hams, cheese and ice-cream but that would do me. This is the origin of the slow-food movement that grew to become the slow-city movement and now has a slow university where presumably they don't care much if you turn up for lectures or not and you can take your exams over three or four hours or perhaps three or four weeks.

Second is the food of the North-West Frontier, the mountainous tribal lands of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan – the very best lamb curries, biryanis, pilaus, apricots and quail, Peshawari naan, yoghurt and pomegranate juice eaten with gusto and arguments and your fingers on the roofs of mud-brick houses, in a confusion of power lines and washing, the smell of charcoal fires and the call of the muezzin.

And in first place is Vietnam. I love the food in Vietnam. I love it so much I've invented new meals. It is an ideal combination of delicacy and panache. It has enormous variety of flavours and textures without being irredeemably twee. It's refined but it's also assertive. It has tiny little finger food and dog. But what really did it for me was breakfast.

When you consider a cuisine for life, you have to start with breakfast. Your home style is the most difficult thing to give up. I defy anyone but a Japanese person to enjoy the breakfast of the rising sun. My subcontinental Afghan breakfast of dhal, curry and chapati is difficult to swallow. Italians don't do much more. They have a minute syrupy coffee and perhaps a bad bun. But in Vietnam, they have a pho – the divine broth with do-it-yourself additions of coriander, mint and chilli. It's perfect. Actually, if you're going to have a perfect food retirement, it would be Vietnam for breakfast, northern Italy for lunch and then alternately south-west France and the North-West Frontier for dinner.

But if you want to start a real food fight, just ask your next dinner table which of the three great staple carbohydrates they would choose forever, to the exclusion of all others. Wheat, rice or corn – that is the decision that formed empires, made history and grew civilisation. So take your time.

This column was first published in the September 2009 issue of Gourmet Traveller. It appears in the new collection The Best of AA Gill (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pbk, $32.98).