#118 | Last Suppers
Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals From Death Row
By Ty Treadwell and Michelle Vernon
Intro: Welcome to The Cookery by the Book podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Ty Treadwell: Hi, I'm Ty Treadwell, and my book is called Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals From Death Row.
Suzy Chase: This summer at our beach house I read Last Suppers and it was fascinating to me. So much so, that this season on my cookbook podcast, I'm asking every single cookbook author what their last supper would be, and their answers are so thought provoking. What about death row meals captivated you?
Ty Treadwell: Well, I have to admit, the idea for the book Last Suppers came from my co-author, Michelle Vernon. She gets the credit or the blame, depending on what you think of the book. She and I were working together at a bookstore at the time, and she came to me, she already had a big interest in true crime in general, and especially true crime books, and she said "Hey, have you ever noticed every newspaper article about an execution mentions the last meal of the person before they died. We are working here in a bookstore, we oughta write a book about this." I said "Oh, you're crazy, nobody wants a whole book about this," but she twisted my arm, we did the research, we wrote the book, it got published, and we found out, yes, there is a big interest in this topic.
Suzy Chase: Since the return of the death penalty in 1976, over 1,200 executions have been carried out across the United States. What state has the most executions?
Ty Treadwell: Well, by far Texas has the most executions. It's very, very lopsided. They have performed more than a third of the executions that have taken place since 1976. Just to show the disparity between them and everyone else, Texas ranks number one with 556 executions to date, and Virginia, which is number two, only has 113 executions. California never executes anyone. I can't remember the last time they executed someone. I think executions and capital punishment in general are just something that the state of Texas takes very seriously.
Suzy Chase: Execution rituals vary from state to state, but one ritual that remains constant throughout every state is the act of feeding the condemned man or woman a special meal before the execution. Why is this ritual so important?
Ty Treadwell: I think that the last meal ritual is just as important for the people who are preparing and giving the food at is to the condemned person who is receiving the food, because when you look back through history, different countries, different cultures, there are many different rituals involving death that also involve food, and I personally think that food plays a very unique position in life. Food is a necessity. We have to have it to live, but it's also a luxury because most people love food, they eat what they like to eat, they make fancy meals at home, they get out for fancy meals. It's a necessity and a luxury, it's also, I think, a way of doing something nice for the condemned person that doesn't seem like it's really going overboard for the prison officials.
It's their way of saying "Okay, we can do this small thing for you before you die, but you are here for a reason, you did something bad, so this is one little small concession we can give to you."
Suzy Chase: Were there any connections between what they requested and their crime?
Ty Treadwell: As a writer and someone who writes satire, I always hope that there may be some kind of connection. A killer who smothers his victims, maybe he orders a last meal that's smothered in cheese, or someone who stabs his victims, maybe he orders something on a shish kebab. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. Most of the time, there is no connection between the crimes and the last meal, or between the names and the last meal. There was someone named, last name was Eggers, recently executed, and I was really hoping he would order an omelet or something similar to that, and he didn't. Unfortunately not a big connection there.
Suzy Chase: Some of these meals are elaborate. Who prepares them?
Ty Treadwell: If the meal is prepared in the prison, most of the time it's just the usual prison chefs. I know here in Florida where they cook the last meals in the prison, it's the food service director who cooks it. They do not bring in chefs from outside, so it's always just whoever is working in the prison kitchen.
Suzy Chase: Are there guidelines for ordering?
Ty Treadwell: There are. Actually, the guidelines vary from state to state, and they are widely different. For instance, in Texas where most executions are taking place, they have completely lost their right to order a last meal. This happened because a few years ago, a man named Lawrence Brewer ordered a huge last meal that had everything in it, it had pizzas, it had burgers, it had barbecue, it had Mexican food, just a ton of food. It took many, many people just to carry it in to him, and once they brought it, he said "You know what? I'm not hungry after all." He didn't eat a bite of it.
Suzy Chase: I love that.
Ty Treadwell: Texas law makers said "That's it, nobody gets to order a special last meal after this." In Texas, the rule is you get whatever is on the daily menu. Whatever everybody else on the prison block is having, that's what you get. But, like I said, the guidelines vary widely from state to state. In Florida, my new home state, you can order up to $40 worth of food, which will be bought from a local grocery store, and then prepared in the kitchen. In Oklahoma, very different story, you can only order fast food with a cap of, I believe $20. They won't cook anything for you, but they will go and get takeout for you. There are very strict guidelines, but they vary from state to state.
Suzy Chase: Let's go over a few convicts that caught my eye in your book. Okay, first, Thomas Grasso, executed 3/20/95 in Oklahoma by lethal injection. He robbed and murdered two women in their 80s and strangled one with her own Christmas tree lights on Christmas Eve, that's awful. God.
Ty Treadwell: I know, I know.
Suzy Chase: So his last meal was a dozen steamed mussels, a Burger King double cheeseburger with mustard, mayo, lettuce, and tomato, a can of Franco-American spaghetti and meatballs, a mango, half of a pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and a strawberry milkshake. He also requested steamed clams and a Cornish game hen glazed with sweet and sour sauce, but those two items were denied. Why is that?
Ty Treadwell: Requested items can be denied for several different reasons, we're talking about Oklahoma here, which their protocol to now only allowing fast food, obviously back then they allowed items to be ordered from grocery stores and then cooked in the kitchen. The items may have gone over the spending limit, these things may have been too expensive, they may not have been available in the store at the time. The prison cook may have thought that he didn't have the means to prepare them. There are a lot of different reasons why they may have been denied, but that is one caveat to the guidelines. Just because the state says that you can order whatever you want, doesn't mean that you will get whatever you want.
Suzy Chase: Tell the story of his can of spaghetti and meatballs.
Ty Treadwell: Oh, he was so mad about this. He had specifically ordered a can of Spaghetti O's, Franco-American Spaghetti O's, as part of his last meal. He only got just regular old canned spaghetti. He was so mad about this, that in his last words, before he was executed, he said "I did not get my Spaghetti O's, I got Spaghetti, and I want the press to know this."
Suzy Chase: Wow. Okay. Henry Charles Moore, executed 5/16/97 in Oregon by lethal injection for murdering his half sister and brother-in-law. His last meal was a bit odd. Two green apples, two red apples, a tray of fresh fruit, and two two liters of Coke. That's just weird.
Ty Treadwell: It is. You can't help wondering maybe he was thinking about, oh, an apple a day keeps the doctor away saying that he was hoping to, you know.
Suzy Chase: Maybe.
Ty Treadwell: Maybe it would help him out in the execution department or something, but from what I understand, fresh fruit is very rarely given out in prisons, most of the time if they get fruit, it's canned fruit. If they do get any fresh fruit, it tends to be spoiled, or near spoiled. Maybe not even farm animal grade, so maybe he really liked apples and was hoping to get a few fresh ones for a change. That's another possibility.
Suzy Chase: Eric Schneider, executed 1/29/97 in Missouri by lethal injection. He shot two school teachers, murdering one. His last meal was sirloin steak, baked potato, onion rings, a chef's salad, low calorie cheesecake, that's another weird one, and a large Pepsi.
Ty Treadwell: Yeah, it always cracks me up when things like this happen. They will order a huge last meal, and a low calorie cheesecake, or they'll order a huge last meal and then a Diet Coke to go along with it. I can only imagine that they just like the taste of these diet foods and beverages, because they're about to go on a state sponsored diet anyway where they will lose most of their body weight, so it really can't be a diet issue.
Suzy Chase: You wrote in the book there are more Lees on death row than a Chinese phone book. That's hilarious.
Ty Treadwell: It's true. You would be amazed at how many first or last names of death row inmates are Lee. Occasionally a last name. But, yeah, it's interesting.
Suzy Chase: Frank Coppola executed 8/10/82 in Virginia by electrocution for beating a woman to death during a robbery. He had an egg and cheese sandwich, and asked for a wine recommendation, and you wrote "We're not sure about the significance of his last meal, but at this point in time, there are no regions of the world where eating an egg and cheese sandwich is considered especially macho."
Ty Treadwell: Right. Frank Coppola was a real tough guy. He would do things like swallow razor blades, or eat live spiders to show how tough he was. It would have made sense if for his last meal he had said "Give me a pizza with ground glass and thumbtacks on top." But, no, it was just a plain old egg and cheese sandwich.
Suzy Chase: David Castillo, executed 9/23//98 in Texas for slashing a liquor store cashier to death has perhaps my favorite last meal. Okay, here we go. 24 tacos, 2 cheeseburgers, 6 enchiladas, two whole onions, five jalapeno peppers, one quart of milk, and one chocolate milkshake. Whoa.
Ty Treadwell: Now, I have read, once again, you don't always get everything you order. This was in Texas, where at the time before they took away their right to order last meals, they could order anything that was in the kitchen at the time. Other than that, there were no limit. They could ask for as much as they wanted of any item that was already in the kitchen, so I have read that he ordered this huge meal, but did not actually get all of it, and what he did get, he did not eat all of it. I think this is another one of those cases where the prison officials looked at this and said "I think 24 tacos is maybe a little excessive. I don't know that he'll even have time to eat all of that before the execution." So they may have taken that one with a grain of salt.
Suzy Chase: And two whole onions, what are you gonna do with two whole onions, just eat it like an apple I guess?
Ty Treadwell: I don't know, the two whole onions, the five jalapeno peppers, maybe he wanted to just put them on top of the other food, I'm not sure. I shudder to think about it.
Suzy Chase: How long do they have to eat the meal?
Ty Treadwell: I believe they typically have maybe an hour, probably not more than that. I don't think they rush them, but they also don't let them drag it out unnecessarily.
Suzy Chase: What's the most unusual request?
Ty Treadwell: The most unusual request by far is something that is not even actually food. A man named James Smith ordered a lump of dirt for his last meal. He was a self styled voodoo priest, and he actually didn't want to eat the dirt, he wanted to mark his body with it as part of a voodoo ritual before he did, but I believe ordering it as his last meal was the only way that he thought he could get it. The prison officials, one again, said "No, that's too weird. We're not giving you the dirt." And it wasn't just any dirt, it was a special kind of dirt. They said no, and he settled for yogurt instead. Now, when it comes to actual food items, one of the most unusual ones was ordered just recently.
A man named Edmund Zagorski, who was executed in Tennessee last month, asked for pickled pigs knuckles and pigs tails, which I have never heard of before.
Suzy Chase: Ew. Did he eat it? Did they give it to him?
Ty Treadwell: He did. They did. He apparently loved it.
Suzy Chase: What's the most common request?
Ty Treadwell: In states where the inmates can order what they want, it is predictably things like steak, lobster tail, shrimp, if they're being executed in a state like Florida where they can get what they want, they tend to order those things. If it is a state where they can only order what's available in the kitchen, or they have a lower price limit to stick with, it tends to be very predictable junk food, fast food, things like fried chicken, hamburgers, pizza, really no surprises. Every once in a while, there may be something that you can tell is a comfort food, chicken soup, or meatloaf, and mashed potatoes, something like that.
Most of the requests are very predictable, not a lot of ethnic food, not a lot of strange gourmet foods. Like I said, just the kind of things that these guys probably ate when they weren't in prison.
Suzy Chase: Who eats with them?
Ty Treadwell: Once again, it depends on the protocol. A lot of the time they at alone. Sometimes they are allowed to have a spiritual advisor with them, the prison Chaplain, someone like that. There was a very unusual case in Indiana a few years ago, a guy named Gerald Bivens, who asked for a certain type of German ravioli for his last meal. He wanted it because it was something that his mother used to make. It was one of his favorite dishes. The prison officials actually allowed his mother to come in and cook the meal for him, and then stay with him while he ate it.
Suzy Chase: Oh my god.
Ty Treadwell: That was a very unique case.
Suzy Chase: Reading through these last meals, I couldn't help but think, these were childhood favorites. Lots of milk came up, sometimes a piece of fruit where you could almost hear their mom in their head. Did you think the same thing?
Ty Treadwell: I thought the same thing as you did, and another thing is that many times the person will order a full meal, they won't just order a hamburger, or a burger and fries, something like that. They'll have an entrée, they'll have several side dishes, some kind of a vegetable or a salad, they have a drink, a dessert, it will be a full meal, and you almost think "Oh, they are imagining their childhood meals, sitting at the table in the kitchen the way it might be."
Suzy Chase: The women on death row seem to stick with lighter fare, like Carla Faye Tucker, executed on 2/3/98 Texas by lethal injection, had a salad with Ranch dressing, a banana, and a peach. All she ate were crackers, and she drank soda. Why order all that when you're not gonna eat it?
Ty Treadwell: I think a lot of times people who have been in prison for a long time are really anxious to get some real food, some better food than what they have had for all of these years, but then when it's served to them, and they realize that they only have a few hours left to live, their appetite suddenly disappears. That's, I think, why a lot of times people order what they don't eat. In her case, it wasn't an incredibly extravagant meal, but like you said, she didn't touch the salad or the fruit, just nibbled on some crackers and soda instead. Probably because she just realized, "Hey, I've only got a few hours left. All of the sudden I've got no appetite."
Suzy Chase: Margie Velma Barfield, executed 11/2/84 North Carolina by lethal injection had cheese doodles, a Kit Kat bar, and a Coke.
Ty Treadwell: Well, it's a nice little snack if you're not about to go to a lethal injection. It sounds kind of tasty to me, and once again, just a snack as opposed to a meal, and that's pretty fitting with the women who have been executed, and there haven't been very many of them, not nearly as many as the men. I can't even remember of a case where a woman ordered a meal nearly as sizeable as any of these that we're talking about for the male inmates.
Suzy Chase: Throughout this book you have recipes from various penitentiaries. Did you go there and try the food?
Ty Treadwell: I had the opportunity to try a little bit of prison food in Georgia, and a little was more than enough.
Suzy Chase: What did you try?
Ty Treadwell: I believe it was a sandwich.
Suzy Chase: You believe?
Ty Treadwell: I cannot say with 100% certainty what it was. The item between the two slices of, quote/unquote, "bread" could have been peanut butter, could have been some type of meat, could have been some type of jam. I really, I can't say. It was nearly unidentifiable. From what I understand, that is, like I mentioned before, a common complaint about prison food. The prisoners are served very low grade food. Often it's food that is close to spoiling, close to its expiration date, very poor cuts of meat, the type that it might actually go to be made into pet food or something else. Yeah, and like I said, these people are in prison for a reason, they don't necessarily deserve gourmet food, but it sounds like what their getting is at the opposite end of that.
Suzy Chase: Over the weekend I made the recipe for your jail house chili from the Texas prison system, and I had to tweak the measurements just a bit, because it called for 25 pounds of ground beef, which is hilarious. How come this didn't call for any beans? Only ground beef?
Ty Treadwell: That's a good question. Chili recipes vary widely, there are some people who put no beans in their chili, and some people who put almost many different types of beans in their chili. I don't know. How did the recipe turn out for you?
Suzy Chase: It was a little bland, but really, 'cause I would think beans would be cheaper than ground beef if you're looking at a prison budget.
Ty Treadwell: The unusual thing is that inmates are served a hell of a lot of beans on a daily basis. In Texas, normally you'll see more than one type of beans on the daily lunch trays, daily prison trays, so I'm not sure why. I know that this particular recipe came from the person who is the prison director at the time, so maybe that was just his personal preference. That could be it.
Suzy Chase: Okay. I need a drum roll for this. What would you have for your last supper?
Ty Treadwell: Oh, that's so tough, because I love food. I love all types of food. I would probably order one of those, just like the guy in Texas that it takes a dozen men to bring in on trays-
Suzy Chase: Me too.
Ty Treadwell: But I would, yeah, I would try to keep it simple. I love Asian food more than anything else, so I would want to have a lot of sushi, I would want to have a few Chinese dishes, maybe some Kung Pao chicken, maybe some Mongolian Beef. I would want some Indian food, maybe some Tandoori chicken, some lamb vindaloo. I'm also passionate about donuts. I would probably want at least a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts. I would probably want to wash it all down with a huge jug of Gatorade. For dessert, maybe some tiramisu. I would probably stop there.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Ty Treadwell: I am on Facebook, I'm on Twitter. My website is just my name, TyTreadwell.com. You can find information there about last suppers, and also the follow up books which are Death Row's Oddest Inmates and Death Row's Wildest Women. Continuing the death row theme there.
Suzy Chase: This has been truly eye opening. Thanks so much, Ty, for coming on Cookery By the Book podcast.
Ty Treadwell: You're very welcome, thanks for having me.
Outro: Follow me on Instagram at Cookery by the Book. Twitter is @IamSuzyChase. Download your kitchen mix tapes, music to cook by, on Spotify at Cookery by the Book, and as always subscribe in Apple Podcasts.