I would appreciate the food hot

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Julie Green

His right foot, clad in a blue slipper, shook nervously . . . After officials began administering the drugs at 12:09 a.m., Johnson blinked three times and let out a breath through puffed cheeks. His foot stopped shaking. His eyes slowly dimmed, became glassy and closed to a crescent . . . He asked for a final meal of three fried chicken thighs, 10 or 15 shrimp, tater tots with ketchup, two slices of pecan pie, strawberry ice cream, honey and biscuits and a Coke.
From The Norman Transcript Newspaper

When Julie Green began collecting notices of the final meals requested by death row inmates, her source was the local newspaper in Norman, Oklahoma. Since then numerous websites have been created that give details of executions as well as final meals.

“What seems to be missing, however, is interpretation of the final meal,” said Green, a Research Fellow and associate professor of art at OSU. “Why does this tradition exist, and what does the selection of each meal tell us about the individual’s race, region, and economic background—or even about his feelings on life and death? And what should it tell us about our feelings?”

Green began addressing these questions in 1999 through works of art, collectively called The Last Supper, consisting of mineral paint fired onto white porcelain plates, which illustrate 250 actual last supper choices. The work has been exhibited widely in the United States, as well as in Britain, often accompanied by a lecture delivered by Green. She also has lectured on the subject in various art schools and institutes in China, and the project has been featured in a nationally distributed Associated Press article and on the public radio program The Splendid Table.

At the Center, Green is turning from painting to the writing of essays in which she will consider various aspects of capital punishment in addition to the traditions of a last meal, including “the victims, the heinous crimes committed, the individuals executed, the large number of minorities on death row, and the margin for error in judicial process.”

In the United States, death-row inmates are nearly all male. Fifty-two percent are black or Hispanic, and studies by the United States General Accounting Office have found indisputable evidence that the race of the crime victim influences the likelihood of the perpetrator being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty. Specifically, those who murder whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murder blacks.

“Although my Last Supper plates do not show whether the person who chose the meal was male or female, rich or poor, black or white or some other color, my essays will address these conditions and will consider them in relation to what the foods chosen by the condemned inmates indicate about the individual histories, experiences, and imaginations.”

In general, said Green, the requested meals are modest, and typically include American diner-type food such as French fries, hamburgers, and chicken fried steak. The meals include few fruits or vegetables, and only rarely gourmet or international foods apart from Mexican dishes requested mainly by Hispanic inmates. Green found no requests for such specialties as sushi or Godiva chocolate, though some requests contain striking details: “An Oregon request for fried eggs and bacon closed with ‘I would appreciate the food hot.’”

The numbers of executions as well as the rituals and rules surrounding last suppers vary from state to state. At 336, Texas leads the nation in executions, followed by Virginia with 94. The total number of state executions to date is 994. Few states allow family members in the kitchen or at the meal, though in Louisiana the inmate’s family can bring food to the prison and eat with the condemned. In most states there is a twenty-dollar spending limit, said Green, who has encountered reports of taxpayers complaining about the expense.

“It is a curious ritual, the last supper. An inmate has been locked up for a decade, with little opportunity for choice in food or anything else. Then, immediately prior to execution, we ask, ‘What can we cook for you?’ Does a meal offer dignity to an otherwise degrading situation? Is the meal truly for the inmate, or is it a way to alleviate some of our guilt and discomfort about capital punishment? . . . One wonders how much of the meal the inmate is able to eat. One wonders about the occasional request for communion, or Rolaids, or a Diet Coke. One wonders about the irony of sustenance--nourishment to support life--being carefully prepared and served just before death.”

The Center’s fall art exhibit is a one-woman show, Paintings 1996-2005, by Julie Green. They do not include work from The Last Supper.