This meal is not a celebration

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Julie Green

One man wanted only ice water as his last meal before execution. Another asked that his mother be allowed into the prison kitchen to make the chicken dumplings he loved. Another told the guards he had never had a birthday cake, so they brought him one, along with his formal last-meal request, a pizza. -New York Times, January 25, 2013

Who could eat breakfast just before their own execution? Many, it turns out, are capable at least of ordering the meal and it is these last wistful requests for food that Julie Green has spent more than a decade recording in blue paint on white plates. 

“The meals were so personal, they humanized death row for me,” said Green, a Center research fellow and art faculty member at OSU. The project began with Green’s emotional reaction on discovering that an Oklahoma newspaper routinely reported what condemned prisoners requested for breakfast on their last morning alive. “The Last Supper,” which was exhibited at the Corvallis Arts Center in January, now includes more than 500 plates painted with individual meal requests from around the country. The plates were featured in the January 25 New York Times. They have traveled around the country and to the U.K., and were on display at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon through April 7.

The project has been included in a book, Confrontational Ceramics, and as a photo essay in two prominent food and art magazines. Green has been interviewed on the public radio program The Splendid Table and featured on a segment of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s program Oregon Art Beat. During her Center tenure, Green is working on the preparation of a book, The Last Supper, which continues her exploration of the death penalty through the lens of the final meal, pushing the search back to the 18th century. “The subject matter is timely,” she said. “A moratorium has been issued in Oregon. Death penalty convictions in the United States are at far lower rates than when I began painting plates a decade ago. Death penalty sentences are at the lowest numbers since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated. 139 people have been released from death row because of evidence of their innocence.”

Expanding on an essay supported by a previous Center fellowship, Green will look at variations in the ritual of the final meal from state to state. Some set dollar limits and limit food options Texas no longer allows final meal requests—while others, notably those with fewer executions, offer genuine choices that “tend to be more personal and revealing about the inmate’s race, region, and class.”

Among the hundreds of final meals Green has studied, most feature diner and comfort food. Requests for fruit and vegetables are uncommon. Rarely do the condemned decline a last meal, though one asked only for a single honey bun, another for an apple. In addition to Green’s own analysis and reflections, the book will include comments by inmates on the purposes of a final meal, along with essays by an art historian, a food historian and a nutritionist, and observations by a capital appellate defender and a criminologist. 

The project has gone beyond art in its expression and in its effect on Green’s life. “I have become a member of a community of scholars, artists, attorneys, criminologists, activists, and publishers working to abolish capital punishment.” 

As noted in the New York Times, Green “came to see the choice of last meal as a window into the soul in an hour of crisis, and also into the strange rituals society has attached to the ultimate punishment. ‘I’m a food person,’ she said. ‘I grew up with great cooks and great food. Food has always been a celebratory thing for me. That’s part of why this whole thing is interesting to me, because of the contrast. It’s not a celebration.’”