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Dining on Death Row: Last Meals and the Crutch of Ritual


This essay examines last meal requests by those facing execution. After surveying food and beverage selections, I explore how culinary choices are marked by ethnicity, region, class, and gender, as well as inflected by memories, the longing for certain sensory experiences, and the intent to make a moral, political, or philosophical statement. I also consider which last suppers and comments have inspired movies, TV shows, musical compositions, and advertising; why the public desires information about the food requested by those facing death; how the condemned’s meals have become politicized, feeding arguments by both those for and those against the death penalty; what the origin of the last meal ritual is; and why the custom is perpetuated. Possessing varied meanings for different participants in the drama of execution, the ceremonial last meal is one of the most powerful symbolic elements within a larger phenomenon laden with rituals and symbols.

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