Prior to his 2011 execution for the murder of James Byrd Jr., Texas inmate Lawrence Russell Brewer requested a last meal of two chicken-fried steaks smothered in gravy with sliced onions, a triple bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelet, a large bowl of fried okra with ketchup, three fajitas, a pizza, a pint of Blue Bell ice cream, a pound of barbecued meat, a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts and three root beers.
He didn’t eat any of it, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) spokesman told CNN at the time.
One outraged letter from a state senator later, the TDCJ ended the traditional practice of allowing condemned inmates to request their final meals. They are now served the same dinner as everyone else in the prison.
"It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege -- one which the perpetrator did not provide to their victim,” state Sen. John Whitmire wrote to the agency the day after the execution.
In other states where the death penalty is still practiced, the last meal tradition remains, although there are some limits on what prisons will offer. Those restrictions are often related to price and availability.
In Florida, an inmate’s last meal must cost no more than $40 and the ingredients have to be purchased locally.
Oklahoma has a similar rule, but the budget there is set at $15. In early September, convicted killer Anthony Banks was served three apple-filled bear claw pastries and two bottles of water for his last meal before he died by lethal injection, according to KOTV.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will accommodate inmates’ requests up to a cost of $50.
“The Food Service Director is authorized to make special food purchases locally, to meet the request of the condemned for his last meal, or the meal itself may be purchased locally,” the Montana Department of Corrections execution technical manual states.
Inmates in Pennsylvania are allowed to request one special meal from a menu of available items.
Ex-convict and former death row chef Brian Price noted in a 2011 New York Times interview that even before Brewer’s execution, inmates in Texas didn’t always get what they asked for. Price said whatever the inmate requested, the meal had to be prepared with the food available from the prison commissary.
“They quit serving steaks in 1994, so whenever anyone would request a steak, I would do a hamburger steak with brown gravy and grilled onions, you know, stuff like that,” Price told the New York Times.
In a recent Lapham’s Quarterly article, author Brent Cunningham explored the history of the last meal for the condemned in the United States, tracing the tradition back to ancient Greece and Rome.
“The last meal is an oddly symbolic and life-affirming ritual in the vigorously dehumanized environment of death row,” Cunningham wrote. “In that sense, it’s hard to see the modern last meal in America as actually being about anything.”
Cunningham noted that the most frequent last meal requests include comfort foods like fried chicken and soda and “status foods” like steak and lobster.
A review of the final meals of many of America’s serial killers reflects those patterns. Some killers ordered buffet-sized feasts. Others, however, requested little or nothing at all.
Aileen Wuornos was offered her prison’s standard barbecue chicken meal on the night before her execution. She turned it away, later asking only for a cup of coffee.
Serial killer Darrell Rich, who was engaged in a self-imposed fast prior to his execution, drank Gatorade and tea. David Edward Mason refused a last meal and just asked for ice water while he waited in the death watch cell.
Regardless of the menu, killers’ final meals are a source of morbid fascination for some and head-spinning outrage for others.
Following the uproar over Brewer’s uneaten final meal, Price -- who opened a restaurant after his release and published a book about his time in the prison kitchen titled “Meals to Die For” -- said in an interview with CNN that he was willing to pay for and cook last meals for executed inmates himself if the state would let him.
"Justice is going to be served when this person is executed, but can we not show our softer side? Our compassionate side?" Price asked.
The Department of Criminal Justice rejected his offer.