Last rites

Artichoke, white truffles and lobster: William Skidelsky envisages his perfect final meal

As this is to be my last NS food column, I thought I'd broach the subject of food-related send-offs. Were the worst to happen and I was forced to take my gastronomic last rites, as it were, what would I choose to eat? For precedents in this matter, Ben Schott's Food and Drink Miscellany is an invaluable guide. Schott includes an entry that details some of the final meal requests of prisoners executed in Texas. They make depressing reading. Jeffery Doughtie (executed 16.08.2001) asked for, among other things, "eight soft-fried eggs (wants yellow runny)", a "big bowl of grits", "two sausage patties" and "two pints vanilla Blue Bell ice cream". William Little (executed 01.06.1999) wanted "15 slices of cheese", "2lb crispy fried bacon" and "one quart chocolate milk". Schott points out that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice states that the "meal requested may not reflect the actual meal served". Coping with the stresses of execution must be hard enough; imagine how much worse you'd feel if, having specifically requested runny yolks and two pints of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, you were presented with rock-solid eggs and a small bowl of strawberry Häagan Dazs.

I guess that's the problem with being convicted of a capital felony: you don't have much bargaining power. More fortunate was François Mitterrand, who, suffering from end-stage prostate cancer in 1995, sat down to a final banquet (again described by Schott) of Marennes oysters, foie gras, roast capon and ortolan. Ortolans are tiny birds, known as buntings in England; in France they are illegal to hunt, buy or eat. Traditionally, ortolans are caught alive and kept in dark boxes so that they gorge on grain. Once hugely distended, they are drowned in Armagnac, plucked and roasted. The birds are eaten whole, bones and all, with the diner's head draped in a napkin - to hide the shame of such gluttony from God. It is normal to eat only one ortolan; at his final banquet Mitterrand ate two. He died a week later.

I don't think I'd want my final meal to equal Mitterrand's for extravagance. I like the taste of rich food, but I hate the feeling of having eaten too much. Then again, death might not seem so terrible - might even come as a bit of a relief - if you were so stuffed that you couldn't move. But no: my final meal would be characterised by a certain restraint.

I'd start with a whole boiled artichoke, served with melted butter and lemon. Then I'd have a dish of fresh pasta with white truffle sauce - just like the one I once had at a restaurant in Turin. Then I'd have a whole poached lobster, served with some really good mayonnaise. I would insist on a finger bowl, of course. For dessert, I'd have tarte aux pommes, of the quality you would expect to find in a first-class French restaurant. Thus fortified, I'd take my final bow.

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