The 4th of July always makes me consider my own mortality. No, it’s not the image of dead cow patties sizzling away on the grill or even the idea that scores of people had to die in the fight against Britain so that I can drink as much Bud Light as I want to, damn it. It’s the fireworks. Sometime in my early teens I decided that cremation was absolutely the way to go, sometime in my early twenties I decided that the only way to scatter those me-ashes was to have them packed into fireworks and exploded over the ocean at my funerary after-party. But I have say, I’m a fireworks snob. No way am I going out in one of those gaudy, colorful explosions—I just want to be launched into the night air in those big gold ones that burst into sparklingly ephemeral weeping willows and fall silently into nothingness. I feel like those have the right mix of glitter and class, of joy and solemnity, to really disperse me right.
But it’s not just fireworks that has me thinking about death lately. We’ve had this book called My Last Supper sitting on our counter for a while. It’s 50 great chefs’ last meals. Not just what they want to eat, but where, with whom, and who’d prepare it. I’ve enjoyed reading it idly over breakfast for the last few months—it’s like the grown-up version of the back of the cereal box.
The ultimate coffee table book, My Last Supper is full of big, thought-provoking photos (Anthony Bourdain naked save a giant, meaty, cleverly-placed bone, anyone?) with butterfly kisses of text. I can’t help but drool into my Honey Nut Cheerios as I read the descriptions of the food great chefs fantasize about. Foie gras terrine at Versaille? Daniel Boulud. A slice of country bread with olive oil and shaved black truffle under an oak tree? Eric Ripert. Soft-scrambled eggs, buttered yeasty toast, and ripe cherries by the sea? Gabrielle Hamilton. Roasted quail and celeriac puree on Mars? Alain Ducasse.
Some are so homey and intimate, others wildly excessive. It doesn’t seem a great mental leap to say that the way you envision your last gustatory moments says a lot about who you are and how you’ve lived your life. With that kind of pressure on the subject, I’ve toyed with the idea of my own last meal for weeks now. Part of me would love a rambunctious party of close friends where we could all sink our teeth into perfectly cooked burgers mounded with the sharpest cheddar on buttery, toasted brioche buns flanked by impressive piles of crispy, salty sweet potato fries. Or perhaps even more low-brow, we’d feast on the best take-out pizza…ever. But no, that may have been who I was a few years ago, but certainly not now. Another part of me relishes the idea of an exotic meal, maybe Japanese, Thai, or Indian, in an even more exotic locale. But these both seem like things I’d want to do in my last week, not my absolute last night among the living.
I’ve studiously avoided actually putting down on paper what my last meal would be (by going out with rambunctious friends and eating burgers, incidentally), because it’s just so paralyzingly final. There are as many options as there are facets of my personality and to choose is to say, of all the things I am and all the things I love, these are the things that really define me. So, deep breath, here we go.
My last meal has just four guests in attendance: my mom, my dad, my sister, and me, of course. We’d start with a few of Mom’s famous spiced nuts and I’d shake up four of the coldest, briniest dirty gin martinis and we’d go out back and sit on the deck at our house in Pennsylvania. It’d be an unseasonably warm night in early fall—jeans and light sweater weather, but with the leaves ablaze on the trees around us. We’ll sip and munch for a while, having one of those magical, hilarious, mind-expanding conversations that only the four of us can have, until it’s time to start the meal.
For those who know me, you can guess what my first course will be—Mom’s Caesar salad. Whole leaves of romaine, homemade garlic croutons, and a tangy dressing that can only be eaten with one utensil: your hands. Next we’d move to my dad’s clam pasta, not his old standby, but one of the newer iterations that adds a dash of rich tomato sauce and red wine to his original recipe. I’m imagining eating this sauce tossed into hot angel hair pasta and loaded with fresh Parmigiano. (I’ve rather annoyingly held for the last 23 years that I “hate” angel hair and yet somehow it’s found its way on the menu at my last meal. Weird. Mags, I know you’re never going to let me forget this.) While Mom is making the salad and Dad is making the pasta, Maggy and I will be baking off boules of crusty, white bread for soaking up the clam sauce—which we all call “liquid gold.” One of the most important parts of this meal to me, is that we’ll all make it together, sipping a crisp, citrusy, but generally run-of-the-mill Sauvignon Blanc while we do it.
By the time we’re ready to sit down, it’s too cool to sit outside, so Dad’ll start a fire and Mom will open up our best Pinot Noir, and we’ll all sit on the floor around the coffee table in front of the fireplace.
I know for sure I don’t want to be uncomfortably full on my last night alive—I don’t want that belly-distending, breath-takingly “stuffed” feeling that drives you to the nearest couch. Lord (and everyone else) knows, I have a history of this. On this night, I just want to be satisfied. So I think dessert is a no-go. Plus, my family is about to be up to their eyeballs in condolence casseroles along with plenty of cookies, cakes and bars.