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.
I’m trying to decide: do I respond to the cremation of your cremains or do I simply share my last meal? The latter, I think.
I’m struck by the parallels of our last night. Ditto on:
The players (though I’d add my son-in-law, Andy, whom I consider part of our circle these days)
The place—the Pennsylvania house
The order—cocktails on the deck, meal prep and finally fire ablaze, dinner around our precious, precarious Nakashima coffee table
And although my meal would be very different from yours, we’d prepare it together. Since I’ve done so much of it all of my life, I don’t think I want to cook much that night. Instead I see myself propped on a bar stool watching you all. Time to start distancing myself perhaps?
Because of David’s profession, we’ve never had the big holiday feast—it’s always hors d’oeuvres between church services. So I’ve always associated hors d’oeuvres at our house with a good time.
I’d like Coconut Shrimp and was about to volunteer to make them, but since someone else needs to know how (and since they’re one of her favorites), Maggy’s it. I’d also like sushi (because there was a time I didn’t like it and now I do) along with Poor Man’s Sushi, one of my cleverest recipes.
Since the first cocktail I ever made in this house was a Mary Pickford, I think I’ll make her my last. Andy, will make them tonight and from this day forward.
David will assemble the salad—baby greens, mangoes, red onion, and cilantro tossed with his perfect balsamic vinaigrette.
I can make most any dish west of Greece, but the East in so many ways is still a mystery to me. Since you seemed to have mastered this meal, I’d like you to make Chicken Korma with basmati rice, and homemade naan. My only part in this dinner is to stretch the naan dough and paddle it into the oven.
You can drink wine with Indian food, but since beer is so much better, I’d like a tall Taj that I will never finish but someone else will.
We’ll plan dessert (I do love all those condensed milk-based Indian sweets), but you know us. When the time comes no one will want it. So we’ll make something small and each take a bite.
We’ll end the evening with a little hookah, don’t you think? When the sun comes up it could be used as a kind of urn for my ashes, but at some point someone might forget I was in there and accidentally smoke me: a mellower version of your splashy ending.
What would I want for my last supper? When I think of my happiest time, my mind jumps straight to Christmas Eve and—I’m with Mom. It’s hors d’oeuvres around the island in the kitchen. While the holidays are generally a stressful time of year, and Christmas Eve is Dad’s busiest day at work, for you and me, Sharon, Christmas Eve hors d’oeuvres night is quite possibly the pinnacle of the gastronomical year. Not to mention all the other fun stuff we’ve loved since we were teens—pretty new dresses, immaculately straightened hair, fastidiously applied make up. Then we saunter downstairs—well, you slink down the stairs in your five-inch heels while I clunk down in my kitten heels—to a spread that would make a grown man cry.
So I would wish for the recreation of Christmas Eve, just not on Christmas Eve. So that Dad doesn’t have to be stressed. And that we can spend all day in the kitchen with Mom. And so that we could be at the PA house. Even if it’s July we must listen to “Festival of Carols” and ratchet the A/C down just so Dad can build a fire. (Imagine Dad, who guards the thermostat like a Marine, happily dropping that sucker to 55—he’d do that on my last night.)
Cocktail: my old faithful, a G&T lovingly made…in a frozen glass. Lots of ice. And heavily perfumed. I also want champagne, because really…you just have to.
The hors d’oeuvres run down: because on my last night, I want to taste the world. I don’t want to settle for one cuisine.
Asian pesto and shrimp on rice crackers
Mom’s pitas and dips
Mom’s Poor Man’s Sushi
Mini crab cakes
Tandoori chicken wings
Dessert: Sharon’s version of Mom’s chocolate cake…yes, to die for.
The house would be dark early, we’d flip the tree lights, listen to those first brassy tones of Festival of Carols and dig in.