In the American legal system, there is a specific tradition that some people follow. People who have been sentenced to death for a crime they committed get to pick out a special last meal. This might be a meal from a favorite restaurant or a beloved family recipe. Newspapers would run articles about the last meals of notorious criminals as far back as the 1800s.
While America isn’t the only country with this system, many countries that still have the death penalty don’t have a free press so there can be a lack of transparency around it. In America though, our fixation on the last meals of inmates has stretched into an overall interest in people’s culinary interests. We also might ask each other what our ideal last meals would be. And when anyone dies, like a celebrity, we might ask what their last meal was. Here we delve into some of the most interesting last meals on record.
1. Apple Pie for James Dean
James Dean shot to stardom in the 1950s thanks to his soulful eyes and smoldering bad-boy good looks.
But his last meal was as all-American as all get out. Dean was rumored to have stopped at a roadside diner for a slice of apple pie and a glass of milk shortly before his fatal car crash.
2. Grilled Cheese Sandwich for Frank Sinatra
This crooner was known for covering countless classic songs. It should be no surprise to learn that his last meal was something of an American classic, too.
Sinatra savored a golden brown grilled cheese for his last supper.
3. Classic American Cuisine for Abraham Lincoln
On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln sat down for a traditional American meal. He enjoyed roast Virginia fowl with chestnut stuffing, baked yams, and cauliflower smothered in cheese sauce.
Shortly thereafter he would leave for an ill-fated night at the theater. At least he had a hearty meal first.
4. French Onion Soup for Julia Child
This American chef made the world of French cooking accessible to Americans. Child wrote the classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
She went on to teach culinary techniques through her various cooking programs on television. Perhaps it is fitting that her last meal was rumored to be a bowl of French onion soup.
5. Breakfast of Champions for Napoleon Bonaparte
This emperor may have been exiled on the island of Saint Helena, but he still ate like a king. For his final meal in 1821, the wannabe French ruler ate liver and bacon chops.
They were paired with shirred eggs and cream, sauteed kidneys in sherry, and garlic toast with roasted tomatoes. This was a fairly elegant (if rustic) last meal for the ignominious leader as he languished in isolation.
6. Death by Dessert for Elvis Presley
At the beginning of his career, Elvis was considered to be something of a sultry swivel-hipped sex symbol. Near the end of his career, he had aged and gained a considerable amount of weight. This weight gain caused some people to speculate unkindly about his last meal.
Though the King had a lavish celebrity funeral, Elvis’ food choices may not have been as extravagant. He was said to be fond of fried peanut butter, bacon, and banana sandwiches. In fact, many people refer to that as the sandwich that killed Elvis. But Elvis’ actual last meal was said to be four scoops of ice cream and six chocolate chip cookies.
7. A Smorgasbord of Poison for Rasputin
Grigori Rasputin was a self-proclaimed holy man and mystic. He became entangled with Emperor Nicholas and Empress Alexandra of Russia’s Romanov Dynasty. He was a polarizing figure whose influence over the royal family led in part to the overthrow of the Romanov Dynasty.
One morning, in 1916, Rasputin ate from a platter containing black bread, honey cakes, assorted Russian hors d’oeuvres, and Madeira wine. Most of the food had been poisoned, but Rasputin still didn’t die. Finally, his would-be assassins shot him several times and dumped his body in a river since the poison didn’t pan out.
8. Figs for Cleopatra
This Egyptian ruler was known for her great beauty and her fierce sense of independence. Her husband Marc Antony died by his own hand, and Cleopatra decided that she no longer wanted to live either. She also died by suicide, but she did it extravagantly. She took a nice bath and enjoyed a final meal of sweet figs.
The figs may have been poisoned, or Cleopatra may have clasped a poisonous snake to herself instead. No one’s sure exactly how Cleopatra went out, but they know it was on her own terms.
9. Braised Pork Knuckle for Anthony Bourdain
Bourdain was a celebrity chef who was known for traveling the world and trying exotic cuisines. Four days before his tragic death, he posted a picture on social media of a meal from Le Petit Venise restaurant in France.
The picture showed a braised pork knuckle with horseradish, cervelas sausage, and sauerkraut. While this wasn’t his last meal, it was his last publicly known one. In the intervening years, countless Bourdain fans have traveled to the same restaurant and ordered the same meal.
10. A Manly Steak Dinner for Ernest Hemingway
Novelist Ernest Hemingway has often been lauded for his work crafting the American masculine ideal. Hemingway wrote about a certain kind of man - one who enjoyed a cocktail and didn’t like talking about his feelings. Hemingway himself was said to have lived according to those same ideals he wrote about.
So it’s fitting that his rumored last meal was also classically masculine and very traditional. Hemingway ate a New York strip steak with a Caesar salad and a baked potato. He likely paired it with a giant glass of wine. Later that night, he’d take his own life.
11. Snacks and Champagne for Marilyn Monroe
When she was alive, Marilyn Monroe presented herself as the carefully crafted image of a bubble blonde bombshell. But she was actually much brighter and more complicated than she ever let anyone see.
On the night she died, she was eating hors d’oeuvres-type food like miniature meatballs and stuffed mushrooms. She was also drinking high-end Dom Perignon champagne. She would have appreciated the irony of someone with her party girl image dying while eating a menu of party food.
12. Breakfast for John F. Kennedy
They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Breakfast was also John F. Kennedy’s last meal. He dined at the Hotel Texas for breakfast on the morning of his assassination.
According to the hotel’s executive chef, Kennedy’s last meal was two boiled eggs and toast with marmalade on the side. He washed all of that down with coffee and orange juice. Unfortunately, Kennedy would be killed before his scheduled luncheon later that day.
13. Lentil Soup for John Belushi
The larger-than-life comedic actor was known to indulge in lavish tastes. Food was just one of his many vices. But his last meal was far from extravagant. Belushi dined at the famed Sunset Strip club the Rainbow Bar and Grill the night before he died.
According to the manager, Belushi complained of a stomachache. That manager brought him a simple bowl of lentil soup hoping to help him feel better. That lentil soup was the only food in his system when he passed away later.
14. Ice Cream for Timothy McVeigh
As we said earlier, criminals are a big part of the reason why we scrutinize people’s last meals in America. Notorious criminals grab our attention, and we collect information about them just like we would news on any other celebrity. And one of the things we pay attention to is the last thing a criminal asked to eat. Perhaps we think it will help us understand them in some fashion.
Mass bomber Timothy McVeigh was responsible for the deaths of 168 people. But his wish for a final meal was surprisingly sweet and simple. He asked for — and received — two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Other criminals have also had their last meals observed. John Wayne Gacy requested a bucket of KFC original fried chicken, along with french fries, strawberries, and fried shrimp. Before being convicted of murder, Gacy managed three KFC restaurants.
Ted Bundy received the standard fare for a Death Row inmate in Florida at the time. Back then, the last meal was a medium-rare steak with hash browns, toast, and eggs over easy. It was also served with milk, coffee, and juice. Aileen Wuornos, on the other hand, rejected her last meal and chose to have a single cup of black coffee instead.
Famous Last Words About Famous Last Meals
There’s an old saying about “famous last words.” The words people say can undeniably have an impact on the people around them. And even the things people eat can make something of an impression. These famous folks all enjoyed culinary adventures right up until the end of their lives.
You may be poring over a celebrity’s digital legacy after their death, but you can still learn a lot about how people lived — and how they died — based on the contents of their last meal.
- Nichols, Daisy. “Last Meals of 23 Famous People.” Thedailymeal.com, The Daily Meal, 29 August 2018, www.thedailymeal.com/cook/last-meals-famous-people-slideshow.
- Basile, Lisa Marie. “These Were the Last Meals of Famous People Throughout History.” Soyummy.com, So Yummy, 17 May 2019, www.soyummy.com/famous-people-last-meals.