Planning the Last Supper
Thoughts of a final meal were not foremost in my mind when I set out on an excursion through the tangled and twisted density of the Forest of Web the day before last. When one is burdened as I am with a scattered sensibility and a head that flips through the fleeting as fast as what is known in film as a “stutter cut”, it takes serious patience and focused concentration to find your way back to START.
I would suspect all of you know of what I speak. You set out easily enough for a little restful exploration, choosing a trail here, an intriguing pathway there, and before you know it, you’re nine treacherous links away from where you began, hopelessly lost, and failing to remember what prompted your lust of adventure in the first place. The discovery of the new world with its finite choices had to be so much simpler. There was, after all, something reassuring in the thought of marking trails and scattering crumbs to retrace your steps.
Hence, I found myself in this curiously strange little clearing reading about an enterprising individual, a writer, Jennifer Reese, from Slate, who, in a stroke of ingenuity, decided to conduct her own customized taste test, where she would prepare, and then compare, two dinners, with two sets of recipes, from two well known, but diametrically opposed chefs, using her own family as judges, jurists, mediators … deciders.
Interesting notion. Slate obviously thought so. But who to pick? Ree Drummond, who you might recognize as the Oklahoma ranch wife best known for her chatty, open-hearted blog, the Pioneer Woman, immediately came to mind. Here was a no-nonsense cook who could hold court at a campfire with her easy, family-style comfort food, like pot pie and cobbler.
Scanning the culinary equator for a worthy opponent proved trickier. Chefs, like rock stars, can be notoriously temperamental, so Reese wisely selected someone with grandeur, accessibility and no preening knife stunts. Who better to offset Pioneer Woman, than the perfectionist Thomas Keller, of fleur de sel legend, founder of the hallowed Napa Valley restaurants, French Laundry and Ad Hoc. Here was a competition the fussiest of foodies could drool over.
With an emphasis on fair and balanced, Reese culled each chef’s menus, matching recipes from both, settling for a dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, iceberg lettuce salad, and pineapple upside-down cake. On two different nights, Reese prepared each chef’s interpretation of these “classic American” dishes, using her family as taste testers to render the final verdict. If you want to know who won in this narrowly skewed cook-off, go on over to Slate for the not terribly surprising but, immeasurably, satisfying results. Which explains why there will never be a shortage of cook books.
It was a reader’s comment on that article that sent me scurrying even further into the depths of the web. (By now I was completely out of GPS range and getting perilously close to calling out a search party). Turns out that this reader mentioned, not Keller’s fried chicken recipe, as one might imagine, but his recipe for roasted chicken, declaring it the closest thing to heaven she had ever sampled.
So adulated was this recipe throughout the blogosphere, it had made its way into the infamous “My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals” by award-winning photographer Melanie Dunea. Not only was the world waxing rhapsodic over Keller’s roasted chicken, but the man himself had chosen this very recipe as his most wished for last meal on earth.
As the title suggests, fifty of the world’s most famous chefs were invited to share their last supper fantasies with the rest of us, answering questions like who would prepare the meal, where would it take place, who would be invited, music or simple ambiance as background, and, most importantly, what the dishes, themselves, would be. Below is Keller’s account for his most wished-for last supper:
Who would prepare the meal?
I would like all the chefs from the French Laundry and Bouchon to prepare my final meal.
What would be your last meal on earth?
I would begin with a half kilo of osetra caviar, followed by some otoro. I would then have a quessadilla, followed by a roast chicken, and finally, brie with truffles. For dessert I would choose to have either profiteroles or a lemon tart.
What would be the setting for the meal?
I would want to eat my last meal at home in Yountville, California, and in New York City.
What would you drink with your meal?
I would start out with a 1983 Salon champagne, followed by a Ridge Lytton Springs zinfandel. I would end with a twenty-five-year-old Macallan scotch.
Would there be music?
I would listen to the compilation of music that is played at Ad Hoc, our restaurant in Napa Valley.
Who would be your dining companions?
Lauran Cunningham, my brothers, my sister, and my father.
Is this a topic for polite conversation, you might ask? Isn’t it unsettling to discuss one’s last meal? Who started such an atrocity? I wonder.
The history of the final meal is unclear. It seems to have its roots in the ancient world; certainly the Greeks and Romans practiced it and, in one extreme form, the Aztecs were rumored to have kept their human sacrifices well fed for a year prior to their death. A benevolent arrangement, you might say.
Yet the grandest of all last suppers had to have been the Monster’s Ball, an orgiastic celebration for the condemned at London’s Newgate prison, the penultimate resting place for those facing execution in the 18th century. Named after Rhenwick Williams, the “Monster of London”, he graciously invited twenty couples to dine with him before he died. Other accounts mention “seas of beer”, gambling, dancing and prostitution. Might that have spawned the phrases, “The Time of Your Life?” Or “Eat, drink and be merry…?”
I’m reminded of another meal I came across recently. Served in 1934 to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklais, the menu included a “tasty, nourishing and light” turtle soup.
“Of the many courses,” wrote Toklas in her legendary 1954 cookbook (the one with the recipe for hashish brownies), “I only remember the first and the last, a clear turtle soup and a fantastic pièce montée of nougat and roses, cream and small coloured candles.”
“Turtle soup?” you sputter. “What a ghastly idea!” “Perfect for a final meal as it is certain to kill you!” Before you take to your bed, dear reader, it might interest you to know that turtle soup was quite popular in the 19th century as a symbol of opulence – particularly during the Victorian era. It was considered essential at ceremonial dinners. (I suspect it was food snobbery which had the servants ladling it out in all the best dining rooms throughout London). It was imported, after all, and therefore expensive, a coveted delicacy the beaux mondes could not be denied.
But back to our finely plucked bird extraordinaire. A very finely roasted bird, indeed. So acclaimed was this fabulous fowl, all primped and trussed in post earthly splendor, it appeared on its originator’s ‘last supper’ list. I had to have it. And if you’d care to join me, here is the delectable recipe that is leaving everyone breathless. Well … not entirely.
Thomas Keller’s Roast Chicken Recipe
(Adapted from Melanie Dunea’s My Last Supper)
1 x 2 to 3-lb / 1 1/3-kg farm-raised chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp minced thyme (optional)
Unsalted butter to taste
Dijon mustard to taste
And what of your last supper, dear reader? What would make its way onto your table?
Illustration: Getty Images
Photography: Random Images
Roasted Chicken: Almost Bourdain