I love restaurants. I’ve never managed, assistant-managed, or eaten at one, but I still consider myself an amateur conceptual restaurateur — an ideas guy. You know those T-shirts that say THINK TANK on them, with a Panzer that has a thought bubble coming out of it? I don’t own any of those, but I imagine them every day.
If, whenever I’m hungry, I go another few days without food, hypoglycemia fills me with ideas for casual, franchisable, bus-your-own-table eateries. I “cook these up” and “marinate on ’em” — industry lingo. Did you live outside Topeka toward the end of the Clinton Administration? Then you remember Admiral O’Heimlich’s, the surf ‘n’ turf pub where community actors feigned asphyxia and the waitstaff taught you how to save choking victims. Well, that was my idea first.
If you’re like me, the only thing on your mind more often than food is death row. I’m really into self expression, so one whole wall of my apartment is a trompe-l’œil painting of a gas chamber. It’s awesome. When I have clients over I try to convince them it’s the bathroom. Then they go to walk in, and bam! Not so fast, guy.
What I think would really take off is a chain of greasy-spoon luncheonettes — spattered with corn-starch blood and preferably adjoining supermax prisons — where patrons could order exact replicas of famous murderers’ last meals. E.g., the John Wayne Gacy (French fries, a dozen fried shrimp, a bucket of original recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a pound of strawberries), the Timothy McVeigh (two pints of mint-chocolate-chip ice cream), or the Ricky “Gourmand” Wagner (kippered herring, panko-crusted shallots in a red-wine-and-ramp vinaigrette, a filet of medium-rare Wagyu beef, four rolls of mojito-flavored Mentos, an epidural, a tablespoon of pond scum, and a room-temperature Mexican Coke). You could even design your own menu item, if you were willing to be executed afterward.
A fun fact is, most states prefer the term “special meal” to “last meal.” As PR euphemisms go, this one’s an ace — it plays down the state-sanctioned barbarism, but it serves a practical purpose, too. In most cases, a prisoner’s “special meal” isn’t actually his last; the meal comes earlier because evidence has shown that inmates’ appetites tend to wane in the days before their executions. That never made sense to me until I thought about what it means to die.
I’m probably too shy to end up on death row, but if I do, I think I’d order mesclun for my last meal. I’d wait for the correctional officer to bring me the plate of greens and then I’d say, “I meant mescaline, man,” and it’s not like we’d actually get fucked up on mescaline after that, but we’d have a nice laugh, at least.
Sometimes our last meals are about words and sometimes our last words are about meals. Such was the case with my father. He clove to me on his deathbed, his breath redolent of Lorna Doones and sauce Béarnaise, and hissed, “More than convenience, bold flavors, or unlimited free toppings, the American consumer prizes one thing: narrativized snack-factory fuckups.” He was expiring amid visions, I believe, of Uh-Oh! Oreos (“We goofed! We put the chocolate taste in the creme!”) and Cap’n Crunch’s Oops! All Berries (“Some moron pulled the wrong lever—I don’t know what the fuck!”), both of which were then in vogue.
Despite having been declared brain-dead some eleven years earlier, Dad was right. Americans want to feel like beneficiaries. We want to be told stories in which the vast multinational corporate apparatus breaks down and we, the customers, reap unexpected rewards. Last week, for example, I went to lunch with a colleague. It was my first time eating out. We were in line at Turks and Cake-os, a turkey and cake shoppe kept at tropical temperatures and lit exclusively by sunlamps. (Not my idea, but it’s a winner.) Today my colleague would get the tenth turkey-stamp on her Keepin’ It Cakey customer loyalty card, which entitled her to a free serving of lean, braised, farm-to-table turkey on a bed of red-velvet cake, so there was a frisson of excitement in the air. But there was also smoke. One of the short-order cooks had draped a layer of greasy turkey skin atop a tray of Funfetti cupcakes and left it under a sunlamp, and now the restaurant was going up in flames—or so we were told. Some volunteer firefighters came and gave the place a cursory hosing-down, but it was all a marketing gimmick. The upshot? Everyone walked away with free samples of We Blew It! Turkey-Funfetti flambé and affordable treatment for smoke inhalation.
It brought me and my colleague closer in the way that averted crises will. We let our guards down. Over burnt, oily, poultry-skin-infused cupcakes, she asked me what I’d spend my money on if I had a lot of it. I thought about it. “I guess real estate,” I said. I asked the same of her. She said, “Clothes.” We’ve been dating now for days.