There’s a meal I like — a lot — in Milwaukee. It comes from Northpoint Custard. I get a grilled-cheese sandwich (made with cheddar), a vanilla custard shake, and a Diet Pepsi. (Don’t give me grief over my choice of pop. It’s been done.) I jokingly, or half-jokingly, call this my “Death Row meal.” In a column, I asked readers to share with me their own Death Row meals.
The responses were many, and I will publish some — a lot, actually. I thank all who wrote. Thank you so much.
It was a delight to read the responses. It was educational, too. Also — this was a little surprising — it was moving. (You’ll see.)
The responses came in four broad categories, I would say. Some referred to a specific meal in a specific restaurant. Others referred to a specific meal, but not a specific restaurant. Some responses paid tribute to a city or region. Others had to do with family — Mom’s cooking, for example.
Oh, and some were clever. Like this: “Jay, if I’m on Death Row, maybe I should order never-ending pasta bowls from Olive Garden. Chew on that one …”
Another reader said, “You know, I’ve always been afraid to eat mushrooms. Maybe I should go out trying them …”
Anyway, let me present you a sampling. Bon appétit, or, Eat up.
• A man writes,
From a lake in northern Minnesota, here is my Swedish-American Death Row Last Meal: Swedish pancakes (Mother’s recipe) with maple syrup (made here at my home), with potatis korv (a potato sausage, also homemade) and Swedish egg coffee.
Swedish egg coffee? That’s a new one on me. (So is potatis korv, frankly.) (What, no meatballs?)
• A professor writes,
Hideaway Pizza in my hometown of Stillwater, Okla. Anchovies and jalapenos. The perfect mix of zest and penance.
That is a mixture.
• What do you think of this?
Good evening, Mr. Nordlinger,
You triggered memories. My “Death Row meal,” such as we’re calling it, would be my mom’s BBQ shrimp. Peeled shrimp in a spicy (and the more spicy, the better) butter sauce. It is served with French bread to soak up the sauce, which is arguably better than the shrimp themselves. Some serve the shrimp with the shells still on, but they are wrong, and my mom had it right.
She passed away earlier this year after a 17-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. Every year that she was able, she would make this meal for me whenever I would visit. It gave both of us great joy, and as the disease progressed, I had greater appreciation for the effort it took to do the preparation. But she persevered, as it was important to her, and to me, to share a meal — and in particular, that meal — together.
My wife has now taken up the torch, and will make BBQ shrimp for me on special occasions. She is a fantastic cook, and delivers a meal that is certainly on par with mom’s. But deference to Mom requires me to conclude that my beautiful wife’s version is just a sliver less good (although objectively it is really damn good).
• I give you a longtime reader and correspondent, a sharp and experienced lady with a Scottish last name:
T-bone steak, cooked rare; French fries (cooked Five Guys style or like the Germans did — soft inside, crisp outside); and a pint of McEwan’s ale (Scotland).
• The dessert is what really makes this one (for me):
Pepperoni pizza with lots of anchovies, washed down with a cold, 25-ounce Foster’s lager.
An entire pecan pie for dessert.
• I like the dessert here, too — you don’t hear about it much anymore:
Oysters on the half shell, leg of lamb (with both Cumberland sauce and mint jelly on the side), and pineapple upside-down cake!
• No dessert here, but this is nice:
Pork cha gio (egg rolls) and a bowl of pho from my mom’s kitchen (or, barring that, from Golden Deli in San Gabriel, Calif.).
• This, I can hardly fathom:
For my final meal, I would request, as an appetizer, seared foie gras on toasted brioche, freshly baked and lightly salted. For the entrée, I would like a ribeye, rare, with a side of Béarnaise sauce, along with cheesy hominy grits and bacon-sautéed broccolini. I do not like dessert, so I would not order any.
Dang — well, à chacun son goût!
• Speaking of French:
I was a Mormon missionary in France from ’05 to ’07, with my favorite chunk of that spent in the Brittany region — Rennes and St-Brieuc, to be overly specific. Since then, I’ve cultivated my love of the regional specialty: crêpes and galettes (the savory buckwheat crêpes, I mean, not one of the thousand other possible types of “galettes”). So my Death Row meal has been the same for over a decade: a galette complète, with ham, egg, and Emmental; a butter/sugar/lemon crêpe for dessert; and a pure Norman apple juice to wash it all down. (Maybe a nice cidre brut on my … less fiercely Mormon days.)
• Let’s continue this — you’ll see:
Hello, Mr. Nordlinger —
My meal would probably be a grilled pastrami-and-Swiss sandwich with slivers of red onion and whole-grain mustard on caraway-rye bread; a pint of one of the fine craft fermentations from Tree House Ale in Charlton, Mass.; and a good bourbon pecan pie for dessert.
Also acceptable, perhaps if I were to be executed in Brittany, would be a buckwheat galette with ham, egg, and grated Gruyère; a half liter of cidre bouché; and a triple sec crêpe flambée for dessert.
• A little closer to home:
Double cheeseburger from Shake Shack with only a bit of raw onion. Every time I bite into one, it’s pure joy. Never been disappointed.
Cheese fries and a strong ginger beer.
• A lady says, “Tomahawk Chop from Angus Barn? Yes. Please.” That’s in Raleigh, N.C.
• My friend Tim writes,
Hangtown fry, because it is a Death Row meal and it’s mighty tasty. [Wikipedia tells me, “Hangtown fry is a type of omelette made famous during the California Gold Rush in the 1850s. The most common version includes bacon and oysters combined with eggs, and fried together. The dish was invented in Placerville, California, then known as Hangtown.”]
Spaghetti carbonara. I love any type of pasta to the point of obsession, but this is my favorite version, narrowly but decisively beating out a Skyline Chili 4-way.
Berliner Eisbein. After 27-plus years of marriage, my German wife has thoroughly Germanized my palette. If this doesn’t stick to your ribs and send you into the hereafter with a full stomach, nothing will. Best Eisbein I’ve ever had is served at the restaurant in the basement of the town hall in the Köpenick district of Berlin.
Chicken paprikash with spaetzle. My mother, who was a terrific cook, learned to cook Hungarian cuisine in order to please my Hungarian father. This was her best dish.
A porterhouse steak with hash browns, salad with the house dressing, garlic bread, mushrooms, and at least two Beefeater martinis from the Pine Club in Dayton, Ohio. This is one of the best restaurants for steak in the U.S.
For dessert: Rote Grütze. As the years have gone by, I’ve lost a lot of my taste for sweets. This is now what I have on my birthday in place of a birthday cake.
Hope you get to try all this someday.
• Check out this:
Good morning, Jay,
My last meal would consist of a Polish sausage on a hard roll, mac and cheese, lemon meringue pie, and — from Spring Creek in Lewiston, Mont. — ice water.
• Don’t leave Montana yet:
Green-chili chicken enchiladas, frijoles refritos, yellow rice. With a pitcher of margaritas.
Preferably as made by the señoras running the El Burrito Cafeteria in Billings 25 years ago.
I know, I know, I’m guilty of cultural appropriation. So sue me.
I’ll be your co-defendant.
• This letter is what I would call a two-stater:
I’ve been trying to narrow it down — not an easy task! One menu from our mutual home state, one from my adopted home. (The warden’s got his work cut out for him.)
Michigan Last Meal:
A cup of lobster bisque from the old Joe Muer’s on Gratiot Avenue [Detroit]
1 piece of Buddy’s pizza (pepperoni, sausage, mushroom)
Two Coney Island dogs. One from Lafayette, one from American — my last chance to decide which is better.
A side of Better Made chips
A Boston cooler (Vernor’s ginger pop with vanilla ice cream)
All washed down with Faygo Rock & Rye.
Missouri Last Meal:
Fried catfish from St. Andrew’s parish fish fry in Holts Summit
Burnt ends from Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, with fries and slaw
A turtle concrete from Ted Drewes
And a large unsweetened iced tea.
Either way, I die a happy man.
Ha — and very bipartisan (or whatever the word is).
• This is only Wisconsin, baby:
In that I’m a born and bred cheesehead who now lives in the Swamp (going on 30 years), my Death Row meal would be the following:
Fried cheese curds
Johnsonville brat cooked in beer and onions, then chargrilled
New Glarus Spotted Cow [ale]
Kopp’s frozen custard for dessert (red raspberry)
And the meal would be consumed on the terrace of the Student Union in Madison!
• Take a trip to Texas — Dallas, in particular:
In 1972, my older sister introduced my high-school girlfriend and me to Ojeda’s Mexican restaurant in Dallas. She recommended the Night Hawk plate, which we both ordered. It’s a lovely greasy delight of two beef enchiladas and one soft cheese taco — no useless embellishment of rice or beans. My girlfriend (now wife) and I have been eating this plate ever since, served by a succession of Ojeda family members. Inexplicably, the Night Hawk was off the menu for a while. We continued to order it and received the knowing nod and smile from the wait staff.
• Lots of missives from the South — e.g.,
I would choose a dozen oysters on the half shell, barbequed pork ribs, steamed or boiled shrimp with red-skinned potatoes, corn-on-the-cob and Conecuh sausage on the side, and a slice of either German chocolate or coconut cake for dessert. And, of course, a big glass of sweet tea to wash it all down. Can you tell that I’m from the South?
• Loved this:
My last meal would be bacon and eggs and gravy and biscuits. My dad makes the best bacon (not sausage) gravy on the planet. My grandmother became ill and died and my dad had to drop out of the University of Tennessee to go back to the farm. He was the cook for my grandpa and for my uncle Charles. And he can still sling mind-blowing gravy!
• Loved this, too (and all of them, really):
My mom’s beef Stroganoff. It was so good that I would nearly gorge myself on it. After she died the family was unable to find the recipe.
So, if I’m on Death Row and insist on Mom’s beef Stroganoff, do I stay on Death Row until they get it right?
• A reader writes,
My entry would be my grandmother’s calf liver and onions, mashed potatoes with gravy from the liver and onions, sweet peas, and macaroni and cheese. Dessert would of course be her apple pie. At that point, I could die and go to Heaven where I pray that she and my grandad and all of my other loved ones would greet me around the table!
My husband despises liver so I never learned how to make it. My cousins and I are desperate to reconstruct her apple-pie recipe.
• A Rocky Mountain high:
My Death Row meal would be the pan-fried chicken at the Castle Café in Castle Rock, Colo. Comes with mashed potatoes, cracklin’ gravy, veggies, homemade Parker House rolls, and your choice of soup, salad, or slaw. Served family-style with two or more orders.
This meal goes down like a fat kid on a seesaw!
• Do you have a case of the Phillies? This note comes from Springdale, Ark.
Because I’m a Philly expat, my Death Row meal would be (perhaps ironically) all items from restaurants that no longer exist in my former hometown:
Egg rolls, wonton soup, and shrimp in lobster sauce from South China or Shanghai Gardens in Chinatown
Hot brisket sandwich on rye from Kelem’s on South Street
Special Dinner with two queso tostadas from the Taco House on Pine Street
Chicken dinner with fries from the Rib Ranch on Aramingo Avenue
Washed down with a fountain Champ Cherry from Levis’ on 6th Street, of course.
“What, no cheesesteaks?” I hear you cry. Well, the famous places are tourist traps. The best cheesesteak I ever got was from a lunch truck on the Drexel campus which, alas, is no longer there as well.
Happily, dessert (lemon water ice from John’s Water Ice at 6th and Christian) can still be had.
• This fellow gets around:
For me, there’s clearly only one meal that will do for my last one:
From St. Louis, mostaccioli and a fishbowl of beer from Rigazzi’s restaurant
From Chicago, a hot dog from Portillo’s
From New Smyrna Beach, Fla., a vanilla malt from the Little Drug Store
This better be my last meal because I’ll bust after eating all this food!
I don’t know, sounded pretty modest to me …
• A man says,
A grilled hot dog (all beef please.) Classic yellow mustard. Dill relish. Condiments under the dog.
Potato chips. Glass of water. Brownie for dessert.
He then says,
Before they give me the juice, could you arrange a field trip? Fenway Park. Ten rows up, behind the Red Sox dugout. If the victims of my mayhem want additional retribution, I suppose they could force me to sit behind one of the obstructive girders.
“Obstructive girders.” Sounds like something painful that women once wore.
• “Greetings, Jay,” says a reader.
My Death Row meal would be a pastrami and tongue double-decker on rye (with horseradish), potato pancakes, slaw, and three or four seven-and-sevens to wash it down. And, since the show’s about over, intermittent visits to a pack of Marlboros.
I loved the wording of that. (Didn’t you?)
• This is very Hoosier — at the beginning and at the end, with Michigan in between:
Large sausage-and-pepperoni pizza (it’s the last meal, what the hell) and an Arni’s Jr. salad with ranch on the side and plenty of refills of Coke at Arni’s Pizza in Lafayette, Ind.
Three (again, last meal) cheeseburgers, medium; order of fries; and two cans of ice-cold Coke at Miller’s Bar on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn.
Three eggs over easy, hash browns, buttered wheat toast, and bacon at any Leo’s Coney Island in metro Detroit.
Turning back time: My grandma’s fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, applesauce, and green beans slathered in butter: the traditional Sunday dinner in rural Indiana!
• And, hang on, this is kind of timely — ’tis the season:
As someone who also enjoys a good grilled cheese, I loved your recent discussion of last meals. I have to say that I would go all out Thanksgiving, if I had to choose. Sliced hot turkey breast, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and biscuits, all smothered in gravy made from the drippings.
• Thank you again, dear readers — thank you one and all. I think we should go out with this:
The night before I had surgery for a not-so-great case of brain cancer (happily in remission), I had what I called my “Death Row meal” or “last supper,” in case it actually was, at Thurman’s in Columbus, Ohio:
bacon cheeseburger, medium rare, ketchup, mustard, lettuce, raw onion, and pickles
side of fries
two double IPAs
When my brother questioned the wisdom of the second IPA, I said, “Do you think it matters?”
Glad you are with us! Thx again, everyone. See you soon.