Death is simply another part of life, and, while we are busy living, it's something we try not to think about. In the 21st century, it's easier than ever to do because death is sanitized like never before. Even those of us who have attended an open casket funeral know, deep down, that it's not real death - the body has been prepared to look presentable; to look like the person is merely sleeping. Real death is ugly. It's open mouths, protruding tongues, and bulging veins and arteries.
That's why, collectively, we are so fascinated by death row. Unlike the vast majority of people, the prisoners condemned to die there know the exact date and time of their execution and thus plan how they want to spend their final days accordingly. And, until recently, those in the state of Texas were allowed to select a last meal entirely of their choosing.
While most of us have heard of some of the famously elaborate last meal requests made of the years, few of us have actually stopped to think about who is preparing the food. Prison chefs are, after all, usually prisoners themselves. But now, all has been revealed about the most macabre cooking job in the world by former death row chef and prison inmate Brian Price.
To discover the story of a former death row inmate who walked free, check out the video below:
Although we may accidentally end up preparing a person's last meal, at most, once or twice on our lives, he has done it a staggering 300 times, and having learned so much, wrote a cookbook, aptly titled Meals to Die For.
Explaining how he came to work as a chef on death row, Price said that on admission to the prison for sexual assault on his ex-wife and kidnapping (crimes for which he went down for 15 years), he was asked what his profession was. He informed the guards that he was a musician and photographer, and, presumably unsure where to place him, they decided on the kitchen.
"I got hooked up with a little gay dude named Kerry Parrack, who had been a four-star chef in El Paso," Price said. "His nickname was Pack Rat because what he couldn't smuggle out from the kitchen wasn't worth having. One time he strapped a gallon of peanut butter to one leg and a gallon of jelly to the other with Cellophane."
"He taught me the basics and I started cooking supper for 1,800 inmates before being asked to cook the final meals for death row in 1991. I learnt to do everything from scratch - there were no mixes. I made everything from cornbread to gravy."
And while a lot of prisoners, especially those on death row, are beyond retribution, this wasn't the case for Price and he said of his experience, "If I hadn't gone to prison for so long I wouldn't have written the book and I wouldn't be with the wife I'm with now, living on nine acres near a lake and co-hosting a radio programme. God is good."
He went on to reveal that the meals served are nowhere near as elaborate as the media made them out to be, saying, "The local newspaper would always say they got 24 tacos and 12 enchiladas, but they would actually get four tacos and two enchiladas."
Pictured below is the last meal of one of America's most notorious serial killers, Ted Bundy:
"In the beginning, we had a store of T-bone steaks just for executions but some time in 1993 they stopped bringing them over from the butchers," Price continued. "The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has its own meat-packing plant so there was no reason for it."
So, I guess when they said that death row inmates could have anything for their last meal, this wasn't entirely true...
The first meal Price ever cooked for a death row inmate was murderer Laurence Buxton's requested filet mignon. Instead of getting what he asked for, he was given a T-bone steak and Price did his best to make it as tasty as possible.
"I gave this guy a little bit of pleasure - just something to distract him for a brief moment before his execution. It's a very humbling and emotional experience and I always prayed over each meal."
Although Price's book obviously won't be for everyone because, y'know, death, he said it's just a reflection of our fascination with death, especially when it takes place in a controlled environment like death row.
"Besides, it's a morbid thing the United States does, strapping someone down to kill them like an animal in front of tons of witnesses," he said.
Price revealed that the most popular last meal request was a simple cheeseburger and fries.
Discussing how he prepared the humble fast food staple, Price said, "I'd grill the onions right there beside it and toast the buns with butter. I did the best I possibly could with what I had and I'd always use fresh lettuce and tomato to garnish it with. The simplest meal I ever prepared? One guy asked for a jar of pickles."
Sounds pretty delicious to me! Apart from having to sit on Ol' Sparky afterward...
One of the most famous inmates Price cooked for was Karla Faye Tucker.
In 1998, the double murderer was the first woman to put to death in Texas since 1863. For her last meal, she requested a banana, cucumber, peach, and a side salad with ranch sauce. "But she never touched a thing," Price said.
Another notorious prisoner Price ended up cooking for was serial killer Kenneth McDuff, responsible for the deaths of at least fourteen people.
"He tortured and killed several people," he said. "He wanted two T-bone steaks but he got a hamburger steak. As much as I despised the man, I'm supposed to find forgiveness as a Christian. He didn't need to be judged by me - he had to face God."
Even though Price was charged with cooking for people who had committed some of the worst crimes imaginable, he had a line, and he refused to cook for one prisoner, Leopoldo Narvaiz Jr. Unlike with the others, his crimes had affected Price's life, having murdered four of his daughter's school friends - all of whom were 19 or younger. As a result, someone else made the meal instead.
Like everything in prison, there was a routine to how Prince made his death row meals, and he said that he had to make the last meals by 3:45 pm. Once he had, they were covered with paper "so no one could see it, as a matter of respect".
Fifteen minutes later, the meal would be eaten and two hours after that the prisoner would walk down the green mile to the death chamber.
"From my cell's vantage point there was a bank of windows and I could see the hearse pull up and leave. It was a black minivan with tinted windows from the local funeral home. After I served the meal I'd take a shower and be back in my cell by about five o'clock.
I'd wonder why this guy had ordered what he did and what thoughts might be going through his head and I'd watch the little clock tick away in the corner. Five fifty-five, five fifty-six - I would know he'd be strapped down by then and would have already given his last statement. When six o'clock came I'd picture the warden giving the signal."
While one might assume that every person's last meal request is unique, according to Price, that's not the case, and in the face of inevitable death, many people opt to dine on their native cuisine one last time.
"Mexican guys want Mexican food. The black guys generally want everything from 'chitlins' [stuffed pig intestines] to fried chicken and watermelon," he said.
"My potato soup was popular too. I'd prepared it for the whole unit in the past, including the guards, so I used to get requests to make it for the occasional last meal. I'd use potatoes, onions, butter, sweet cream, garlic powder, salt, pepper, mozzarella cheese, and instant mash potato as a thickener."
The former inmate said that some prisoners used the meal as an opportunity to transport themselves to a simpler, happier time so that they could take their last breath with some semblance of peace.
"One man ordered butter beans which was difficult to prepare, but it was something his mom made him when he was a kid and I knew it would take him back to a time when it was peaceful," he said. "So I cooked them real slow. There was this little old black guy - a prisoner named Monroe who walked up and smelt the cooking and said: 'Mmm, I love butter beans, who they for?' and I said, 'Well, Monroe, they're for the guy they're fixin' to kill'. And he said: 'Mmmm, don't want no dead man's beans, I got enough problems'."
If there's anything to be learned from Price's confessions, it's this: death is a complex business, especially when it's forced upon you, and at the end, regardless of how much of a mess they've made of life, all most people want is to go peacefully.
Price's book, Meals to Die For, is available for purchase on Amazon.