The Last Supper — Shaelyn Smith
A virtual tour of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art housed on the fourth floor of the Brooklyn Museum quickly brings us to its permanent installation: Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. We learn that “the Center has…preserved for posterity a visual symbol that the artist created specifically ‘to end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.’”
For some, this ongoing cycle of omission begins at birth—we forget the woman, we forget a pink cloying of vaginal canal as we etch our way out, we forget the liberal slip through labia that brings us into this world, the petulant nipple at which we sucked, the umbilical tube through which we were fed.
For some, this ongoing cycle of omission begins at death—we hook these women to a similar tube of substantiation, we chalk these women up postmortem to our canon, we call these the mothers of the histories we are making. Yet we fail to recall what made up their lives before bringing us into this world.
As the myth goes, when thirteen sit to a table, the first to rise is the first to die. When thirteen sit to dine, one will be dead within a year. When thirteen place cards rest on a table, we will never recover the ability to recall the name on each.
If we dream of a plate, this symbolizes our hunger for life, our potential and promise for the future, our future. But the undertaste of this dream is ominous. If the plate we dream of is empty, the threat is emotional void, a need for inclusion, a suggestion to rethink priorities, a nudging to address from where this hunger arose. Perturbed, wrapped in damp sheets and itchy blankets, we wake, gasping for the roots and riches of our unsatisfied appetites.
If we continue down the path of this virtual gallery tour, we will encounter its genesis, how Chicago originally conceived of “a series of twenty-five china-painted plates to hang on a wall, titled Twenty-five Women Who Were Eaten Alive, a reference to the ways in which women had historically been ‘swallowed up and obscured by history instead of being recognized and honored.’”
We eat alive the histories of these women. We swallow up the birth and digest the death. We absorb and obscure them for our own meanderings. In the final version of the installation, each of the three sides of The Dinner Party holds 13 place settings. Empty plates with no chairs, oversized mother-of-pearl flatware, a gold-plated goblet. Each wing of the table suffixes a nod and a wink—Chicago’s analog to The Last Supper, where Jesus dined with his twelve.
In some versions, Jesus, the first to rise and the first to die, stands at the end of the meal and grabs a loaf of bread. “This is my body,” he says, “take of it and eat.” He raises his glass: “this is my blood, take of it and drink.” And his disciples follow in suit, dipping bread into wine, chasing wine with bread. The maroon and crimson of the liquid tucks into the yeasty pockets and the body of the bread greedily absorbs it.
In life we cultivate our own death. Much the same could be said for dinner.
[first course—amuse bouche]
Each of the three sides of The Dinner Party has 13 place settings. None of these 39 women were acknowledged while living in the same light by which they are cast in the room of the wings. Chicago calls this “a series of plates featuring abstract portraits of historic women.” Her transubstantiation relegates the body and the blood of her chosen women to a dish, not of food, but the platter itself. These plates, then, translate the women to the feast itself, rather than allotting them to the means by which the meal is served. Here the women are not reduced to their genitalia but induced to deliver the agendas of their own making, morphing our collectively forgotten memory. We are intended to literally eat alive their histories as we stand open-mawed at the helm. The agendas ignored at birth, reignited by death. For example, in life, Emily Dickinson was better known for her baking than her poetry. So, here we facilitate and memorialize their motherhood, the offspring of their work. The leftovers are shuffled, sheepishly, to the kitchen, where the platters will be emptied in the pig trough, or tossed to chickens, begging and scratching and squawking for food. There are 999 other names scrawled across the floor under the table.
People visit my father to hunt on our family property. A season ripe for holiday—in the confines of northern Michigan, schools close on the first day of opening season for fear of students being accidentally shot at the bus stop. I never hunted with my father; I always helped track the deer once hit—my father an archer, the bow and the arrow. My brother was often too scared, but I loved puzzling out the splashes of blood, my own method of hunting down the deer. I recognize now that my father’s eyes, with a flashlight, couldn’t do as well as me—still prepubescent, lithe, closer to the ground: my younger eyes and better night vision. When we finally found the deer, I’d beg my father to slit open its stomach as he gutted it. Something enthralled me about the deer—its cut throat, the still warm heart. Something deeper intrigued me about the deer’s last meal—the half-digested leaves and twigs in its stomach, this acidic sack of bile, bitter berries, mealy and melting flora.
Fish, too—a photograph of me crouched on atop a picnic table, tiny toes at the fringe of soggy newspaper, donning a wet, pink swimsuit sagging at the crotch, engrossed in the gutting process—a bounty of lake trout nerve-flopping over last week’s headlines and their own shimmery scales, unsheathed from the body. Snagging the fish with an earthworm or a cricket, or a crayfish, then cutting open its stomach to reveal the same earthworm or cricket or crayfish intact. The very same bait, the fish in a state of digestion having eaten immediately before death. The very same bait, which could be used again to catch the next fish, somehow perpetuating this cycle of eating and death.
Somehow it made sense to see what these animals had consumed just prior to dying, as if this helped me reconcile then eating the animal. To know what their food looked like in their stomach I could then understand that this might be how the animal would eventually appear in my stomach, and if I were to die immediately upon eating, I could be cut open, this animal let out.
This nation has devoted a particular attention to what the people on death row order as their last supper. Maybe this arose upon the overthrow of the overthrow of the death penalty in 1976 under Ford, having being declared unconstitutional in 1972 under Nixon. Maybe it could be said that we care more about the last meal than who these people are, or what they love, or how they think, what they created, what they did or what they said, the repercussions thereof, the late desires they tossed up to an unknown god, what they missed, what they wanted, what they lacked and what they regretted, what they held in their very souls—their imprint upon this earth.
Maybe it could be said that we care more about this last meal than the fact that the death penalty is currently legal in 32 states.
Maybe we care more about how we can adapt this ideology to a fun game for a dinner party than we do about the fact that all the incarcerated bodies in the United States combined would total a population that would rank 4th on the list of biggest cities in the country. That lands just behind New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago—just ahead of Houston.
In Fall 2013’s Lapham’s Quarterly Brent Cunningham breaks this cultural obsession down for us: “the state, after all, has to distinguish the violence of its punishment from the violence it is punishing, and by allowing a last meal and a final statement, a level of dignity and compassion are extended to the condemned that he didn’t show his victims.” Is this, though, dignity? Is this compassion?
So we are allowed to stare because we show compassion, because we aren’t cold-blooded killers. We give a meal, so we aren’t sickos or psychopaths or degenerates or disturbed or inhumane. We allow a jury. We allow them to speak. We can’t be wrong. We are allowed to play these games from our self-righteous position of having done our jobs. We are allowed to partake because it’s not against the law.
In 2007 Melanie Dunea edited a coffee table book called My Last Supper in which contemporary famous chefs share whimsical desires of their own last meals. In this, they give not only the request, but they fantasize about who would be in the kitchen while they were at the table, who might attend, where it would be located, what they would drink. Anthony Bourdain, in the introduction, obliquely, with a healthy side of gauche, addresses the incarcerated: “and yet, when we ask ourselves and each other the question, what—if strapped to a chair, facing a fatal surge of electricity—would we want as that last taste of life, we seem to crave reminders of simpler, harder times. A crust of bread and butter. A duck confited in a broken home. Poor-people food. The food of the impoverished but (only in the abstract) the relatively carefree…eating well is about submission. About letting go.”
And Marie Antoinette says, “Let them eat cake.” As she approaches to the guillotine, she asks that the rest of the cake be wrapped up for later. As she steps on her executioner’s foot she whispers, “I’m sorry.” Therein lies a sick desire to imbue meaning on these last words and these last meals, which leave more of an illicit indentation than those first impressions. The proverbial car crash.
We populate these places with meaning. We project meaning onto these plates.
[third course—cold soup]
Cunningham elaborates: “the final turn of the screw is that prisoners often don’t get what they ask for. It is the request, and not what is ultimately served—let alone what’s actually consumed, which is often little or nothing—that is released to the press and broadcast to the public.”
The first woman to be executed by United States government was Mary Surrett, who was said to have taken part in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. A majority of the Military Commission recommended that because of “her sex and her age” her sentence should be reduced. President Andrew Johnson indicted her instead with the motive for metaphor, claiming she “kept the nest that hatched the egg.”
Her womb then tightened and quickened. The night before she was to be hanged she began to bleed profusely.
She was fed, as her last meal, “wine and medication” to alleviate her menstrual cramps. It is unknown whether or not she had personally requested this pairing. Her last words, spoken to a man standing guard, are noted as “please don’t let me fall.”
[fourth course—hot soup]
A week after Maya Angelou passed away, food historian Jessica Harris wrote an elegy of the bond they built over a series of meals together. In the final months of Angelou’s life, Harris dropped by her home during a business trip to Greensboro. She writes of this visit: “It was perfection. It was lunch. It was our last meal together.” The perfection of the last meal. And so often these meals signify, trigger, allow us to meditate.
The meditation: cooking as tradition, culture, memory, requiem. The plate becomes inextricable from our desire for connection, for love. The plate becomes a metonym for how we live our lives. The fuller the plate, the fuller the life.
We learn from Audre Lorde that “those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women” must learn on our own how to survive. Here she stresses the learning. She teaches us that survival can’t be taught.
My chef, April Bloomfield, taught me to realize my own impulse for survival. She taught me how to prepare every meal like it was my last and chided me when I cried. “You are ruining my reputation,” she screams at me, red-faced and disappointed, just as lunch shift begins on a hot day mid-July. I start to cry as she throws soggy chips from the perforated hotel pan resting in the hot pass in my direction. “Eat it,” she demands of each. I do. Crying, she says, is not what we write into history, especially her story.
What I learn from April is that a clean station is a clean mind, that in order to work, we must have our shit together. What I learn from her is that we must make our own greatness; that we must elbow our way to the sauté station. We must prove ourselves first capable of the byline before we deserve it. What I learn from April is greatness as a woman means to always hunger for more, to never let something satiate the moment with immobility. The point, she taught me, is to be strong. The point is to annihilate your own expectations. The point is to fill the plate. To depend only upon your own survival mechanisms. Perfection, perhaps. “Don’t leave us hanging,” these women cry, as their stomachs writhe and gnarl with emptiness.
Aileen Wurnuos requested, as her last meal before execution, a single cup of coffee.
Timothy McVey requested, as his last meal before execution, two pints of ice cream.
Audre Lorde teaches us that survival “is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” She stresses again that survival can’t be taught.
Chicago cites similar reasons when discussing her choice to reincarnate the domestic crafts of china painting, embroidery, and fabric arts in The Dinner Party project. On one side of the plate, she uses the tools of the master’s wife to dismantle preconceived expectations about the master’s house. On the other side of the plate, that house may always have a limited point of view. Women belong in the kitchen until they don’t.
Through a renascence of homemaker arts, Chicago seems to both simulate and disintegrate the weight of these women’s roles in history. We must locate ourselves before we take a step forward. We must take a step back in order to locate ourselves. We must move backward before we move on.
The last woman to be executed by electric chair was, along with her husband, charged with murder, but accused also of conspiring against the government. When they met at a socialist convention, they say, it was love at first sight, soul-mates, one half of each other’s wholes. They eloped, then tore up their social security cards and driver’s licenses and never again paid income taxes. Her final written testimony insists that she is “not going to beg for life.”
She writes in her final letter to her husband how she envisions his face, their last embrace, the epitome of their lovemaking. In letters previous to this goodbye she reconciles with him: “Life in prison is not ‘life.’” Not with him nor without him. She continues, “living in a caged existence where you are told what to eat, what to wear, where to sleep, when to sit or stand…what kind of life is that?” She concludes this letter, “if the jury has to choose between death or life in prison, they would be far more charitable to give us death.”
For her final meal she requested nothing and she received nothing and she ate none of it.
We eat in order to live, and sometimes we live in order to eat. Sure it’s grotesque, but we are, by nature, a grotesque species in our humanness. And in the grotesque is the element of caricature. We caricaturize what we cannot define. We make obscene what we do not understand.
Cunningham writes: “death eludes the living, and we are drawn to anything that offers the possibility of glimpsing the undiscovered country.” And we are able to glimpse this country by grotesque means.
Texas keeps public the record of their death row last meal requests. This database, available to anyone with internet access, notes not only the person, correctional serial number, crime for which incarcerated, and request for the final meal, but also notes whether that request was granted or denied.
For example, Carlos Santana, was executed in 1993 having been denied his last meal request of “Justice, Temperance, with a side of Mercy.”
Richard Wilkerson, who requested two double meat cheeseburgers, french fries, and ice cream (chocolate or chocolate chip), said just before dying: “This is execution is not justice. This execution is an act of revenge! If this is justice, then justice is blind.” His last meal request was granted.
Journalist Hannah Goldfield puts it like this: “We’re captivated by our most gruesome criminals, and so we want to know everything about them, down to what they most liked to eat. To be reminded, perhaps, of their utter ordinariness and humanity, which makes their unimaginably transgressive acts all the more thrilling.”
An article she wrote for The New Yorker recounts these ideas in the wake of a failed Pop-Up restaurant proposition slated to start a few years ago in London called “Death Row Dinners”. The premise was simple: for a prix fixe price of around fifty dollars, you get “a chance to eat like it’s your last meal on earth.” Simple. And yet, the proposed menus of these most interesting and infamous last meals are studded on a placard that hangs around the neck of the initially requesting person’s mugshot. Take your pick, they say. Make your choice.
Maybe it is about submission. Maybe it is about letting go.
According to the anonymous creators of “Death Row Dinners” they were “shocked” and “saddened” by the sudden and overwhelming negative response to their business plan. They posted a statement on their website that the pop-up intended to “explore the concept of last meals” rather than illuminate and ingratiate the imprisoned to whom those last meals first belonged. It was to be an immersive experience, where the diners would empty their pockets upon arriving, and be “charged, sentenced, searched and frisked” at one of London’s “top security restaurants.” It was over before it even began. Both the website and the twitter account were soon deleted.
My family ate at these places: backwoods pubs and Olive Gardens and Outback Steakhouses and the occasional local diner. Spaghetti was usually involved, or some form of fried fish—we had an affinity for frog legs. But then something would happen—somewhere between the ordering and the eating my panic would set in. In the wake of my childhood fetish for the last meals of animals then to be consumed, I manifested a phobia of restaurants. My anxieties were epic.
It begins with some offhand or backhand comment, it begins with watching a particular person eat, it begins with someone swallowing their mozzarella stick the wrong way, it begins when the wallet is pulled out, the inevitable tussle over a check, the slamming shut a cash register. I am overtaken by a feeling.
This feeling is hard to describe from a distance. This severance of selfhood slouches back in her chair. The enormity of my sadness begins to loom up from under the table, from the freezer burn in the failing lowboys, from the poor grout job between the tiles in the bathroom, from the lone hamburger rolled and rotting beneath the ice machine, the eyes of the busboy, the curve of the drainpipe in the dish sink, the hot steam of fog released from the Hobart industrial dishwasher, the heavy plastic of the curtain shielding the walk-in, the belly of the convection, and the cheap, starchy, heavily-bleached fabric napkins, the grit caught in the holes of the nonslip mat between the line and the pass.
And so I fold. I crumble; I can’t breathe, can’t bear the weight.
In Powers of Horror Kristeva describes this feeling: “there looms within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated…But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned.” This is a country that eludes my knowledge of living. My family has convinced me that this is definitely not genetic.
So all I can muster from here is that these episodes stem from eating and dying. Or blossom from dying and eating. This might have more to do with family than with food, more with mood than atmosphere, more with the internal than the external. This might have more to do with me than anyone else. I might be attempting to reason fear out, plan it a menu, force it to follow a recipe. Therein looms what Kristeva notes: “food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection.”
And therein lies the movement by which my brain abides, that by which my childhood threw herself to the black and white hexagonal tiles of some restaurant bathroom stall and heaved, sobbing, after watching some fat guy take a bite of his burger and dribble ketchup into his sparse, scratchy, five o’clock shadow.
And therein lurches forth an afterglow, the resonating image in the eyelid by which the sun seems imperceptibly small, imperceptibly bright, a burning circle the size of a constricted pupil.
So therein also lives the human desire to overcome, to abide, to get over and move past and all of the other prepositional means by which we continue—the easiest road is always straight through. And they say of confronting fears, the immersion method is the most successful. To quit cold turkey the fear. The water is always the most sharply frigid the moment you enter, making scary the plunge, but all the more satisfying than slowly inching in, chickening out. By which, I took up a form of method acting in order to both succumb to the attraction of my abjection and overcome the imperceptible impossibility of my fear. I got a job in a kitchen. I stopped eating and started cooking. The master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.
There’s a lack of representation. A void that needs to be filled. There’s an attempt to fill it. The Dinner Party probes how we perform and reperform our identities. How we reduce one person to one thing, to make of them something we can box up after lunch. The larger structure by which we live is subsumed by the caricature held in public eye, so we play up that caricature. We learn to hyperbolize. We take a slice of the bread and allow it to resemble the loaf. We pour a glass of wine and let it stand for the bottle.
We let one piece of ourselves define us.
We subject others to the same, attributing only their worst or best action to their whole person—the one dead oyster, the one good egg, the one bad apple, the one heroic deed—to overpower the rest.
We succumb to recognition of the idea of the thing as the thing itself.
We loathe to succumb.
In a photo essay for Mother Jones, Celia Shapiro arranges a dozen of the more outrageous last meals requested from death row on cafeteria trays. The resulting series becomes a Technicolor tally, a photographic parade of equivocal message. Each photograph is titled with the person’s name and date of execution.
These meals only represent the request, and not what was actually cooked, placed on the table, or consumed. In her artist statement, Shapiro says composing these photographs “became a profound meditation on violence and how the state metes out justice and retribution. The meal is life given to the body, the execution is life taken from the body…the body politic [gives] sustenance to the body condemned.” And yet the garish colors against a black background suggest something cartoonish, something playful, something dangerously pejorative to both the body given and the body consumed. Plastic cutlery. A paper napkin. A single glass of water.
Another artist has painted and fired over 500 plates with cobalt blue shadowy-likenesses of last meals. Julie Green’s plan is to quietly, artistically, protest the death penalty until it is abolished. Some of the plates have words and dates, others have phrases or final statements, others still an eerie rendition of a KFC bucket or an apple or a slice of pizza. A review of an exhibition of these plates supplies us with the idea that “even choosing not to choose has meaning.” Green has been criticized for trying to capitalize off capital punishment, but she insists the series is strictly for protest and not for profit.
To celebrate the opening of chef Daniel Boulud’s sixteenth restaurant, he asked 100 of his closest chef acquaintances to paint a plate commemorating the cause. April’s is a portrait of the Michelin Marshmallow Man. He’s dreaming of a star. The star is painted red. A bit of artistic flair. These plates hang on the wall. The plates used for service are plain—white, ceramic, sustainable.
All these plates painted for a cause; all of these efforts volunteered in opulence.
All these plates remain, symbolically, empty.
Back in the gallery, we learn that over 400 volunteers helped realize The Dinner Party into existence. What we don’t learn is that it was only Judy Chicago, not her volunteer labor crew, who was met with many a negative criticism after opening The Dinner Party doors.
Artist Cornelia Parker, when asked what piece of modern art she would dispose of, answered The Dinner Party. She berates Chicago’s undertaking: “It’s almost like the biggest piece of victim art you’ve ever seen. And it takes up so much space!”
Parker, the woman behind the Tilda Swinton sleeping installation (in which Swinton, at various times of day, will crawl into a glass vitrine, à la Snow White’s coffin, and take a nap) has created a body of conceptual art consisting of sculptural installation. She wrapped Rodin’s The Kiss in over 5,000 feet of string. She hired someone to detonate a garden shed, then suspended the resulting objects in the room of a gallery to suspend the explosion. Her next piece enshrined the charred remains of a church bombed by lightning.
She continues her takedown: “I quite like the idea of trying to fit it in some tiny bin – not a very feminist gesture but I don’t think the piece is either.”
The virtual tour of the Sackler suggests to us that “with her magnum opus enshrined in Brooklyn, ready to receive a new generation of budding feminists, Chicago can finally claim her own place at the table.” Maybe. What the virtual tour doesn’t tell us is that when one of those budding feminists revisits The Dinner Party 27 years later, she annuls it “too middlebrow, too literal.” She says, “its earnestness is out of step with today’s endlessly self-ironizing sensibility. And its pudendal imagery, once radical, looks silly and heavy-handed today.”
Another critic harangued Chicago, saying that she didn’t feel comfortable being reduced to her genitalia, this idea that if you turn all women on their heads they look the same. “Put your hand in your underpants,” instructs comedian Caitlin Moran in her memoir How To Be a Woman—“a. Do you have a vagina? and b. Do you want to be in charge of it? If you answered ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”
I imagine this must be more in line with what Chicago had in mind when she chose vaginal imagery—not so much to put the cunt on plate, but rather with intention to “challenge the prevalence of phallic forms in our society, which are so common that no one even notices them.” Even if Moran and Chicago both intend to reclaim the vagina, one with a hand and one with a plate, Chicago, in turn, calls Moran “ignorant” and provincial for writing off women’s progress through history.
Chicago doesn’t limit the representations of The Dinner Party in a contemporary realm to just the vaginas. As quoted in a 1980 article in People magazine: “‘I want to show how women’s experience can be a metaphor for human experience,’ Chicago says. ‘Most people are like women, not free.”’
In “The Joy of Creating”—the introductory essay to Judy Chicago’s monograph The Dinner Party: from creation to preservation—she writes, “my intention was to do a reinterpretation of The Last Supper from the point of view of those who have done the cooking throughout history; hence, a ‘dinner party.’”
But today, professional cooking, in the public sphere if not in the private, is a boy’s club.
A New Yorker profile of chef April Bloomfield insists that “her choice of vocation was more a practicality than a political statement. ‘I don’t think of being a woman in an industry of men…I didn’t walk into the kitchen and go, ‘Ooh, I’m a girl!’ I didn’t get into my chosen profession. I wanted to be good at something.’” Initially, she had wanted to be a cop.
What intrigues me most about The Dinner Party is the idea of the empty plates, the concept of starving women, hungry vagina—both furthering a withholding and reconstructing a long-held mythology of woman while simultaneously liberating her from it. Eve takes a bite from the apple. In some versions, this is her last meal. She writes herself into the cycle of omission. In other versions, she eats her way out of it.
In 2002 Michelle Knight, 21 at the time, disappeared from her Cleveland neighborhood’s Rite Aid. In Cleveland, in 2003, Amanda Berry didn’t come home the day before her 17th birthday after working an evening shift at her neighborhood’s Burger King. In 2004, Gina DeJesus, 14 years old, went missing on her walk home from a Cleveland public school.
One morning in May of 2013, a man returning from his work shift saw an arm flailing from his neighbor’s boarded-up house. Or maybe it was a leg. The records are unclear. Regardless, the police were called and the three missing women in question emerged from the house, along with a six-year-old girl, the daughter of Amanda Berry. Amanda only said one thing to the neighbor after the cops showed up: you saved me.
Ariel Castro was arrested soon after. He had held these women in captivity for almost a decade, feeding them according to what they gave him. Most often, according to Michelle Knight’s memoir Finding Me, it was a breakfast sandwich from McDonald’s. The night before they were found, Castro fed the women rice and beans from a box. A celebration of foodstuffs. As if he knew. The prosecutor said the death penalty would be considered after the proceedings.
Castro was arrested on four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape. During the course of the trial, he plead guilty and was convicted on 937 charges of kidnapping, rape and aggravated murder. This gave him consecutive life sentences, plus 1,000 years without parole. His last words to the jury were: “I hope they can find in their hearts to forgive me because we had a lot of harmony going on in that home.”
That home was demolished in August of that same year. In September, Castro hung himself with his correctional facility-issued bed sheet. No one claimed his body.
In January 2016, after an execution in Alabama, a local newspaper polls its readership, asking, “Do you think the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime?” Of the 242 who answered, 25% said no, 24% said yes, and 51% said “maybe if it was used more.”
We are better than the worst thing we have ever done, but the worst thing we have ever done may not have even happened yet.
Judas was the 13th person to arrive at the last supper. The 13th seat is imbued with betrayal. The number 13 is unlucky. We don’t put the 13th floor on elevators, we eliminate it from the table settings, we never choose the 13th row on an airline and we do strange things on the 13th of each month. Especially if it falls on a Friday. Full course dinners typically come in rounds of 5 or 6 or 8 or 10 or 12 or 16. The 13th president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, who took office after Taylor’s unexpected death, eventually died from complications of a stroke. His last words, upon being fed some soup, were: “the nourishment is palatable.”
He who betrays the son of man would be better not to have been born. We are told to do what we love. We are told to love what we do. To be good at what we love is something we feel grateful for. To be famous for what we do is something else. As Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” So, what happens to he that betrays the betrayer? That betrays the mother? He that betrays his fellow man by not recognizing their common humanity, the vacancy we all share, that hole we fill with fear and abjection? It’s too scary to be alone, to be empty.
During an in-person tour of The Dinner Party, I can hear Audre Lorde’s voice echoing around the confines of the gallery: “…the master’s house.” And so I think about the house of this exhibition. I think about how the lights are never turned off, about how food will never be slopped onto these plates and I recognize that that’s not the point. I think about how claustrophobic I feel, about the wounds I have caused myself. I try not to think about the damage I have done others. I think about how convening around this space is spiritual, how in touch I feel with the tenderer parts of myself. I wonder what Emily Dickinson would have thought of this mess. I catch eyes with a woman across the exhibition and look away quickly, flushed. I think about how hungry I am, and where I will go for lunch.
But it’s not that simple. And neither is supper, the human experience, this perpetual cycle of life and death. We are what we eat. Who we are when we eat. The animal evening torn from the clutches of the comfort of dinner. We pray. We eat. We are difficult to assess.
A poem Dickinson wrote toward the end of her life begins: “Fame is a fickle food / Upon a shifting plate / Whose table once a / Guest but not / The second time is set.” I wish to be invited. I wish not to intrude. I want to come back again. This 1883 poem, absent of her waking life of uppercase and dashes, ends: “Men eat of it and die.” Women, I suppose, die before they eat.
One of the most recent women to be executed in the United States was lethally injected in 2014. Lisa Ann Coleman was arrested for starving her lover’s adolescent son to death. Texas no longer offers a last meal request after a man in 2011 ordered a meal consisting of approximately 29,000 calories, and refused to eat any of it. Coleman’s last words are recorded as such: “I just want to tell…the girls on the row, I love them and keep their heads up.”
When my best friend and I get together we eat and drink with abandon. I realize now that this constitutes both my definition of love and my definition of luxury. I realize now how lucky I am to have that definition.
Fergus Henderson, the forefather of April’s school of British offal cooking, prefaces his recipe for marinated calf heart: “this is a wonderfully simple, delicious dish” assuring that “the heart not, as you might imagine, tough as old boots due to all the work it does, but in fact firm and meaty but giving.” Meaty and firm, in fact, but giving.
Say, hypothetically, that after the privatization of food services in 1939, a state passes a law that provides county sheriffs $1.75 per prisoner per day to cover the cost of all meals. The sheriffs are responsible for fronting the bill, but, according to this law, if they could feed their incarcerated for less, they would be allowed to keep the money saved.
So, for example, a correctional facility where this state’s death chamber is located might hit technical capacity around 1,000 people, though probably often holds many more. Up to double, say, for a 90-day period, the sheriff-cum-chef in charge could save around $0.10 per daily meal—in theory, at “capacity,” that would amount to approximately $8,982 he could then pocket after three months. Hypothetically, let’s say this law is currently active in 55 of the state’s 67 counties.
Let’s say, in 2009, a local sheriff was jailed for having failed to provide “a nutritionally adequate diet” to the people for whom he was making dinner. Say he had kept over $212,000 of the allocated meal funds for himself. The rumor is that he had fed them hotdogs for every meal. Hotdogs for breakfast, hotdogs for dinner, hotdogs for lunch. No buns, no ketchup, no relish. Say, more than one hypothetical source confirms that “on one occasion [this] sheriff…paid $500 for a tractor-trailer of hot dogs. He then served those hot dogs ‘at each meal until they had been depleted.’”
In fact, he did feed them hot dogs, but usually only for dinner. Lunch was baloney or peanut butter sandwiches, breakfast was grits, one piece of toast. Nary a fruit or vegetable stepped foot in the prison, save three or four special occasions a year, when they came dressed in cans.
Perhaps the language of this state’s terms and conditions for food service would like to suggest otherwise. If we’re talking in hypotheticals, they might require that each facility receive an annual review by a dietician “to ensure that they meet the nationally recommended dietary allowances for basic nutrition for appropriate age groups.” The stipulations also suggest that menus are evaluated at least every three months to “verify adherence to the established basic daily servings.”
Say the bill still pending in in legislature would eliminate the allowance for sheriffs to keep excess state funds allotted for meal coverage. What if this hypothetical case is not the first.
Say, this hypothetical bill, still pending, “exempts the Community Action Association…and its member agencies from the payment of all state, county and municipal sales and use taxes; this exemption does not apply to county or municipal sales and use taxes unless approved by resolution of the respective local governing body.” But then we must ask ourselves as we tour this territory, who is the governing body? Who are we allowing to govern our bodies? Who are we asking to paint our plates? Who are we allowing to paint our plates for us? Who is making our dinner?
And yet again I find myself rife with guilty indecision at the dollar hotdog man’s cart just southeast of Central Park, in a city awash with $3 to $5 hotdog men. Later that day I watch my chef fire a dishwasher for eating an untouched cold-poached lobster off a plate bussed from the dining room mid-service rush to prove a point about botulism or trichinosis or noroviruses or hepatitis or some other magically terrifying word that isn’t real until it is. So many things are magically terrifying until they aren’t; so many things don’t seem real until they are. The menu-priced $18 half-lobster, dressed in its own guts emulsified with lemon, oil, salt, tarragon, should end up in the compost with another two dozen just like it. There are those who order but never eat. There are those who eat, but never order. There’s a difference between thrill and decadence. Necessity and luxury. Motion and superfluity. Desire and simple ability. Indulgence and decorum. Movement and paralysis. Just because you can. Or at least these are things I can tell myself. The gross justification of an empty plate. The abjection of the opulence. The possibility of the plaintiff, the potential of a resulting dialogue, the probability of a stab at the last words of the night. The promise of more to come. We cycle back through our choices, our lack of choices, our inabilities to choose. Cycling through the omissions of our memory, we are stuck with the leftovers. As Maya Angelou says: “I can be changed by what happened to me, but I refuse to be reduced to it.”
In October 2015, a British male chef made disparaging remarks about female chefs, insisting that they are out there, but maybe this is not the industry for them. Chef Dominique Crenn responded publically by asking “Can you turn to the women in your life and ask for honest feedback about how these comments offend and hurt women who strive to reach their potential and feed their passion?” Her restaurant, atlier crenn, describes itself as “a painting. An empty white canvas…Here, from this place, an artist can suggest emotion. A lasting moment from childhood…little drawers of heartbeats.”
At press time, the last woman to be executed in the United States formed an intimate group with her fellow incarcerated women. She found the power in them, and in herself. She helped them realize their beauty, who they could be, what they held, what they were capable of. The narratives they could choose for themselves, as opposed to the stories other people told them about them. She prevented women from ending their own lives. She helped them recognize what their lives were worth. She pursued a degree through Emory University while on death row, and received her diploma with full pardon from a papal ambassador. The state board disagreed with this clemency. Her last words: she cried, she prayed, she sang Amazing Grace, she sent her blessings out to everyone. Even those who would not accept the blessings.
A few years ago, I go to the city with my partner and we are looking for a place to have dinner. We try this restaurant in a strip mall, but it’s closed. The place next door is open and we walk in and sit down and we are the only people in the place, save an old man. It feels okay. It feels right. We ask our teenage server for water and she brings us plastic bottles of the stuff, and then it does not feel right anymore. That other feeling descends. It’s my childhood self crouched over her porcelain bowl in the bathroom. It’s what Kristeva names as “the repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck. The shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery.” In that moment I realize I have been an asshole. I try to be okay, to be flexible, to recognize my own privilege. I realize I have been the asshole all along. I try to take deep breaths. I ask my boyfriend if we can leave. He pays the waitress for the bottles of water and her time. I am already out the door. I try to breathe and we drive across the street to another restaurant. We go in and order and he pays and we sit next to a pretty neon blue fountain in the backyard and there’s a family near us finishing their meal, but the feeling won’t quit me. All I can muster from here are all the worst sadnesses in the world. All I can witness to is myself, eating my last meal, choking down what I otherwise couldn’t get out. I stand from the table when our food is delivered, walk to the parking lot and throw myself in the car.
I open up all the little drawers of heartbeats from my childhood. And in this moment in the backseat of my boyfriend’s car in the parking lot of The Purple Onion in a strip mall in Birmingham, Alabama, the beating hearts are not, as one might imagine, tough as old boots, but rather in this moment I realize the delicacy of love’s palate, and the tenderness of this form of the heart’s work. It’s hard work, and I don’t know yet how to do it.
What I can’t see, and what I fail to recognize, despite what Kristeva says, is that there is a wonderful simplicity to all of this. The death be requited. The death resonates through the gallery in which we stand. And we must allow ourselves to recognize the beauty of the afterglow.
The Dinner Party feeds these women’s living memory, yet fails to substantially satisfy the reintroduction of them into history. Because they are stuck in this womb of a room. And still, is not the womb the very house in which this samsara dwells, the very means by which this cycle is possible, the way in which we make and remake our histories. Metaphorically, if we intend to let these women live, we must also let them eat, unless we wish to make martyr of them.
The fact that the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house “is only threatening”, Lorde insists, “to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
Around the same time of this male chef bashing all these women who dare to enter the master’s kitchen, Crenn gives a demonstration at Harvard: “the idea of metamorphosis manifests itself in many ways at atelier crenn: the transformation of a memory into a dish, the physical creation of a dish…”. And thus, a new story emerges. A new narrative by which we can define whence we came. Accepting the invitation, of our own accord. Dishing up our own memories, some physical manifestation.
And this physical creation of a dish is what Bloomfield lauds as something delicious. Something worthy of the recipient that simultaneously exonerates its creator. Later that night, after all the floppy chips have been tossed in the dustbin, I realize all she expects of me is that I put my best into the pot. That I be honest. That I work hard, and be worthy of my recognition. She wants me to own my remembrance.
And that’s what Audre Lorde means, in some ways, and Judy Chicago too: that we recognize our beauty, our glory, our right in reclaiming our own history for our own selves. If we are capable. Not everyone is allowed. Someone might beg to differ. Someone might see something superficial. But we who are lucky, we build our own houses. We make our own cake, and then we can decide to eat it, too.
Crenn ends her criticism gently and with reason: “Listen to us share with you that we are not here striving to take anything from our male colleagues, but rather we want to be at the table and to dialogue with our art, as we too have a wish to express.”
We must find our own tools. We must define our own terms and set forth our own logics.
And Chicago does not intend to make martyr of these women, but rather allows them breathe as one. And in the confines of this space, we are contained. We are allowed to give a unified breath to our histories. We are allowed to breathe as one. For often genius is not of single accord, but a collaborative effort, dependent on all of us breathing together. Chicago wished to dismantle that other house by building a new one, where these women vibrate together, and so that we who are privy to these waves may live in the light of them.
Shaelyn Smith grew up in northern Michigan and received her MFA from the University of Alabama. Her first collection of essays, The Leftovers, was the 2017 winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s essay collection competition and is forthcoming in 2018. Other work is forthcoming or can be found in Territory, storySouth, Essay Daily, The Rumpus, Sonora Review and Forklift, OH. She lives and works in Auburn, AL.