Julia signing away Julia holding up the page with her favorite photograph Audrey and Serena Audrey looking through a David Benjamin Sherry kaleidoscope Maia Laurent and Sabine Meagan (right) and friend Solange with Today's Special at the Soho Grand afterparty, which she DJ'd

'Today's Special': A Study of Death Row Meals by Julia Ziegler-Haynes

BY Alexandre Stipanovich | Mon. August 27, 2012 | 12:00 AM | Culture Club
On Friday, Julia Ziegler-Haynes launched her very unique book Today's Special, a selection of last meals on death row, at the OHWOW bookstore on Waverly Place. As a chef and artist, Julia blended both of her gifts in the project. After gathering and selecting records of death row inmates' last meals, she meticulously recreated them, enlisting photographer Ashley Macknica to document them as neutrally as possible.

The result is terrifying but moving at the same time. One image in particular––featuring nothing but a single olive on an otherwise empty plate––struck me as intriguing. I later read in the book's notes that the inmate in question had requested a "single, black, unpitted olive in the hopes that an olive tree––a symbol of peace––might grow from his remains after being executed." I had the opportunity to ask Julia a few questions. Read up on what she had to say below.

AS: What inspired this project?
Julia Ziegler-Haynes: I became fascinated with the concept when I was in college and saw a magazine featuring famous death row inmates' last meals. I knew I wanted to explore the idea further but wasn't sure which medium I would use to resurrect the menus you see here. It wasn't until I was flipping through a book of Christian Boltanski's and saw his mid-70s series of very bleak and erie food portraiture, Compositions décoratives, that I realized I wanted to cook the food, style it, and capture it in photographic form.

AS: How did you select the prisoners whose last meals you would cook?
JZH: I chose which meals to represent based on a few things---mainly what I thought would make a compelling picture, but also based on the crimes the inmates were convicted of.

AS: Did you eat the meals afterwards?
JZH: The food was mostly discarded after shooting. To me, it was not at all appetizing to be immersed in the details of each horrific crime and the multiple deaths came out of them (those of the victims of the crimes as well as the executed). It was all surprisingly emotional, and hunger was the last thing on my mind. I never expected that I would feel so much. It was confusing at times.

AS: To what extent does "you are what you eat" apply here?
JZH: "You are what you eat" is a classic expression––but one that I felt merely skimmed the surface of this project. It would be ignorant to look at someone's last dying wish and judge it, or criticize it with disdain. Instead I felt that these choices were incredibly personal; they spoke of these men's private histories. I saw them as tangible memories and evidential of their relationship with food.

AS: In what way are these photos indicative of American culture?
JZH: They were more obvious indications of the prisoner's background––mainly geographical. There are a limited number of states that actually perform executions, so you see some regional influences––a lot of Southern-inspired cuisine, for example. There's a lot of pizza, which I think could be considered very American. Something I found really fascinating was people's devotion to certain brands, even up until their last day on earth. They were determined to ask for A1 Steak Sauce or 7 Up. That could be interpreted as fairly specific to our culture.

AS: Do you know the origin of this last meal tradition?
JZH: The exact origin of the last meal as ceremony is kind of up for debate, but I found information indicating that it was common practice in quite a few ancient societies. In early European executions, the gift of the last meal symbolized a clearing of the air between the executioner and the convicted. It was so that the executed would not come back to haunt those who had put them to death.

AS: What would be your last meal?
JZH: It is almost impossible for me to choose. Having lived with the concept for so long, you can imagine I think about it often. I take such pleasure in eating delicious, lovingly prepared food, and most of my fondest memories involve a meal of some sort. My tastes change so rapidly and unpredictably, not to mention seasonally, so if I were forced right this moment to choose my last meal on this earth, I would most likely have something indulgent but comforting, well-balanced and fresh. I would want to take my time and eat with the people I love.

AS: What is your next project?
JZH: What I can tell you about my next project is that it touches on a not too dissimilar topic––death and belongings.  It's about what happens to our treasured mementos, whether those are telegrams from the night you married your high school sweetheart or a collection of over 450 Troll dolls. Creating these works is all at once inspiring, humorous, and devastating. I'm like a pig in shit.

Julia Ziegler-Haynes' Today's Special will be available at OC soon!